NEATH 59 points CROSS KEYS 14 points
Neath produced a performance of pure pace and precision to overwhelm previously unbeaten Cross Keys at the top of the table in the sunshine at The Gnoll.
After an immaculately observed silent tribute to former secretary Allan Benjamin and ex-player Bill Brennan, the Welsh All Blacks turned in their most compelling all-round display for some time and their speedy backline – average age just 20 – ran in 8 converted tries as they capitalised on all the great work put in by the forwards.
Keys were missing a couple of key men on wedding duties but Neath too had their absentees – including a full three-quarter line – but on the day the Blacks had the edge and the attitude required.
Neath, attacking and counter-attacking with a relish, were full of running from the start and outside-half Luke Price varied tactics nicely, applying a couple of killer kicks into the corner.
Keys back-rowers Ieuan Jones and skipper Scott Matthews were soon in the thick of things and the scoreboard remained blank for a quarter of an hour before Neath took the lead which they would never relinquish .
After prop Geraint James went desperately close to touching down for a try on his 50th appearance – a milestone achievement shared by hooker Aled Morris – Neath went in front when outstanding centre Keiran Williams worked his way over from close-range, full back Ed Howley converting.
Neath doubled their lead when dummying lock Rhys Jones – enjoying one of his most effective games – and scrum-half Reuben Morgan-Williams made most of the running for a first try for Neath by 17 year old centre Max Llewellyn.
Howley converted but Keys hit back with an unpalatable try by replacement wing Lloyd Lewis who comprehensively evaded opposite number Aaron Grabham and outside-half Joshua Prosser converted.
In a highly-competitive first-half, Neath pulled out the defensive stops with some offensive tackling needed to deter further Keys inroads and the back-row of skipper Jordan Collier, young Charlie Davies and the rampaging, side-stepping No.8 Leon Ward set a tremendous lead.
Howley landed a penalty to give Neath a 17-7 advantage at half-time and the home side came out with all guns blazing from the restart as the ball was spun through several pairs of hands for Grabham to pull back a try, Howley converting.
A defence-splitting run by Keiran Williams set up the bonus point score as fellow Wales Under-20 cap Reuben Morgan-Williams got up in support to touch down for Howley to convert and, with 25 minutes remaining, Keys were staring down the barrel at 31-7.
The forwards’ work at a defensive line-out, driving Keys into touch, typified Neath’s determination and another Williams-Grabham intervention nearly produced yet another score. An off-the-ball check on Grabham chasing a Howley kick went unseen but Neath, using their full complement of replacements in the warm sun, were not to be denied.
The Magnificent Eight – whose work must never be under-estimated- stole a strike against the head at an attacking scrum and replacement Chris Morgans strolled over for their fifth try which Howley converted at 38-7.
Almost immediately, Neath added another when the influential Ward set up possession and from 40 yards, Keiran Williams “sliced and diced” the Keys defence and arrowed through to score his second try – Neath’s sixth – and Howley’s conversion made it 45-7.
Keys responded gamely with a try attributed to Dragons Academy flanker Joshua Skinner although most in the ground felt that he lost the ball – still, it satisfied emerging referee Elgan Williams who generally had a superb game allowing things to flow throughout – and Prosser’s conversion brought it back to 45-14.
Neath were far from done though. Replacement Rory Morgan-Williams seized the ball from the kick-off and on a slinky trail carried the ball into the shadow of the Keys’ posts.
Neath kept up the attack and Morgans fed Geraint Llewellyn and the footballing left-wing had a lot of work to do but showed tremendous purpose in fighting his way over for Neath’s seventh try, Howley’s conversion carrying Neath beyond the half-century.
And there was still time for an eighth when Morgans’ blind-side chip was gathered by Howley and the positively purring custodian added the points in an unerring display to take his day’s tally to another 24 points and Neath’s tally to 59-7.
It was a nigh-on complete performance by Neath – one which shows the potential in this young group of players. Only results like this will convince the doubters and bring back some of the supporters disillusioned by all the Premiership shenanigans but these youngsters deserve better backing from the Townsfolk.
Neath knew it would take their ‘A’ game to overcome Keys and this was pretty close to it and, in fairness, Keys were gracious in defeat. Neath have suffered a couple of real hammerings at their hands in recent years but one Keys official sagely observed that, ”Neath, on this form, would have demolished many a top tier side.”
He was absolutely right in his assessment – the challenge for Neath now is to do it again and the visit of Bargoed on Easter Saturday (2.30pm) will demand an equally as hardened edge and attitude.
Neath resume Premiership action after the latest fixture-break when they host high-riding Tier 2 leaders Cross Keys at The Gnoll on Saturday (kick off 2.30pm).
The Welsh All Blacks welcome back scrum-half Reuben Morgan-Williams and centre Keiran Williams from Wales Under-20’s when the latter in particular enjoyed an outstanding campaign with a series of impressive performances.
Geraint Llewellyn comes in on the wing, Luke Price is at outside-half and lock Jon Barley also returns as Neath seek to improve on a decidedly lack-lustre showing against Newport last time out.
Front-row forwards Aled Morris and Geraint James will both be making their 50th appearances for Neath who know that nothing other than their A-game will be sufficient.
Neath v Cross Keys (Home)
15 Ed Howley; 14 Aaron Grabham, 13 Max Llewellyn, 12 Keiran Williams, 11 Geraint Llewellyn; 10 Luke Price, 9 Reuben Morgan-Williams; 1 Ben Uphill, 2 Aled Morris, 3 Geraint James; 4 Rhys Jones, 5 Jon Barley; 6 Jordan Collier (captain), 8 Leon Ward, 7 Charlie Davies
Replacements – 16 Ifan Phillips, 17 Neil White, 18 Ryan Thomas, 19 Jonny Griffiths, 20 Sion Crocker, 21 Chris Morgans, 22 Dan Guarneri, 23 Rory Morgan-Williams
Referee – Mr. Elgan Williams (Cardiff)