A Principality Cup tie that had all the ingredients for a potential upset or an exciting and close finish was completely altered due to the inconsistent and frequently bizarre refereeing of Cardiff official Neil Ballard. Regrettably the referee was to play a significant role in the outcome of this game. At the end as the dejected Drovers players sat in the changing rooms it was not the margin of the defeat that concerned them but more the way in which it came about and how it had gradually eroded any confidence that they had gained from their early lead. Neutral spectators, including the National press, Ebbw Vale supporters and officials were all in part baffled by many of the decisions taken during the match. After the game Llandovery Director of Rugby Handel Davies invited Mr Ballard to come to a club training session, watch the video and go through his various decisions.
Using the strong wind in the first half the home side were soon on the attack and were rewarded when full back Stuart Harries converted an early penalty. This was soon followed by an interception try as centre Tracy Lewis pounced on an intended pass from David Weatherly to Rhys Shorney. Lewis raced through the Vale defence and scored near the posts for full back Harries to convert and establish an early 10-0 lead. In a rare excursion into the home half the Steelmen were awarded a penalty, which Gareth Cull converted to bring the score to 10-3.
Soon after this Tracy Lewis again intercepted a pass in the centre and was looking for a certain try when the referee, much to the dismay of the crowd, called him back and awarded the visitors a penalty for offside. As the home side pressed home their attacks, with outside half Neil Clapham using the wind in excellent fashion, the Premier side were forced to show their defensive qualities with some very strong tackling. A number of penalties against the Drovers’ front row in attacking scrums also helped to relieve their lines. Eventually a Llandovery penalty by Stuart Harries bounced back off the posts, Vale failed to clear their lines and scrum half Jamie Roberts, who had an excellent game throughout, darted over for the try. The conversion attempt failed.
This brought the score to 15-3 when a second penalty kicked by the Gwent side’s full back Gareth Cull rounded off the scoring to a first half in which a wind aided Llandovery side were superior to their Welsh-Scottish League opponents.
With the wind easing after half time Ebbw Vale quickly put themselves in the driving seat when good work by the back row took play to the Drovers’ line for experienced scrum half Kevin Ellis to dive over for the try. Cull converted and then as the game approached its final quarter kicked a third penalty and then a fourth to give Ebbw Vale a slender lead of four points.
Battling hard the Drovers remained in the game and on the hour the most significant piece of poor refereeing was quite possibly to decide the home team’s fate Jamie Roberts, following quickly round an Ebbw Vale set scrum on the half way, picked up the heel and darted off to the try line. A tremendous chase by wing Rhys Shorney saw Roberts tackled just short of the line. A knock on by a defender saw Llandovery awarded a scrum just short of the Iine. As the scrum slewed slightly to the open side Number 8 Chris Davies picked up from the back and was about to touch down unopposed when the referee much to everyone’s amazement ordered a re-set of the scrum, which he awarded to the defending side.
This was to have a psychological effect on the Drovers’ approach to the game, which was further damaged when, following a drive from scrum half Ellis the ball was knocked forward as he was tackled. This remained undetected by referee Ballard and flanker Tupuloto was able to pick up and crash through the home defence to score. This try was converted by Cull, who was then given the opportunity to kick a fifth penalty goal.
As the game entered its final minutes replacement Ebbw Vale centre Paul Matthews scored two tries. Both were converted by Cull who gained an impressive haul of 23 points from his five penalties and four conversions. After the game Ebbw Vale Coach Mike Ruddock acknowledged that, although his team had won, it was certainly by an undeserved margin and that the bizarre refereeing decisions had been a crucial factor.
The whole Llandovery side are to be praised for their outstanding efforts. They were a credit to first division rugby. The side was captained well by Andrew Jones at prop and, whilst to pick out individuals after such a magnificent team performance is a little unfair, special praise needs to go to the tackling of the back row, the line out performance of Lyndon Bateman, and the all round work of Jamie Roberts who was as good as an anyone on the pitch. Others who caught the eye with some excellent contributions were veteran lock Dai Giles, centres Tracy Lewis and Herman Bosman, and outside half Neil Clapham.
Llandovery now face two difficult away matches in the league. The first at Carmarthen next week is followed by a trip to Aberavon. The high-flying Quins, who defeated the Drovers at Churchbank, will certainly provide a stern test and an exciting local derby is in prospect.
Extra confirmation (if it were needed!) that the refereeing was a major disappointment, from the Western Mail's Andy Howell:
Coach Mike Ruddock was among the first to acknowledge their margin of victory over the Drovers was undeserved and his side had benefited from some bizarre refereeing decisions. Ebbw Vale chairman Marcus Russell buried his head in his hands more than once in embarrassment as nearly every 50-50 call, sometimes even 90-10 against, went in their favour. Referee Neil Ballard made a complete hash of the breakdown and penalised Llandovery at a crucial second-half scrum near the Vale try-line under the use-or-lose it rule for it allegedly having wheeled 90 degrees. "A number of crucial decisions went against us and I think the refereeing was an issue," said Llandovery coach Iestyn Thomas. "I thought we were in there and shouting; we were competing well and we were winning at half-time. We were still competing in the second half but the referee..."