CROSS KEYS 36 NEATH 30
Two points gained, three points lost – that was the verdict of Neath supporters leaving verdant Pandy Park with mixed emotions.
Playing uphill, Neath conceded a penalty, Keys kicked for the line-out and their outside half Jason Tovey ran through a gaping hole between Gavin Evans and Ryan Thomas to send centre Srdan Majkic over for the game’s opening try. Tovey converted and added a penalty before Neath hit back with a penalty by outside-half Callum Hall.
Keys seemed to be getting the benefit of all the marginal calls but a correct decision saw Tovey land his second penalty before the Welsh All Blacks forced their way up-field and a series of drives at the Keys line eventually created out the space for full back Dan Guarneri to score.
The visitors were reduced to 14 men after around 30 minutes when former Keys hooker Darren Hughes was sent to the sin bin but Neath finished the half strongly and hard-running centre Aaron Bramwell broke through to cross for Neath’s second try of the game. Callum Hall added the conversion for a 15-13 interval lead which would have been far greater had Neath not squandered at least three try-scoring opportunities.
Keys caught Neath unaware at the start of the second half. Still with 14 men, the Blacks should have been alert to a strong Keys start; they weren’t and Keys hit them for 20 points in a 10-minute blast which settled the game.
A scrum penalty saw Tovey kick his third penalty of the day from in front of the posts before the Keys props were allowed to run further than they ought with Neath tacklers conspicuous by their absence and scrum half Owain Leonard went under the posts.
Tovey converted, added his fourth penalty and then created and added the points to Keys’ third try by winger Wes Cunliffe. To their credit, Neath shook themselves out of their inertia and a splendid passing movement freed winger Ian Ellis who beat his man to score in the corner and reduce the arrears to 20-33 with a quarter of the game left.
Keys calmed their nerves when Tovey landed his fifth penalty taking him to 21 points but Neath evidently had a lot left in the tank. The powerful All Black eight still had the better of Keys not least at the scrums and Neath assured themselves of a bonus point when a series of scrums on the Keys line saw the home side infringe repeatedly. The penalty try made it 27-36 with five minutes remaining.
The clock was ticking when Keys lost prop Corey Hewlett binned for illegally attempting to thwart Neath’s scrum and, after concerted pressure, Neath claimed a second point on time when replacement Iwan Evans kicked a straightforward penalty.
Another few minutes may have brought victory but Neath were left regretting slow starts to each half which led to 27 points, too many penalties awarded against them which Tovey joyfully kicked and, above all, too many missed tackles – from re-starts and from general play. Neath will be seeking quick improvements ahead of Saturday’s visit to Swansea.
Neath visit Cross Keys on Saturday (kick off 2.30pm) hoping it will be a case of third time lucky after defeats at RGC and Bridgend.
The Welsh All Blacks make a number of changes from last week’s starting line-up. Behind the scrum, Ian Ellis returns on the wing while up front Luke Garrett, Darren Hughes and Ryan Thomas start in the front row. Elis Hopkins returns to the back-row alongside Aled Cockwell. Scott Hicks and Iwan Evans figure on the replacements’ bench.
Neath v Cross Keys (Away)
15 Ed Howley; 14 Ashley Evans, 13 Aaron Bramwell, 12 Gavin Evans, 11 Ian Ellis; 10 Callum Hall, 9 Chris Morgans; 1 Luke Garrett, 2 Darren Hughes, 3 Ryan Thomas; 4 Jon Barley, 5 Scott Andrews (captain); 6 Elis Hopkins, 7 Aled Cockwell, 8 Ieuan Jones
Replacements – 16 Ben Uphill, 17 Sion Crocker, 18 Liam Tobias, 19 Ryan Bean, 20 Scott Hicks, 21 Scott Gibson, 22 Dan Guarneri, 23 Iwan Evans
Referee – Mr. Gareth John (Chepstow)