An Easter Monday derby saw the Blacks make the short trip to the Talbot Athletic Ground to face an Aberavon side coming off the back off a good victory away to Llanelli to stop a run of four losses on the bounce. Meanwhile Neath had suffered at the hands of Cross Keys who dumped them out of the cup and were looking to use the draw they earned against the Wizards on Boxing Day to give them inspiration in a season that has seen them languishing at the base of the Principality Premiership.
With a stiff breeze blowing down the pitch in favour of the visitors in the first half it would need a strong start from the Blacks to capitalise on the conditions. There was a positive energy about the team and from the first whistle they weren’t allowing Aberavon time to settle, contesting the rucks and pinning them deep in their 22 with some good tactical kicking from Chris Morgan at scrum half. The pressure was on the home team, who although favourites looked nervous in the face of some stern Neath defence and the difficult conditions. The men in Black needed to turn early pressure into points on the board but silly errors in the final third and a number of penalties in the scrum, where Aberavon were flexing their muscle, kept the score line at 0-0.
With ten minutes on the clock it was the turn of the Wizards to apply some pressure as they looked to keep the ball in hand and play into the wind. Neath were throwing everything into the breakdown and Keiran Williams forced an important turnover to give the visitors relief. The defence didn’t break and another good turnover, this time by hooker Sion Crocker, gave replacement Luke Price the chance to clear.
The momentum swung as the visiting fans found their voice to drive the Men in Black forward and another penalty at ruck time on the halfway line gave replacement Price a shot at goal. He obliged and slotted the ball between the posts to get the scoreboard ticking as Neath took a 0-2 lead. The restart was well claimed by Morgan at scrum half who, with the breeze at his back, sent a kick deep downfield to the home teams 22-metre line and once again the referee saw in favour of the Blacks awarding a penalty which Price converted to double the Neath lead.
As the half drew to a close, Neath looked to press home the wind advantage as they surged upfield. Some strong running from outside centre Dean Howells drove Neath over the gain line, before blindside flanker Josh Cole, who was having a terrific game in the tight, picked a magnificent line off scrum half Morgan to gallop clear under the Aberavon posts for the first try of the game -his first for Neath, Price converting, to take the score out to 0-12. The challenge for the visiting Blacks would be to hold on, playing into the wind in the second forty minutes.
But it was to be a poor start. A messy restart handed the ball straight to the Wizards who looked energised after the break. Number 8 Joe Tomalin-Reeves picked the ball up for Aberavon driving hard into the Neath defenders before offloading and a fortuitous bounce reached scrum half David Pritchard who went scampering down the touchline to score in the corner and get the home side off to an ideal start. The conversion was missed in the tricky conditions but having halved the Neath advantage there was a feeling around the ground that the impetus had swung in favour of the home team.
It wasn’t long before they were back in the Neath 22, as the Blacks failed to clear their lines into the increasingly difficult conditions. Rain began to fall across the Talbot Sports Ground but the handling of the Wizards was good as they spread the ball right and seemed to score in the corner, only to be dragged back by the assistant referee who had spotted a foot in touch much to the relief of the visiting team and fans alike. Neath were caught offside in the next play and Aberavon drove them back to within five of their own line, setting up a good driving maul which forced its way over to level the scores at 12-12 with half an hour still to play. Tomalin-Reeves emerged with the ball from number 8 and the twelve point lead the visitors had amassed in that first half didn’t seem to be enough as the conditions worsened in favour of the home side.
The match was breaking up and a series of consecutive turnovers from both sides gave Aberavon their next chance as they poured down the undefended Neath blindside. Some good interplay between backs and forwards handed Wizards fly half James Garland his first points of the game as he touched down despite a brave last ditch tackle by Blacks hooker Crocker who worked hard to get back. Despite failing to convert his own try, Garland had given the home team the lead for the first time in the game and heads began to drop in a tiring Neath team.
In previous weeks, the floodgates might have opened for Neath but in a local derby where rivalries run deep they galvanised and with some substitutes made in key positions, pulled together to get themselves back in the game. Geraint James came on at tight head anchoring a resurgent Neath scrum that won a penalty inside the Aberavon half. Price drove the ball into the home 22 and the Blacks set up some powerful play as they attacked the line. Aaron Coundley, who had worked tirelessly from loose head, carried the ball well and replacement hooker Aled Morris threw himself into the fray to get the visitors within 5 metres. A good miss pass gave replacement winger James Williams the slimmest of opportunities in the corner but somehow he managed to stay infield to dot down and bring the scores level in the final quarter. It was a great moment for the Neath Athletic Colts captain who answered a late SOS down the motorway after Ryan Evans pulled a hamstring in the warm up – his first Neath try.
It was to be heartbreak for the visitors though as another mistake from the restart allowed Aberavon the chance to steal the result. The wind and rain had abated, and as the sun poked through Avon did well to keep ball in hand before finding the opening for winger Richard Carter to touch down. It was a cruel defeat for Neath who despite all the odds had worked hard to deserve at least a draw. Neath fielded six 19 year olds and under and should take heart from a performance which showed some good skills and a passion which has been lacking in recent games. The back-row worked tirelessly and Morgan was dogged at scrum half; if they can raise their game to this level for the rest of the season they will finish what has been a poor year on a much sweeter note.