Neath were deprived of victory by yet another last-gasp try when Llanelli’s Nathan Hart touched down in the closing minutes to settle a nip and tuck Foster’s Cup game on a crisp evening under The Gnoll floodlights.
Both sides fielded young sides in keeping with the spirit of this competition – with Neath setting a new record as no fewer than 13 of their 23-man match squad appeared on permit with 6 still eligible for youth rugby. And all the youngsters did themselves proud as two enterprising sides produced some splendid rugby which warmed an appreciative crowd.
From the first whistle, the game set off at a cracking pace as both sides accentuated the positive. Amidst all the attacking intent, the defences were not lacking either so it was somewhat surprising that it took a quarter of an hour before the first score was registered when outside-half Iwan Evans put Neath in front with a penalty.
On the half hour, Neath went further ahead when the forwards stole a Llanelli scrummage, flanker Alun Jones tore into the heart of the Llanelli defence and good hands saw winger Josh Jones speed across in the corner.
Llanelli levelled with a try by full back Gareth Walters which he converted himself – it was not without controversy as it originated from a penalty which was taken some 8 metres in front of the mark, a rare mistake by new referee Simon Mills who played his full part in an excellent game.
Neath were not to be denied though and, with centurion Leon Ward and Steffan Jones always in the thick of things, centre Rory Morgan-Williams almost made it to the line. Sustaining possession through the phases, Neath soon carved out another chance just before the interval and centre Jack Anderson crossed for their second try.
Trailing 8-14 at half-time, Llanelli came out in determined mood and, after winger Matthew Billett had bombed his second chance of the evening, the visitors took the lead for the first time when centre Matthew Pearce crossed near the posts for Walters to convert.
It was end to end stuff and Neath’s young back-line produced some wonderful running as Morgan-Williams and full back Ed Howley tore open the Llanelli defence only for both moves to flounder as they had out-paced their support.
Eventually though the pressure told and another sweeping passing movement culminated in prop Joel Ringer supplying the final delivery to replacement wing Jamie Roberts who slid in at the corner.
That made it 20-16 to Neath but Llanelli were not done and their forwards finished stronger, forcing four scrums on the Neath line before finally Hart crossed. In a last desperate fling, Neath threw everything into the attack with replacement back-rower Aled Cockwell twice making in-roads but, not unusually this season, they were out of luck and Llanelli took the result.
It was unfortunate that one side had to lose because both teams of mainly youngsters had produced a stylish evening’s entertainment, full of skill, verve and pace. Had any neutral WRU observers been present, they would surely have appreciated the spirit and approach of the two teams – and it was good to have midweek rugby back on the agenda at The Gnoll.
* Neath take a break at the weekend when The Gnoll hosts the Ospreys Premiership Select-Yorkshire Carnegie game (kick off 2.00pm). Then it is on to Cardiff the following Saturday for a 1.30pm kick-off.