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Neath RFC

NEATH 24 points  ABERAVON 19 points

Whatever happens to these two fine clubs as a result of the ongoing WRU ‘elitist’ deliberations, both Neath and Aberavon proved themselves – if indeed proof were needed – to be as elite as can be in this totally engaging clash at The Gnoll.

This truly first-class occasion produced gripping rugby and a noisy, partisan crowd of 4,106 – surely this is what Welsh rugby wants and needs ?

The tradition that is Neath-Aberavon or Aberavon-Neath is as much part of Christmas as turkey, tinsel and tidings (not T.V.) and this fixture – the first for five years – was keenly anticipated in both camps with the hospitality suites having sold out weeks before.

Most local clubs were represented, they came from Mumbles to Porthcawl, from Brynaman and beyond. And one or two gentlemen were spotted from London Welsh, London Scottish and Scotland too. Three travellers even came from New Zealand “to see  the Welsh All Blacks play” – such is the drawing power of this fixture.

Having gone desperately close in recent games, Neath were looking to break their duck while Aberavon came into the game on a poor run themselves; so something had to give and supporters of both clubs fancied their own team’s chances.

After the weekend’s rains, the weather conditions were as pitch perfect as was … well the pitch … as the famous old ground played host to its biggest crowd for some time; the atmosphere was splendid and a credit to both clubs –  factional but festive and, dare it be said, quite friendly too.

Aberavon attacked the Llantwit end and started stronger but rock-solid Neath defence kept them out until the 15th minute when a kick ahead led to the opening try by visiting centre Brad Roderick and outside-half James Davies added the conversion points.

Neath hit back on the half hour when outside-half Steff Williams kicked a penalty and, visibly growing into the game, on 35 minutes lock Matthew Davies won line-out ball and the Welsh All Blacks’ forwards drove on.

Attacking under the posts, the Welsh All Blacks were correctly awarded a penalty try following an incident which resulted in Aberavon flanker Travis Huntley entering the sin-bin and it was 10-7.

Davies had a chance to level but Neath soon made the most of their numerical advantage before half-time as they attacked in style and freed left winger Ryan Griffiths who squeezed in at the left corner, Steff Williams converting superbly to make it 17-7.

Good work by teenage winger Steff Gibson and scrum-half Elis Horgan set Neath off again. Visiting skipper Joe Gage – with Lewis Evans, one of two very capable full backs – gathered but was immediately engulfed by the fast-following Neath raiders.

An excellent clear-out gave the sharp Neath backs another opportunity to spread the ball which they did with aplomb and the in-form Griffiths applied the finishing touch as he went over for his second try.

Williams again goaled superbly from the touchline which allowed the home side to go into the break in a strong position.

Half-time – Neath 24pts, Aberavon 7 pts

If there was any complacency in the Neath camp, it was soon shaken as Aberavon, fired by the award of five successive penalties, again started the half strongly and they earned their reward when prop Rowan Jenkins, surely the fastest groundsman in the West, crossed for a fine try. Davies’ conversion brought the score back to 24-14.

It was compelling stuff as Neath rallied again and this time Williams missed a penalty and the game was in the balance with some of the gain-line tackling by both sides nothing short of titanic and the Neath back row of Jacob Blackmore, Morgan Kneath and Ben Williams got through a tremendous amount of work as did the whole eight.

Two grand front rows of Jack Powell, Sion Crocker and Tim Ryan versus Jenkins, Cam Lewis and Geraint James clashed as front rows should while Matthew Davies and Cai Arnold fought a keen line-out duel with Rhys Thomas and Rhodri Hughes.

Really, there was little to choose between two competitive packs locked in battle and excellent referee Simon Mills (Llanelli) dealt effectively with one or two warmish moments as the sides vied for superiority.

Neath’s doggedness and persistence was forcing handling errors from the visitors but Aberavon broke out from their own 22 in superb manner, a sweeping movement stunted only by Neath centre Kristian Jones who somehow got back to make a crucial tackle.

Avon winger Jay Baker’s kick ahead slithered over the dead-ball line but the visitors got a deserved score when  replacement flanker Ben Gregory scored wide out on the left. Davies missed the conversion to leave the game hanging at 24-19.

The excitement was mounting and the fevered atmosphere intensified as the “Neath, Neath, Neath” chants thundered from the stand and it was Aberavon’s turn to defend as the Welsh All Blacks finished stronger.

Neath’s teenage winger Steff Gibson flew in at the right corner but was pulled back for a knock on and replacement scrum-half Gruff Williams nearly got in but his kick saw the ball slide over the dead-ball line.

Right at the end, young Gibson nearly got in but he was obstructed before Mr. Mills blew the last blast on his whistle to bring to an end 80 minutes plus of thoroughly enthralling rugby football.

Although any one of those late efforts would have meant a bonus point, Ryan Evans and his team did not mind too much as the prize was theirs and the Welsh All Blacks were in Lou Reed (not the second row) territory – it had been “such a perfect day” !

In the final analysis there was not much in it. But the real winner was rugby football – of the top-class Welsh club variety – Neath and Aberavon demonstrated what can be achieved and a 4,106 crowd, the best by far in the Premiership this season despite a virtual “press blackout”, is not to be sniffed at by those who turn up their noses.

Well supported, well refereed, well contested – Welsh rugby at this level has much to commend it.

It all goes to show that there are lots of “good eggs” in both camps and, whatever omelette the WRU is cooking, these particular clubs should not be cracked to make it !

NEATH – L.Evans; S.Gibson, R.Evans (capt), K.Jones, R.Griffiths; S.Williams, E.Horgan (G.Williams); J.Powell, S.Crocker (C.Morris), T.Ryan (G.W.Lloyd); M.Davies, C.Arnold; J.Blackmore, M.Kneath, B.Williams (D.Ceredig)

ABERAVON – J.Gage (capt); J.Baker, F.Jones, B.Roderick (S.Delnevo), C.Banfield; J.Davies, L.Seaward (S.Whitelock); R.Jenkins (J.Walters), C.Lewis (S.Hurley), G.James (C.Davies); R.Thomas, R.Hughes (S.Smallman); T.Huntley (B.Gregory), A.Waite, C.Loveys

Referee – Mr. S.Mills (Llanelli)

Images courtesy of Len Kowalski