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By: Paul Hopkins
Old foes Swansea and Neath served up a thrilling draw at St Helen’s in a feast of open rugby.
Neath full back Ed Howley slotted home a penalty goal with the last kick of the game, which also condemned the All Whites to bottom place in their third successive Premiership campaign.
The visitors could have taken the lead inside the first minute when the home side were guilty of failing to roll away after the tackle, but Howley missed his effort at goal.
Neath did take the lead moments later when scrum half Reuben Morgan-Williams spotted a gap in the middle of the lineout, which he raced through and touched down unopposed between the sticks. Howley converted.
Flanker Jordan Collier was penalised for offside at the ruck after he made a bone crunching tackle on opposite number Jon Vaughan. Fly half Phil Jones kicked possession to the corner.
Lock Tudor Hughes collected the lineout and the pack mauled towards the line. Swansea got the ball to flanker Emyr Williams, who darted through a gap in the defence to score. Jones converted.
A superb link up by the Swansea backs was halted when prop Neil White was sin-binned for a high tackle on Emyr Williams.
The Whites took full advantage of the extra man when Hughes took another lineout and sent prop Richard Murphy charging forward to set up a platform for scrum half Rhodri Wells to score. Jones converted.
Swansea injected pace into an attack with centre Ryan Evans racing forward, before fellow centre David Watts was brought down on the twenty-two. Winger Joe Jenkins tried to continue the move, but had the ball ripped out of his hands.
The visitors grabbed a second try when Emyr Williams lost possession in contact and the All Blacks attacked through Collier, who eased past a tackle, before handing a scoring pass to lock Charlie Davies. Howley converted.
Winger Alec Jenkins looked to chip and chase, but full back Josh Martin held onto him in the tackle. Fly half Gavin Evans then wasted possession with a poorly executed grubber kick, but Emyr Williams was penalised for holding on in the tackle. Howley duly converted his effort at goal.
The All Blacks extended their lead when Swansea lost a lineout and Morgan-Williams made a sniping break over the twenty-two. The forwards were quick to get to the breakdown with Collier powering through and finding lock Rhys Jones on his shoulder for the try. Howley converted.
Watts made a typically industrious run into the Neath twenty-two and Hughes made further yards when he took a crash ball pass. The Blacks crept offside at the ruck and Jones made them pay with a penalty goal.
Half-time:- Swansea 17 Neath 24
After the interview the visitors were determined to open up a points gap and former All White lock Jon Barley powered forward, sending the supporting centre Matthew Pearce up to half way. However, the Swansea defence turned over the possession and cleared.
A superb grubber kick by Wells was chased down by Jenkins, but number eight Leon Ward watched it over the dead ball line.
It was to be one of the final contributions of Wells’ Swansea career as he was replaced after 52 minutes by Matthew Aubrey. The whole of St Helen’s rose to say farewell to the Whites’ last surviving player of the professional era.
Morgan-Williams and Alec Jenkins linked up with a clever grubber kick, but Martin got back to defend, albeit conceding a lineout inside his own twenty-two thanks to a pass back inside by Joe Jenkins.
From the resulting lineout, Ward made a break on the wing and created an overlap for Grabham to score. Howley’s conversion attempt sailed well wide of the post.
Gavin Evans and prop Ryan Thomas ran back at the Whites from the restart, but the supporting Davies was penalised for crossing.
Martin ventured into Neath territory, and found number eight Jon Fox in support. The visitors gave away a penalty, but Swansea failed to make the most of it.
A superb break out wide by winger Tom Williams saw the All Whites attack and Martin clung onto a difficult pass, only to be tackled a metre short of the line. However, the All Blacks’ defence was penalised for killing the ball and Jones opted to chip to the corner.
A powerful maul from the lineout saw replacement hooker Ricky Guest claim a try to give his side a lifeline in the match. Jones missed the conversion.
A poor overthrow at the lineout by replacement hooker Ifan Phillips saw the ball picked up by substitute flanker Ben Davies. A fantastic crossfield kick by Jones was plucked out of the air by Jenkins, who scored. Jones converted to tie the scores.
Another standing ovation then took place, this time for the popular Watts, who retired from rugby after 14 seasons at St Helen’s.
In search of victory, replacement scrum half Chris Morgans took a quick penalty, but he became isolated and held onto possession after the tackle. Jones kept his nerve to kick his side ahead deep inside injury time, much to the delight of the home supporters.
One last play remained and a clever restart forced the Whites to obstruct a chaser, giving the All Blacks a last gasp penalty attempt. With the last kick of the match Howley kept his nerve to rescue a draw for the visitors.
Swansea’s campaign has now come to an end, but Neath’s hopes of a second tier playoff spot remain alive – victory in their final home game against Bridgend would assure them a place in the top four.
Full-time:- Swansea 32 Neath 32
Tries:- Emyr Williams (14), Rhodri Wells (19), Ricky Guest (70), Joe Jenkins (74)
Cons:- Phil Jones (15, 20, 75)
Pens:- Phil Jones (35, 80+5)
Tries:- Reuben Morgan-Williams (9), Charlies Davies (23), Rhys Jones (32), Aaron Grabham (55)
Cons:- Ed Howley (10, 24, 33)
Pens:- Ed Howley (30, 80+7)
Yellow cards:- Neil White (18)
Venue:- St Helen’s, Swansea
Referee:- Simon Mills
Weather:- Partly cloudy, 12C
Man of the match:- Josh Martin
15 Josh Martin
14 Tom Williams
13 Ryan Evans
12 David Watts (rep: Jedd Evans 75)
11 Joe Jenkins
10 Phil Jones
9 Rhodri Wells (rep: Matthew Aubrey 52)
1 Richard Murphy (rep: Dan Kenny 71)
2 Ashleigh James (rep: Ricky Guest 56)
3 Sam Martin (rep: Fenton Holder 71)
4 Tudor Hughes
5 Gavin Ronan (rep: Jay Williams 80+2)
6 Jon Vaughan ©
7 Emyr Williams (rep: Ben Davies 52)
8 Jon Fox
16 Dan Kenny
17 Ricky Guest
18 Fenton Holder
19 Jay Williams
20 Ben Davies
21 Matthew Aubrey
22 Laurance Howley
23 Jedd Evans
15 Ed Howley
14 Aaron Grabham (rep: Geraint Jones 26-30)
13 Max Llewellyn
12 Matthew Pearce
11 Alec Jenkins
10 Gavin Evans
9 Reuben Morgan-Williams (rep: Chris Morgans 72)
1 Neil White (rep: Geraint James 63)
2 Sion Crocker (rep: Ifan Phillips 63)
3 Ryan Thomas (rep: Ben Uphill 63)
4 Rhys Jones
5 Jon Barley
6 Jordan Collier ©
7 Charlie Davies
8 Leon Ward
16 Ifan Phillips
17 Ben Uphill
19 Geraint James
18 Lyndon Bateman
20 Aled Ward
21 Chris Morgans
22 Iwan Evans
23 Kristian Corbisiero