Those who believe that patience and perseverance eventually get rewarded claim that everything comes to he who waits – and now Neath’s long wait is at an end : an overdue League win at last … and a well deserved one at that.
After a splendidly observed minute’s silence in memory of George Griffiths, Neath’s oldest season ticket holder and former chief executive of Neath Borough Council, the game kicked off with the wind in favour of Neath.
Despite the virus afflicting the Scarlets’ senior squad, Llanelli came to The Gnoll with a strong-looking side and their power was evident from the start. No.8 Jack Condy was a tower of strength and, breaking tackles far too easily, the visitors raced into a 14-point lead through tries by flanker Nathan Hart and Greg George, Wales Under-20’s outside- half Billy McBryde converting the latter.
Neath were staring down the barrel but to their credit they battled their way back into the game as the forwards well, led by 20 year old captain Jordan Collier, started to take the game to their opponents. Pressure on the Llanelli line led to a home try by scrum-half Chris Morgans which outside-half Luke Price converted and on 25 minutes it was all square when hooker Sion Crocker touched down following a lineout drive, Price’s conversion this time hitting an upright.
The Welsh All Blacks were now in the ascendency and, with Llanelli reduced to 14 men following the yellow-carding of skipper Jonny Lewis, Neath ought to have taken the lead. A well-placed chip by centre Iwan Evans nearly saw Ed Howley score in the left corner and winger Aaron Grabham went desperately close when he was bundled into touch in goal on the right. When Llanelli finally raised the siege, Morgans was promptly binned for a deliberate knock-on, and it remained 14-14 at half-time.
On the resumption, despite being a man down, Neath showed they meant business with a series of bone-jarring tackles with lock Alex Humfrey outstanding. It was from one of his many fine line-out takes that Neath took the lead as the backs joined an on-rushing maul for No. 8 Steffan Jones to get the touchdown, Price converting.
Restored to full strength, Neath struck again when a Luke Price break was finished off by speedy full back Ed Howley and when Jonny Lewis took his second yellow it looked like curtains for Llanelli. But they were far from finished and under-rated scrum-half Jordan James benefited from a charged down kick to dab down under the posts, McBryde’s conversion bringing it back to 28-22.
Neath introduced Leon Ward and Alun Jones from the bench and their riposte was immediate and they again seized the initiative when a quickly-taken Morgans penalty saw winger Josh Jones race over for Neath’s fifth try which Price converted.
The final quarter was virtually all Neath as the prize of that elusive first win was now well in their sights. They they lost promising young flanker Josh Cole who had another big game to injury before Price’s pin-point cross kick was well taken by full back Howley who got his second try, his team’s sixth, to set the seal on Neath’s win.
The final whistle sparked scenes of jubilation not to say overwhelming relief at The Gnoll as this young side proved to themselves that they can win. What is more it was achieved on the back of a very fine rugby performance and Llanelli, although disappointed, were generous in their praise of Neath’s effort which embraced the whole XV and the replacements.
One win does not a season make though and the question on everyone’s lips afterwards was can Neath kick on and make it two when Cross Keys visit for the League finale next Saturday (kick off 2.30pm).
** There was plenty of weekend rugby at the Gnoll. On Friday evening, Neath Schools Under-15’s beat Merthyr 29-22, on Saturday morning the Neath Schools Under-11’s beat their Pontypridd counterparts and at half-time in the Llanelli game supporters were treated to a display of skills by the Under-7’s of Bryncoch and Skewen RFC’s.
Neath entertain Llanelli at The Gnoll (kick off 2.30pm) in their penultimate home game of the season.
The tie was originally due to be played on February 19th but torrential rain prompted its postponement.
With only their final game against Cross Keys to come next week, time is running out for the All Blacks to register their first League win and skipper Nicky Downs is looking for one last big effort from his side.
The captain starts from the bench with Aaron Coundley taking over the loose-head role alongside Sion Crocker and Geraint James in the front row while Steffan Jones returns at No.8 and Ryan Evans at centre.
Neath v Llanelli
15 Ed Howley; 14 Josh Jones, 13 Ryan Evans, 12 Iwan Evans, 11 Aaron Grabham; 10 Luke Price, 9 Chris Morgans; 1 Aaron Coundley, 2 Sion Crocker, 3 Geraint James; 4 Rhys Jones, 5 Alex Humfrey; 6 Josh Cole, 8 Steffan Jones, 7 Jordan Collier (captain)
Replacements – Nicky Downs, Ieuan Dobbs, Joel Ringer, Leon Ward, Craig Price, Alun Jones, Will Thomas, A.N.Other.