Gareth Llewellyn believes Neath’s summer recruitment campaign will allow them to climb out of the Principality Premiership basement in the new season and compete for a place in the top eight after their worst season on record.
The competition has been expanded to 16 clubs for the 2016/17 campaign with the table being split in two at the half-way mark. Ex-Wales lock Llewellyn wants his side to reach the top-half in order to once again challenge for a title they won five times in six seasons between 2004-2010.
“We are ambitious and the goal is to be the best semi-pro club in Wales. The thing that really hurt us last season more than anything else was the number of injuries we suffered,” said Llewellyn.
“Last season was really frustrating because I knew we were a much better side than the results we were getting. We know we have to tighten up our defence, but we’ve stiffened our front five and got some pace behind.
“When I returned to the club as coach just before Christmas I had to decide whether or not to change the squad then or wait until the summer. We decided to do it at the time and it took until the end of the season for everyone to get onto the same page.
“But we are seeing the benefits of that decision now and we are a much better group as a result. We’ve turned over half a squad this summer, made some significant signings and we’re in a pretty good position with seven weeks to go until our first league game.”
There was only one win and a draw in 22 games in the Premiership last season, although Llewellyn’s frustration was borne out by eight losing bonus points. But the changes he made improved the club’s performances by the end of the season and now he is ready to start afresh in September.
In tandem with team manager Martyn Morris, his former Wales and Neath team mate, Llewellyn has re-built the playing force through a meticulous recruitment campaign.
“I’ve been on the phone to Martyn five times a day throughout the summer discussing players. He’s done most of the hard work because he’s had to sort out the contracts,” admitted Llewellyn.
Among the most significant signings this summer are:
Ifan Phillips (Hooker): Wales U20 hooker and son of former Neath legend Kevin Phillips
Gavin Evans (Centre): Wales centre who has 200 games for Scarlets and Cardiff Blues under his belt
Lyndon Bateman (Lock): Double Celtic League winner with Ospreys, now 37
Josh Guy (Scrum-Half): Former Dragons Academy and Llanelli player
Matthew Pearce (Centre): 18 games for Llanelli last season and played for Scarlets Premier Select XV
Jordan Collier (Back Row): Left Ospreys Academy and will committed himself full-time to Neath
Neil White (Prop): More than 200 games for Aberavon before helping Swansea gain promotion
Ryan Thomas (Prop): Returns to home town team after three seasons at Swansea
“Gavin Evans has been a brilliant signing for us and he has brought a really professional attitude with him that has become infectious at the club. He really wants to play and make a difference and he will be brilliant for us,” he added.
“The signings mean that our first team will be a bit stronger, but the depth in our squad will be much stronger. That should help us to be much more competitive than last season.
“We’ve recruited well in the front five area, bringing in some experienced props and bringing Lyndon Bateman back to the club. He has had troubles with his knee down the years, but managed 15 games for Narberth last season.
“I’ve told him we will try to nurse him through the season, but he is keen to play as often as he can. He will add some real bulk and know-how to our pack.”
The Ospreys have assigned Academy stars Keiran Williams, Luke Price, Reuben Morgan-Williams, Josh Cole and emerging flanker Charlie Davies to Neath for the new season. Scrum half Morgan-Williams emerged as one of the stars of the Wales Under 20 Grand Slam campaign having launched his season at The Gnoll.
His brother, utilty back Rory, is also among the new recruits, along with wings Aaron Grabham, Gareth Morris and Tom Rees. Neath fans will get their first chance to take a look at their new teams in the pre-season friendlies at Maesteg (Saturday 13th August), Moseley (Saturday, 20 August) and Narberth (Saturday, 27 August).