NEATH 31 PONTYPOOL 29
A last gasp try by replacement wing Ian Ellis saw Neath retrieve a lead they had held for most of the game and just take the spoils of victory.
If this is a portent of Neath’s season to come, Blacks supporters are in for a thrilling ride as these two famous old clubs produced 10 tries in all in an excellent advert for “old fashioned” Welsh club rugby : plenty of modern champagne rugby – mixed in with a bit of traditional best bitter too.
The Gnoll was in fine fettle and the healthy crowd enjoyed both the conditions and the free-flowing rugby on offer in a match that was not a typical friendly as it was mightily competitive and compelling.
Pontypool kept their powder dry for the second-half, making wholesale changes from the side which battled so hard before losing narrowly at Aberavon the previous week and Neath had much the better of the first period.
Ten minutes in, after a succession of forward drives had softened up the visitors’ defence, Neath moved the ball right and centre Mike Evans went behind the posts for the opening try, full back Ed Howley converting.
Five minutes later, Neath scored a second when lock Jon Barley galloped fully 30 metres down the cricket field flank to score in the corner and he was followed across the line by Howley who scored an absolutely magnificent try on the end of a strong run by centre Aaron Bramwell after Neath opened up upon winning turnover ball in their own 22.
Howley’s conversion made it 19-nil but Pooler deserved something for their efforts in the half and they got it when a Neath defensive kick was charged down and full back Ceri Morris just managed to dab down for an unconverted try.
Although leading 19-5 Neath knew they had it all to do as on the resumption Pontypool introduced a host of names familiar to the Premiership as the likes of Geraint Walsh, Matthew Jones, Martin Luckwell, Aaron Coundley, Danny Hodge and Scott Matthews joined the fray.
Their entry soon paid dividends as Pooler’s hooker Lewis Ball crossed and ex-Neath outside half Matthew Jones converted but Neath’s response was immediate as a trademark side-stepping break by scrum-half Scott Gibson led to flanker Jordan Collier going over for their fourth try and Howley added his third conversion.
But Pontypool were far from done and they enjoyed a good spell of possession and came right back into the game with two tries by centre Clayton Gullis, Matthew Jones converting the second to bring the visitors to within two points at 26-24.
By now Neath had introduced a bevy of replacements too and their patterns suffered and finally imploded when they lost a line-out near their own line and No. 8 Brendan Lampitt (another who has figured in the Black shirt) gratefully pounced on a wayward tap.
Pontypool were ahead for the first time in the game but to their credit Neath re-gathered themselves and threw everything at the visitors. In what would once have been called a “grandstand finish” – in the days when BBC had a Grandstand that is – things over-heated a little once or twice before Pooler wing Lewis Prothero was yellow-carded for deliberate off-side play; he may have paid the penalty for others’ earlier indiscretions.
Pooler tried to run down the clock with “keep ball” rugby but Neath seized possession and, in the final play, winger Ellis, back in the Neath shirt, became the hero of the day when he crossed in the corner. In a truly dramatic finish, excellent referee Craig Evans (Glynneath) consulted with his touch-judge to ascertain the legality of the score and, with the difficult conversion missed, it ended 31-29 to the Blacks.
Ultimately, one conversion was the difference as the teams scored five tries each. Both teams still have a lot of work to do but, as a taster for the season, it promised much.
Neath, not as used to winning recently as often as Pontypool who cantered to the championship title last year, were happy to get the victory and some of the new boys are settling in nicely.
But Pooler looked what they are – champions and champions-in-waiting, a good strong, all-round side and their coaches will have been pleased with sharing the try-count and with their improved discipline after incurring six yellow-cards at Aberavon.
Neath will stage their final outing before the new Premiership rugby season when Championship champions Pontypool pay a rare visit to The Gnoll on Saturday (kick off 2.30pm).
The Welsh All Blacks welcome back several players with Mike Evans, Gavin Evans, Aaron Bramwell and Scott Gibson joining the full of running Ed Howley, Ashley Evans and Dan Guarneri in the starting line up behind.
Luke Garrett, Darren Hughes and Tyla Murvai form a strong front row and they will be backed by new captain Scott Andrews and while . Leon Ward and the speedy Lloyd Evans comprise the back-row.
Neath coach Simon King said, “We are looking to test ourselves ahead of the League campaign and Pontypool will certainly do that. Like Neath, they’ve never believed in friendlies up there so we’ll be prepared for another physical challenge.”
Neath v Pontypool (Home)
15 Ed Howley; 14 Ashley Evans, 13 Mike Evans, 12 Aaron Bramwell, 11 Alec Jenkins; 10 Dan Guarneri, 9 Scott Gibson; 1 Luke Garrett, 2 Sion Crocker, 3 Liam Tobias; 4 Scott Andrews (captain), 5 Jon Barley; 6 Jordan Collier, 8 Leon Ward, 7 Lloyd Evans
Replacements – 16 Ben Uphill/Keelan Marney, 17 Darren Hughes, 18 Tyla Murvai, 19 Ryan Bean, 20 Aled Cockwell/Ceri White, 21 A.N. Other, 22 Chris Morgans, 23 Ian Ellis
Referee – Mr. Craig Evans (Glynneath)
SEASON TICKET COLLECTION
Season Ticket collection inside the Ground (1.00pm to 2.00pm only).
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