NEATH 33 points CROSS KEYS 13 points
Neath stormed into the play-off final with a convincing 5 tries to 1 win over Cross Keys in The Gnoll sunshine on Sunday.
Having lost 59-14 in the League on their last visit to The Gnoll in April, Cross Keys were obviously out to make amends this time as they restored the likes of Leon Andrews, Owain Leonard and Daniel Hodge to their line-up.
Presumably seeking to build a lead, they took first use of the stiff breeze but Neath soon hit their stride, scrummaging strongly and building impressive continuity into their game.
Keys went in front after nine minutes when outside-half Josh Prosser landed a straightforward penalty. A kick ahead by left winger Geraint Llewellyn nearly brought about the first try of the game which eventually came in the 13th minute – Neath’s right winger Aaron Grabham profiting from intricate work in midfield to speed over.
As might be expected with wind-advantage, Keys enjoyed plenty of territory but, try as they might, they were unable to break the Neath defence in which the back-row of captain Jordan Collier, Leon Ward and 18 year old Charlie Davies – many people’s man-of-the-match – excelled.
Half-backs Gavin Evans and Chris Morgans and teenage centres Max Llewellyn and Matt Pearce were equally as resolute as the Neath defence continually met – and repelled – strong-running Keys charges on the gain line.
With locks Rhys Jones and Jon Barley commanding figures at the lines-out, Neath were well in the game; it was compelling stuff and the interval was reached with Neath 5-3 to the good.
Neath conceded a soft penalty almost from the re-start and Prosser stepped up to make it 6-5 but the Blacks were soon on the offensive and scrum-half Morgans, enjoying another fine game, had a score disallowed when he lost the ball over the try-line.
Next the ever-dangerous Ed Howley broke the line but his delicate kick bounced capriciously just over the dead-ball line on the hard ground. On 53 minutes the full back was not to be denied though as he collected his next kick to dab down after great work by Pearce from a lineout.
Howley’s conversion made it 12-6 to Neath and Grabham nearly took a hand when his own kick ahead met with a similar fate but the try-happy winger soon bagged his second try of the afternoon, his 25th in all games this season, and Howley’s conversion lifted the score to 19-6.
Neath were now playing with real style and were well on top as the “Neath, Neath, Neath” chants took hold in the grandstand. From a scrum near the Keys line, Morgans fed Charlie Davies and the rapidly-maturing back-rower forced his way over for his second try in three games, Howley again converting.
Minutes later, the pair repeated the trick, this time Morgans getting a well-deserved touchdown – Neath’s fifth of the afternoon – for Howley to convert to reach the personal milestone of 300 points for the season and Neath were leading by a commanding 33-6.
Strangely, the score signalled Keys’ best attacking play of the game as they suddenly opened up with pace and incision which brought its reward in a well-taken try by young replacement James McCarthy, Prosser adding the conversion points.
But it had been Neath’s day and nothing could detract from a hard-fought and well-deserved victory over worthy foe-men in a game which was superbly controlled by the referee Ebbw Vale’s Mr. Simon Rees.
Afterwards, Neath captain Jordan Collier paid tribute to his team saying, “That was a performance I feel we can all be proud of. We know how good Cross Keys have been over the last few seasons and we knew they would be up for this one.
“But we stuck in there into the wind in the first half when our defence was strong and we cut loose in the second half when we won some really good quick ball. The supporters got behind us and the only way to attract more back is throughwins and displays like this.
“Ahead of what is now a final shoot out, it would be great if the Town would get behind us next week. We are fighting hard to get back on the map, apparently we are the second youngest team in the League and these are exciting times.”
Next up for Neath in what will definitely be the final game of this elongated season is Newport – the conquerors of Llanelli – and, given that the Black and Ambers have already beaten Neath twice this season, it will take another mammoth effort by this Neath team which is looking increasingly confident and, on this determined form, have nothing to fear.
The WRU have promised a trophy for the winners – so why not come along and be there to see if the Welsh All Blacks can end the season with some silverware ?
Neath’s Premiership Tier 2 play-off against Cross Keys at The Gnoll has been switched to Sunday (kick off 2.30pm) to avoid a clash with cricket on the adjacent ground.
Neath clinched qualification with a rousing 21-10 win over Bridgend last Friday and team manager Martyn Morris said, “Our forwards really rose to the challenge and we are looking for another big effort from the team as a whole so that there is some reward for all the efforts the squad have put in this season.
”It would be nice to give our supporters something to cheer too and we hope as many as possible come to The Gnoll on Sunday to lend a hand.”
Neath captain Jordan Collier said, “We have come a long way from where we were last season to effectively finish joint ninth this time around. But we want to keep improving and Cross Keys are a good yardstick as they have been one of the Premiership forces for a long time now.”
Neath make just one enforced change from the side which beat Bridgend with Geraint Llewellyn replacing winger Alec Jenkins whose run of ill-luck continued when he broke his leg in a freak accident at work on Monday.
Neath v Cross Keys (Home)
15 Ed Howley; 14 Aaron Grabham, 13 Max Llewellyn, 12 Matthew Pearce, 11 Geraint Llewellyn; 10 Gavin Evans, 9 Chris Morgans; 1 Ben Uphill, 2 Sion Crocker, 3 Ryan Thomas; 4 Rhys Jones, 5 Jon Barley; 6 Jordan Collier (captain), 8 Leon Ward, 7 Charlie Davies
Replacements – 16 Ifan Phillips, 17 Neil White, 18 Geraint James, 19 Jonny Griffiths, 20 Aled Morris, 21 Josh Guy, 22 Iwan Evans, 23 Kristian Corbisiero
Referee – Mr. Simon Rees (Ebbw Vale)