Huw S Thomas Reports
Mighty Neath had already done the Premiership double over Llandovery but had to produce one of their best, if not the best performance of the season to win this 4th Round Konicka Minolta game at Church Bank on Saturday.
The All Blacks had things very much their own way in the 41-12 win back in September and won at home in early December but on their return to Church Bank, they met a side that has improved enormously over the season. “We knew after scraping through 11-10 against them on December 6 that the Drovers would be up for this one and we are hugely delighted to come away with a win.” said coach Rowland Phillips.
Home coach Iestyn Thomas was bitterly disappointed at the result, in the light of the chances that Llandovery had at the end, but was the sporting first to wish Neath well. “If they play with the same composure in the ensuing rounds, then the double is definitely on.” said Thomas. “As for us, we can look forward to the rest of the Premiership season with confidence. We have 12 games remaining, six home, six away and the aim must be to finish in the top half, a position that the efforts and commitment of the players and all the staff demands.” added the coach.
In front of a big crowd of 2000, the game was a tremendous advert for the quality and competitiveness of the Premiership and the heaving clubhouse was abuzz with the vibrancy and tension of the battle.
That Neath won was down to the greater creativity and with more clinical finishing in the second half could have stretched their lead beyond recall. The All Blacks scored two fine tries, the result of good ball winning, accurate and fast handling and great finishing by young centre John Leyshon who formed a very promising combination with Wayne Mitchell.
Scrummaging hard thanks to the efforts of ex Llandovery skipper Paul Jones, Darren Poland and Andy Howell and well served in the loose by Poland, flanker John McPhail and galloping No 8 Hywel Jenkins, the All Blacks claimed a 10-9 interval lead. A Leyshon try after intense pressure on the home line plus a conversion and penalty from fly half Matthew Jones had trumped three penalties by Wales U19 full back Ricky Williams.
A Jones penalty was then followed by a fine Neath try started by Jones, Poland and Jenkins and ending in a beautiful angled run and pass from Mitchell to put Leyshon side stepping through. Jones converted to make it 20-9 and Neath should have scored another two tries to put Llandovery to bed. Howell was held up just short before a huge overlap was squandered before Llandovery, true to their fighting tradition and fitness levels, came roaring back, encouraged by Williams’s fourth penalty.
With 12 minutes to go right wing Ifan Evans showed why he is so highly fancied to get a Welsh U21 cap in the New Year when he was worked away by a quick Williams pass to race clear, chip the cover and outstrip the defence for a solo try that brought the stand to its feet.
Williams converted and roared on by the big crowd, the Drovers pack took over. With the captain flanker Ceri Davies, lock Arwel Davies and flanker Eifion Gwynne punching hard at the Neath defence, Williams was given the chance to win the game with a 35 metre penalty only for the kick to shave the post.
The defensive expertise of replacements Brett Sinkinson and Rowland Phillips proved vital in the closing stages as Llandovery threw the kitchen sink at the Black wall. Home Fly half Neil Clapham just missed a drop goal and the relief was all Neath’s at the end of the toughest of Cup ties which was a credit to the energy and quality of both sides.
At one stage or another on Saturday there were 8 past pupils of Llandovery College in action. Full back Ricky Williams, prop Jack Bennett, wing Jamie Roberts, centre Rhodri Davies were joined in the Drovers line up by replacements centre Ioan Davies and lock Tom Walker. Neath centre Wayne Mitchell and fly half Matthew Jones were both WRU scholars at the college in 2000-2001.