There is only one word to sum up this Neath effort – cruel; in fact, in a nanny-state, such a brutal fate should not be allowed!
Having sunk to the bottom of the Premiership courtesy of the previous week’s defeat by Bridgend, many observers felt that the last thing Neath would have wanted was a visit from the Welsh champions.
How wrong they were because Neath restored some of their battered pride with a fighting performance which ought really to have brought them victory – indeed, had not Dafydd Howells collided with referee Dan Jones on his way to what would surely have been a match-clinching try, they would have been celebrating their first win of the season.
After the tribulations of recent years, the Welsh All Blacks are firmly committed to re-building and are giving opportunities to an exciting and enthusiastic crop of largely local youngsters – 10 of the starting line-up have their roots firmly in the Neath District – and the ‘new look’ side tore into their more experienced opponents with a relish.
Neath opened strongly as one of those youngsters Iwan Evans and acting-captain Jordan Collier cut huge holes in the Ponty defence. In an impressive start, they battered the Ponty line and, after hooker Aled Morris had twice gone close, the home side took the lead with a fine try in the right corner by Ashley Evans.
Ponty countered with a typical lineout dive and score by ex-Neath hooker Ashleigh James who showed that he still knows his way to the try-line – it was converted by ex-Wales outside-half Ceri Sweeney who soon made it 10-6 with a penalty.
But Neath were more than matching the champions, scrummaging better than of late and constantly harrying Ponty at every opportunity. On times, it was difficult to tell which side was top and Neath ended the half strongly – sustaining possession, they all but scored on the half-time whistle only for centre Cameron Morris to be squeezed out.
The Blacks started the second-half with a bang. Centre Dean Howell, enjoying his best game of the season in an inventive back division, was heavily involved as he powered towards the Ponty line. Neath’s patience paid off and with referee Jones playing a good advantage following a deliberate knock-on (should he have gone back for a yellow-card?), scrum-half Tom James crept over for his first try of the season which Iwan Evans converted.
Neath stepped up the pressure and a third try looked inevitable as Dafydd Howells clattered towards the posts only to brush into Mr. Jones – one wag said that it was the best last-ditch tackle seen at The Gnoll this year!
The conversion would have been a formality and, at 22-10, even Ponty would have struggled to get back on terms. But, showing the nous of true champions, they gradually worked their way upfield and, with Neath having lost impressive No.8 Calum Davies to the sin-bin, they worked wing Alex Webber free to score a match-winning try on the left corner.
It was a cruel ending for Neath and coach Patrick Horgan spoke for all Neath people when he said, “We could not have asked for more – the whole XV can take pride from a mighty effort. We showed we have the ability to compete with the best. Now it is a question of building more consistency into our game and the results will come.”
If anything, Neath’s next game is even tougher – a visit to Llandovery on Friday (kick off 7.30pm) – but the Blacks can take great heart from this effort and are perhaps beginning to realise what it takes.