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Neath RFC

NARBERTH  15  points  NEATH  29  points

Sion Crocker bagged four tries as Neath’s ‘Masterly Eight’ powered the Blacks to a hard-crafted double at Narberth, scoring five tries to nil to eventually subdue a determined home side who gave their all in an entertaining encounter.

2023 is the Chinese ‘Year of the Rabbit# … but season 2022/23 will be remembered at Neath RFC as the ‘Year of the Hooker’ – creatures who, strangely enough, also excel in burrowing.

Neath’s popular hooker emulated his team-mate Josh Clark’s try-feat performed against Tata Steel earlier in the season as he lifted his tally to a wondrous 18 tries for the season – and Neath’s all-time forward record of 25 set in 1988/89 by that great No.8 Mark Jones is now firmly in his sights.

And who is to say that the Neath “striker” won’t get there ?  With the Eight playing this effectively, Crocker would be first to pay tribute to the strength and drive of his fellow pack members who turned in another commanding, hard grafting performance.

The weather was dry, if cold, and the Lewis-Lloyd Ground was in top condition for a good crowd which was graced by the presence of WRU ‘archdukes’ Ieuan Evans and Anthony Buchanan.

Narberth won the early kicking duels and deservedly led when full back Nick Gale (who passed his 1,000 league points for the Otters a fortnight ago) fired over two early penalties after Neath offences.

But 15 minutes in Neath were into their stride as Crocker crossed for the first try of the afternoon after a Jon Barley line-out take and it was 5-6.

Neath were building some momentum and breaks by centre Aaron Bramwell (making his 200th appearance) carried on by flanker Owain Morgan and by skipper Ryan Evans promised much.

And on the half hour Neath duly went ahead 10-6 when flanker Jacob Blackmore added a second try to mark his return to the starting line-up as Neath’s maul again proved unstoppable.

The Blacks had found their way and, on the half-hour, the authoritative Neath forwards got their reward when Crocker bagged his second, barging his way over under the posts after a sustained heavy barrage by the forwards.

Outside-half Rhys Harris converted but, after scrum-half Luc Jones’ pin-point kick put Neath back in the corner,  Narberth took advantage of some Neath over-ambition, forced them back and Gale landed his third goal to make it 17-9 to the visitors at the interval.

At half-time the many Neath supporters were looking forward to a continuation – and so it proved although Narberth got the first score of the second-half with Gale’s fourth penalty and it was 12-17.

Neath enjoyed a considerable lineout advantage all afternoon through Sam Langford, his replacement Matthew Davies, Jon Barley and Jacob Blackmore and their prospects were enhanced when Narberth’s best leaper Alex Jenkins did not appear after the break.

But Narberth – as one would expect of the home club of Neath legend Brian Williams – lack nothing when it comes to true grit and both sides were defensively sound close to the tackle and there was always a solid line of defenders ranging from touchline to touchline.

Consequently, there were few chances behind so Neath did what they do best and more grand forceful work by the forwards led by prop Tim Ryan saw Crocker complete his hat-trick on the back of another irresistable surge to make it 22-12.

Replacement Morgan Kneath made an impact with several fine charges but Neath’s comfort was dented a little when they conceded a penalty midfield in the Narberth half and the award was advanced 10 metres which was all Gale needed as he stepped up to kick his fifth goal and pull it back to 22-15.

Neath needed to re-impose themselves and full back Lewis Evans nearly dabbed down ahead of a final defender while replacement Matthew Davies was held up short of the line as Narberth were unable to raise the siege.

A diagonal run by winger James Roberts might have led to more than the penalty it produced but it mattered not as Neath made the game safe when the forwards drove and drove again for Sion Crocker to complete his quartet and Rhys Harris converted to make it 29-15.

The hero of the hour then gave way to Chris Morris who made a fleeting first league appearance of the season after injuring a shoulder in the pre-season draw with Swansea.

He joined earlier replacement half-centurion Nicky Griffiths but there was little time left before the final whistle blew and both sides trooped off to generous applause from an appreciative crowd whose chill afternoon had been truly warmed.

This win signals another significant step towards their objective for Neath in a practical, pragmatic display which earned the five points at a tough venue.

Narberth rarely threatened the Neath line and did not cross it but they were kept firmly in contention for much of the contest by those five splendid Gale penalties – and it is important to learn a lesson from victory too for the Blacks can make life much easier for themselves !

And, as for the ‘Year of the Rabbit’ – well, the press have often cast Neath in that role.

In 1910 ahead of Neath’s visit to Leicester the Blacks – Welsh champions at the time – were dubbed “rabbits” by the Midlands press ahead of the game; so Neath supporters, long known for their sense of humour, took baskets of live black (and white for the Maltese cross) rabbits to Welford Road and loosed them.

And, when Wales wing Rowe Harding levelled the same description against Neath in the 1920’s ahead of a game at Swansea, he repeated the mistake and he was met by a volley of soft toy rabbits too.

*  Neath return to league action at The Gnoll on Friday evening when Glamorgan Wanderers, conquerors of Maesteg Quins at the weekend, visit – but please, no live rabbits. Modern day Health & Safety won’t allow it !

NARBERTH – N.Gale; A.Sutton, I.Phillips, I.Griffiths J.Evans; J.Rogers, L.Gibby (B.Thomas); B.Davies (T.Clarke), K.Hamer (S.Janes), T.Slater; R.Williams, A.Jenkins (C.Rees-Jones); R.Rees, R.Osborne, T.Powell (capt)

NEATH – L.Evans; J.Roberts, R.Evans (capt), A.Bramwell, R.Griffiths; R.Harris, L.Jones (N.Griffiths); J.Powell (G.W.Lloyd), S.Crocker (C.Morris), T.Ryan; S.Langford (M.Davies), J.Barley; J.Blackmore, D.Griggs (M.Kneath), O.Morgan
Referee – Mr. J.Darcy (Vale of Glam.)

Images courtesy of Len Kowalski