At the end of an exciting season’s finale at The Gnoll, just a goal-kick separated the side chasing a League play-off place from the Division’s bottom side as Cross Keys shared 8 tries with Neath – and the Blacks spurned a very inviting late kick at goal which would have tied the match as they went for a fifth try which would have brought them a second successive League win.
Neath made the early running, retaining possession from the kick off, and looking up for the battle but Keys worked their way into the game through their well-roven pack and the visitors were first on the score-board after18 minutes when wing Matthew Powell crossed wide out and outside-half Ethan Davies converted.
But Neath struck back before half-time with – the pack showed great resilience and the backs, despite being obliged to introduce two injury replacements, looked sharp and eager. No.8 Leon Ward again cut an impressive figure and enjoyed a rare tussle with ex-Gnoll favourite Adam Powell who was always prominent for Keys.
The Welsh All Blacks struck fast with two tries finished by left wing Aaron Grabham, the second a particularly splendid effort, after the forwards with a timely incursion from replacement Aaron Coundley, set up a position which was fully exploited by the slick passing of the backs.
Those two tries put Neath in front at 12-8 but, with Neath skipper Nicky Downs and Keys lock Danny Hodge exchanging pleasantries on their way to the sin-bin, as half-time approached Keys regained the lead as centre Nathan Williams crossed to make it 12-14. Keys started the second-half with a bang and two quick converted tries by Ethan Davies and Adam Powell sent them 30-12 into a seemingly impregnable lead.
But Neath have recaptured their grit of late and thereafter they dominated proceedings as Keys tired after their recent heavy schedule. Nicky Downs, making his final Premiership appearance after announcing his retirement, left the field to a rousing ovation which his colleagues on-field seemed determined to match,
Classy scrum-half Reuben Morgan-Williams nearly got in at the corner as Neath stepped up the pressure and half-back partner Luke Price and Iwan Evans were pulling the strings behind with full back Ed Howley launching several promising attacks from deep.
Eventually, the Welsh All Blacks got their reward when ever-industrious hooker Sion Crocker went over from close range for Neath’s 50th Premiership try of the season which Price converted to bring Neath back to 20-30.
The Blacks were buzzing and they struck again and some wonderful inter-play by backs and forwards saw flanker Jordan Collier link with Alex Humfrey to send the second row galloping across for Neath’s fourth try which Price converted to cut the arrears to just two points.
In a furious finale, the Welsh All Blacks threw everything at Keys and won themselves a penalty 40 metres out. Crucially ambition got the better of them and they opted to go for the corner rather than take the two points on offer – a decision which seemed to bring relief to the Keys coaching staff and one which would not have brought great joy to any Ebbw Vale fans in the crowd .
Unfortunately for Neath, nothing came of it and the game ended with the Keys tight-head on his knees at a scrum and very lucky not to be penalised in front of his posts but as Moseley coach Kevin Maggs reflected ruefully recently “sometimes officials referee the table rather than the game” and in a way it was an apt end as the scrum had again been a highly contentious area throughout.
So Neath’s worst-ever season has come to a close but there was sufficient evidence in this game that Neath are getting back on track – a good, hard summer’s work and 2016/17 will surely bring better fortune !
Neath wind up their season with a home game against high-riding Cross Keys (kick off 2.30pm) and, having belatedly broken their League duck last week against Llanelli, the Welsh All Blacks will be looking to add another scalp.
That grand old servant captain Nicky Downs will start his last League game before retiring. He forms a fresh front row with Ieuan Dobbs and Joel Ringer. Leon Ward and Craig Price come into the back row while, other than at scrum-half where Reuben Morgan-Williams replaces the unfit Chris Morgans, the back division is unchanged.
Coach Gareth Llewellyn said, “We played some exciting stuff against a good Llanelli side last week and it was pleasing to register six tries. We needed to prove to ourselves as much as anyone else that we can play and we can win. Now, we must build on it and training this week has been geared towards one last big effort to give the supporters something to cheer at the end of the season.”
“Keys still have an outside chance of making the play-offs so it will be a good test for us after last week’s win.”
**Neath Schools Under-11’s stage an all-day Festival of Rugby at The Gnoll on Sunday, kicking off at 10.00am. and featuring 16 teams from Aberdare, Baglan, Briton Ferry, Bryncoch, Carmarthen Quins, Cwmafan, Dowlais, Dulais Valley, Neath Barbarians, Penlan, Swansea Uplands, Tondu, Tonmawr, Tonna A, Tonna B and Trebanos
Neath v Cross Keys
15 Ed Howley; 14 Josh Jones, 13 Ryan Evans, 12 Iwan Evans, 11 Aaron Grabham; 10 Luke Price, 9 Reuben Morgan-Williams; 1 Nicky Downs (captain), 2 Ieuan Dobbs, 3 Joel Ringer; 4 Rhys Jones, 5 Alex Humfrey; 6 Jordan Collier, 8 Leon Ward, 7 Craig Price
Replacements – Aaron Coundley, Sion Crocker, Geraint James, Jon Barley, Steffan Jones, A,N. Other, Aaron Bramwell, Alec Jenkins