MATCH REPORT: NEATH V CROSS KEYS (AWAY) – WEDNESDAY, MAY 17TH, 2023
NEATH earned promotion back to the WRU Premiership courtesy of this fine bonus-point victory at Cross Keys whom they had beaten less convincingly at The Gnoll the previous Wednesday.
Going into the game, Neath required five points from three games but Neath supporters were mindful of the fact that Pandy Park has seen many a rugby hijack over the years and Keys were hoping for another.
However, Neath established a control from the outset which they rarely lost and, long before the end, the Blacks and their admirable travelling support were celebrating some very good tries by the visitors.
Neath took the lead after just six minutes when great work in loose play by the front row saw prop Tim Ryan thunder over for the first try after a delightful backward off-load.
Outside-half Steff Williams converted and it was 7-nil before a further burst of grand combined play by backs and forwards led to Sion Crocker crossing for a second and this was converted by full back Lewis Evans to make it 14-nil.
It was the Resolven product’s first successful kick for the club and came after he moved to outside-half as Steff Williams had been replaced by Aaron Bramwell.
Keys shook themselves and took a penalty to the left corner where a good lineout drive was joined by veteran wing Dan Hitchings who touched down for centre Adam Tetley to convert and bring the score back to 14-7.
Their riposte served only to shake Neath into action though and the Blacks went through the gears to free winger Llewellyn Hawkes on the right and the youngster sped away for Neath’s third try – he rounded behind the posts to make the conversion by Evans almost a formality at 21-7.
Just before half-time, Neath secured the bonus-point after a trademark surging run by No.8 David Griggs – a perfectly-placed cross-field kick saw Llewellyn Hawkes again apply the finishing touch and it was 26-7 at the interval.
Nicky Griffiths replaced centre Sean Wilcox giving Neath a slightly strange-looking back division for the second-half but Lewis Evans was proving an admirable deputy at outside-half and his lengthy kicking and subtle distribution took some of the sting out of any post-interval revival hopes Keys may have harboured.
The home side battled hard with a solid scrum but 15 minutes into the half, Neath struck again and more or less made the game safe when a good lineout take by lock Jon Barley was supplemented by a couple of strong drives by the forwards and Sion Crocker notched Neath’s fifth try.
It was the hooker’s 23rd try of the season and he is well-placed to challenge Mark Jones’ record for a forward of 25 set in 1988/89 – Lewis Evans’ straightforward conversion made it 33-7 to Neath.
Both sides employed their benches to the full and there was still plenty of fight left in Keys but the Blacks were on top now and the supporters were already singing when replacement hooker Josh Clark sped away off a well-worked move to levy Neath’s sixth try.
Key’s venerable captain Tom Lampard received a yellow-card for an assault upon Ioan Jones at a lineout but the home side carved out a second try by Gwion Jones.
Neath were heading home now though and fittingly it was the Blacks who had the last word when they won a lineout on halfway and No.8 Griggs came away up the touchline and somehow found a burst of speed and energy to angle in and score Neath’s seventh try at the posts.
Lewis Evans drop-kicked the conversion and the final whistle blew to signal Neath’s return to Welsh rugby’s top echelon with two games still to play – a very well-deserved reward as this was Neath’s 20th bonus point victory of the season… and they have needed every one of those extras to keep the determined challenge of Bargoed at bay.
Before Neath minds switch off for the summer, the Blacks will need to prove their mental strength to finish with a flurry in two remaining games at Beddau on Saturday and then the finale against Ystrad Rhondda at The Gnoll on Wednesday next – both will be keen to “scalp” a Premiership-bound team !
CROSS KEYS – A.Tetley; T.Davies, T.Sullivan, K.Vodden (S.Ireland), D.Hitchings; M.Johns , Z.Bartlett; A.Douse (R.Cornock), L.Tovey (C.Vaughan), J.Rogers; B.Feeney (J.Wall), T.Lampard (capt); H.Reader, A.Gibson (L.Robey), G.Jones
NEATH – L.Evans; L.Hawkes, R.Evans (capt), S.Wilcox (N.Griffiths), R.Griffiths; S.Williams (A.Bramwell), M.Griffiths; J.Powell (G.W.Lloyd), S.Crocker (J.Clark), T.Ryan; I.Jones, J.Barley; O.Morgan (E.Hopkins), D.Griggs, M.Kneath
Referee – Mr. G.Roberts (Cirencester)
WRU CHAMPIONSHIP TABLE 2022/23 LEADERS
P W D L FOR AGST POINTS TRIES
Pontypool 25 25 0 0 1203 285 124 176
Neath 24 21 0 3 927 342 109 140
Bargoed 26 22 0 4 883 399 108 133
Images courtesy of Len Kowalski www.lensworkphotography.co.uk