NEATH 21 points BRIDGEND 10 points
Neath earned a home draw in the Tier 2 play-offs with a convincing victory over Bridgend in a strong performance which was marred only by an indisciplined second-half.
Despite having the advantage of a stiff breeze, Bridgend had to play second fiddle to Neath who made the running throughout. Exeter-bound Ospreys wing Tom O’Flaherty made an early run and was an obvious danger but the assertive Neath forwards soon took control to lay the platform for victory.
From an early line-out, they rolled Bridgend backwards fully 25 metres and the home scrum strength was immediately evident. After going close on several occasions, it was no surprise when Neath took the lead after 15 minutes when scrum-half Chris Morgans darted over for the first try.
He was followed to the line by winger Aaron Grabham who sliced through to outpace a well-organised and committed Bridgend defence on an inside pass from Ed Howley to touch down and the full back found the angle to his liking to convert into the wind for a 12-nil lead to Neath.
Within 28 minutes, both loose-heads were changed, Neath’s Ben Uphill through injury and Bridgend’s Eddie Drake through insult as the Blacks continued to make a horrible mess of the visitors’ scrum through good, strong, straight scrummaging.
Neath ought really to have added to their lead, winger Alec Jenkins being forced into touch only metres out and then a couple of wayward passes seeing clear overlaps wasted but the Blacks were in control. Bridgend’s replacement prop Cai Lewis was belatedly carded for persistently infringing in a vain attempt to thwart Neath’s scrum but against the run of play German international James Murphy landed a long-range penalty on the stroke of half-time; it was their only scoring opportunity and probably more than they deserved from a half in which Neath’s ascendancy was almost total.
The Blacks continued to dominate from the re-start but Bridgend were clearly under instructions to dent their style and indiscipline set in. Two penalty awards to Neath were reversed as players retaliated to after-the-whistle niggles and a steady procession of players from both sides found themselves carded – yellows for Neath’s Jon Barley and Ryan Thomas and Bridgend’s Matthew John and Iestyn Merriman and a red for Neath replacement Neil White.
Neath’s set-piece advantage was thus removed almost at a stroke, uncontested scrums were ordered and, as the Blacks sought to re-organise, Bridgend broke their shackles and wing Ryan Griffiths went over for a well-worked try which Murphy converted to make it 12-10.
Improbably, the game was back in the balance but the Blacks were not to be denied and, with home discipline restored, Bridgend’s continued infringements saw them forced to defend. The Neath forwards as an eight were lively and halves Morgans and Gavin Evans steered the ship with centre Matthew Pearce a tower of strength throughout.
Try as they might, Bridgend could not break the stranglehold and Neath made the game safe as Howley stepped up to land three successive, evenly-spaced penalties. His third goal was as a result of another offence by loquacious visiting skipper Murphy whose frustration saw him red-carded too.
Neath therefore finished joint-top of the group with Newport (behind only on wins). The Blacks also ended as “post-split” top points and try-scorers and they now move on to a home tie with Cross Keys next weekend.
Captain Jordan Collier said, “We were determined not to let this one go after blowing winning positions in our previous two games. To finish joint ninth – or in the top 10 – after coming from where we were last season is a significant leap and we are looking forward to the home play-off which we know will be tough.”
The final table therefore reads :-
There is everything to play for at The Gnoll on Friday evening (kick off 7.30pm) when Neath play Bridgend in their final scheduled Premiership match of the season.
Following Newport’s defeat by Cross Keys on Wednesday evening which meant that the Gwent pair have qualified for the play-offs, both Neath and Bridgend will be seeking the win which will give them vital home advantage in the play-offs which are scheduled for next weekend.
Neath captain Jordan Collier said, “We have let ourselves and everyone else down by throwing away winning positions in our last two outings so we want to finish strongly and have something to cheer about at the end of the season.”
Neath make a couple of changes from the side which drew 32-32 at St. Helen’s last week with scrum-half Chris Morgans returning for Reuben Morgan-Williams who is on Wales Under-20’s squad duty and Ben Uphill taking over from Neil White who reverts to the bench which also features Jonny Griffiths, Aled Morris and Josh Guy.
Neath v Bridgend (Home)
15 Ed Howley; 14 Aaron Grabham, 13 Max Llewellyn, 12 Matthew Pearce, 11 Alec Jenkins; 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. Maik English (Caldicot)