A last-play try by Chris Davies saved Aberavon’s blushes and denied Neath their first League win of the season in a pulsating Boxing Day derby at The Gnoll.
Aberavon, with 8 wins, 3 losses and a draw with Cross Keys came to The Gnoll as favourites against Neath whose re-building process is not helped by an 18-man injury-list at present. With a strong wind behind them, Aberavon started strongly and outside-half James Garland nosed them in front with two penalties as Neath tested the referee’s whistle.
Aberavon got the first try of the afternoon when they opted to run a penalty from their own 22. Neath had turned their backs on ever-dangerous scrum-half David Pritchard and the movement ended in centre Matthew Jenkins touching down at the Union end, Garland converting to make it 12-nil.
Gradually Neath fought their way back and, pressurising Aberavon in possession, winger Kristian Phillips nipped in for an interception try at the posts which outside-half Iwan Evans goaled. Neath continued to incur penalties and had skipper Jonny Griffiths yellow-carded for off-side. Aberavon made numerical advantage count as they were awarded a penalty try to go 20-8 up.
Neath countered and visiting No.8 Chris Davies collected his Christmas card for a dangerous tackle reducing both packs to seven men. Strong forward driving by Neath saw them awarded a scrum five-metres, Aberavon crumpled leading to a penalty try for Neath to make it 16-20 at half-time.
Five minutes after the restart, young Iwan Evans cut the lead with a well-struck penalty from 40 metres before the second-half settled into a pattern of Aberavon’s cohesive team-work trying to keep the ball with Neath always looking dangerous in possession. In the main, it was thrilling end to end stuff, thrust and counter-thrust as the two teams vied for honours although there was the usual ration of tedium – predictable post-penalty lineout drives as a consequence of that ill-thought through summer law change which has blighted the Premiership.
Eventually, Neath went ahead when young scrum-half Reuben Morgan-Williams burst away. He found support from centre Keiran Williams, one of three players still eligible for youth rugby in the Neath back-line, and his inside pass was gleefully accepted by try-scoring hooker Ieuan Dobbs who dabbed down for replacement Luke Price to convert.
As the game entered injury-time, Neath led 26-20 but crucially they lost a lineout on halfway and Aberavon threw everything into a last-gasp attack which, with 88 minutes on the clock, ended with Chris Davies getting the equalising try. Garland could not be blamed for missing the conversion into the still-strong wind so it ended 26-26.
It was a stirring end to a good afternoon’s rugby and the bumper holiday crowd of 2,500 enjoyed the Christmas entertainment and will have gone home well satisfied with their afternoon’s fayre.
* Neath now move on to Saturday’s home clash against Ebbw Vale (2.30pm).