MATCH REPORT: NEATH 22 SWANSEA 27 – Saturday 16th December 2023
There is nothing like the challenge of a local derby to bring the best out of Neath – but 17 points from the boot of Steff Williams and a try by Kristian Jones were not quite enough for the Blacks who suffered another narrow defeat as Swansea survived in an intriguing game at The Gnoll.
Pre-match entertainment was supplied by the minis of Resolven and Tonna and by the Morriston Orpheus choir who brought a Christmas feeling to a game which confounded the forecasters by being played throughout in unpredicted rain.
Following Neath’s relegation and the Coronavirus cessation, it has been five seasons since these sides last met in the Premiership but they have kept in touch via a series of pre-season fixtures in which results have been shared.
Despite playing into the elements, Neath made a bright start and, as Swansea strove to protect their try-line after determined runs by skipper Ryan Evans, winger Ryan Griffiths and prop Jack Powell, they conceded penalties and Neath’s strong scrum saw outside-half Steff Williams kick two goals to put the Blacks 6-nil up.
But Swansea got going via a driving maul by their huge pack and, although the passing behind was inaccurate, full back G.O. Rees was allowed to cross for the opening try which was converted by outside-half Rhys Jones whose subsequent penalty gave the visitors the lead at 6-10.
Midway through the half, another line-out, another drive and Swansea hooker Owen Thomas crossed for a second try which the ex-Dragon converted to make it 6-17.
But Neath stayed in the battle, flanker Ben Williams outstanding, as they forced their way downfield and battered away at the visitors line. Swansea lost Ospreys prop Garyn Phillips injured and Neath spurned easy penalty goals.
Neath kept up the pressure but Swansea defended with great determination and eventually the Blacks took a kick which Williams goaled.
As half-time neared, Neath had the bit between their teeth as they picked off a couple of Swansea line-outs, a Williams grubber just evaded winger James Roberts and on the other flank the lively Ryan Griffiths was denied too.
Half-time – Neath 9 pts Swansea 17 pts
Swansea started the second-half by extending their lead through a second penalty by the ex-Dragon Rhys Jones but this was cancelled out by Williams’ fourth after Swansea prop C.B. Jones rather stupidly flattened Ryan Evans off the ball right in front of the referee.
It might have earned him a red card but he was duly yellow-carded and presumably back rower Sam Pailor did not agree as he joined him for a verbal indiscretion forcing the away side into the ignominy of uncontested scrums which might just have saved them later on their own line.
At 12-20, Neath messed up the re-start but broke out to launch a furious attack. They hammered at the visitors’ line which eventually broke when No.8 Morgan Kneath burst through and fed centre Kristian Jones who stretched to score under the posts and Steff Williams’ conversion made it 19-20.
With just a point in it, Neath continued to attack, prop Jack Powell showed deft footballing skills with a left-footed lick into the 22 and the Blacks might have done better when scrum-half Elis Horgan raced away into the 22 but could not identify his support and Ryan Griffiths was tackled into touch a metre short of the line.
In the left corner, lively prop Powell was denied what would have been a vital try when the assistant adjudged that he had put a foot in touch – many swear he didn’t ! – and Swansea, summoning fresh legs from the bench, survived with their line intact.
Swansea were hanging on but they weathered the storm and, when play switched to the other end, they more or less made victory assured when hooker Thomas crossed for his second try from a line-out-maul and replacement Keillen Cullen converted.
Although deep into injury-time, Neath summoned their replacements and the Blacks got some reward when the visitors gave away a penalty and Steff Williams was successful with his fifth goal which put Neath back in line for a bonus.
There was still time remaining but, when Swansea re-claimed possession, they had no thought of a bonus point and were relieved to kick the ball out of play and hold on for the victory.
That brought to an end a keenly-fought contest which sent home supporters away disappointed by the result but happy with the effort and the excitement.
** Both clubs will be hoping for more to come over Christmas when Swansea visit Bridgend on Saturday and Neath await the arrival of Aberavon for the big Boxing Day derby (2.30pm) which, judging by the considerable interest already shown with hospitality sold out long ago, will attract the season’s largest crowd.
This is the first time in six years that the great derby has been played at Neath and, following the long break, the Blacks are hoping for considerable support for one of the Town’s biggest occasions of the year.
NEATH – L.Evans; J.Roberts (L.Rees), R.Evans (capt), K.Jones (K.Charles), R.Griffiths; S.Williams, E.Horgan (G.Williams); J.Powell (M.Morgan), S.Crocker (J.Clark), T.Ryan (E.Hopkins); J.Blackmore (T.John), M.Davies; F.Kneath (D.Ceredig), M.Kneath, B.Williams
SWANSEA – G.O.Rees; B.Wood (K.Hamer, M.Jenkins), J.Thomas, O.Knott, M.Rees; R.Jones (K.Cullen), G.J.Rees (D.Roderick); G.Phillips (C.B.Jones), O.Thomas, E.Fackrell (E.Thompson); L.Ashley, M.Dodd (capt); S.Pailor (C.Davies), J.Greaves (A.Ashton), L.Evans
Referee – Mr. B.Connor (Abertillery)
Images courtesy of Len Kowalski www.lensworkphotography.co.uk