MATCH REPORT: NEATH 19 MERTHYR 14 – Saturday 6th January 2024.
Christmas may be over and the decorations stored away once again but the Welsh All Blacks continue to “ding dong merrily on high” and Neath home wins are, it seems, like the proverbial buses – no sooner has one come along than it is quickly followed by another… and this time a double-decker !
The Welsh All Blacks followed up their Boxing Day win over Aberavon with an even more impressive display to take the honours against a powerful Merthyr team in a bruising, bone-jarring battle at The Lextan Gnoll and those in the Neath majority in another respectable crowd would agree that they deserved it – but not by much.
The weather had taken on a drier aspect as Neath lined up for the first of three games against the clubs who have forsaken the proposed ‘elite’ league next season.
Prior to kick off there was a minute’s silence which paid respect to former Neath and Wales outside-half Bryan Richards, Councillor Sheila Penry and Cross Keys team manager Mark Prangell.
But the teams were soon in the thick of it and, in a helter-skelter start, both teams showed an eagerness to move the ball and Merthyr brought a great deal of physicality to the game forcing Neath to do most of the early defending.
After seven minutes, the visitors were rewarded with a try by centre Cole Swannack although there was an element of confusion about the score before outside-half Gareth Thompson converted.
Neath countered by forcing three line-outs in the Merthyr 22 but each time their attempts to get across the line were frustrated by the Ironmen’s solid defence which was well-marshalled by skipper Paddy McBride and the ex-Jersey Reds and Cardiff Blues No.8 Alun Lawrence who, when Merthyr wear their white, completes a personal Union Jack.
Neath had their own heroes up front where the whole eight – singling out individuals would be invidious – again performed as a Neath pack should and a gamely-competitive first-half was high on movement but low on scoring as the defences held sway.
Dame Fortune helped Neath get on the score-board when centre Kristian Jones charged down, a kind bounce saw him gather the ball and he raced 40 metres to score at the Llantwit End. Steff Williams converted and, in a prolonged spell of added-on time, the Blacks were within a score as the teams went into the break.
Half-time – Neath 7 pts, Merthyr 14 pts
Determined Neath came out of the blocks fast in the second-half and they cut the arrears when concerted pressure eventually led to sniping scrum-half Elis Horgan crossing for his first try of the season. Steff Williams’ conversion shaded the posts and it was 12-14.
It was a keen bout between two well-matched sides – clattering tackles proliferated and there was a fair bit of aerial ping-pong which served to accentuate the ding-dong and made for compelling viewing.
Neath attacked narrow; they attacked wide and the visitors lost winger Lloyd Rowlands to the sin-bin as he indulged in a little illegality as, Canute-like, he tried to stem the Neath tide.
Staunchly as Merthyr defended, they finally cracked as the Neath forward pressure intensified and, although the announcer credited the try to hooker Sion Crocker, it was lock Matthew Davies who dabbed down for the vital try – his first after a belated start to the season.
In a gripping finale, it took a strong Neath counter-maul to halt Merthyr’s best effort and the Blacks’ resolution got them home for a hard-fought victory; it had been a grand tussle and it was no mean feat for Ryan Evans and his men “in excelsis” to deny this impressive Merthyr team a single point in the second half.
The Blacks now move on to the artificial lawn at Sardis Road – a different challenge but one to which the Blacks must rise.
NEATH – L.Evans; L.Rees (L.Hawkes), R.Evans (capt), K.Jones (S.Wilcox), R.Griffiths; S.Williams, E.Horgan (G.Williams); J.Powell (M.Morgan), S.Crocker (C.Morris), T.Ryan (E.Hopkins); M.Davies, C.Arnold; J.Blackmore (D.Ceredig), M.Kneath, B.Williams (F.Kneath)
MERTHYR – B.Jones; J.Kathrens, C.Swannack, S.Ripley (J.Lewis), L.Rowlands; G.Thompson, J.Soanes (E.Lloyd); T.Hawkins (L.Jones), E.Shipp (L.Wiggins), R.Lewis (S.May); C.Locke, T.Davies (B.Sier); P.McBride (capt), A.Lawrence, L.Greggains (C.Thomas) (M.Meaclem)
Referee – Mr. I.Davies (Porthcawl)
Images courtesy of Len Kowalski www.lensworkphotography.co.uk