By: Paul Hopkins
The All Whites survived a late onslaught by a dogged Neath side to record a narrow 27-22 victory at a rainy Gnoll.
The two sides resumed acquaintances for a first competitive match in five years with Neath’s last victory over their rivals coming in April 2017 thanks to a personal haul of 12 points by full back Edd Howley.
The Morriston choir warmed up the crowd with a selection of Christmas favourites as both sides looked to gain some impetus following difficult starts to the season.
In the opening exchanges, centre Ryan Evans burst through the middle as Neath looked to attack with some intent and prop Jack Powell was stopped in his tracks by a determined defence, but the visitors were penalised for offside. Fly half Steff Williams kicked his side into the lead.
A well-weighted box kick by scrum half Elis Horgan was almost taken by Fergus Kneath but the flanker took his eye off the ball to gift Swansea a scrum mid-way between half way and the 22, although the visitors’ pack gave away a free kick at the set piece.
Centre Osian Knott failed to deal with a high kick and this time it was the home side awarded a scrum, but just two metres short of the Swansea 22. An excellent scrum by the home pack earned a penalty so Steff Williams doubled the Neath lead.
Fergus Kneath palmed a lineout straight into the hands of prop Ellis Fackrell, giving the All Whites a first real taste of possession. The visitors were penalised for offside and fly half Rhys Jones found touch just shy of the Neath 22.
Lock Lloyd Ashley took the lineout and a superb rolling maul created space in the backline with winger Morgan Rees looping around a defender to send full back Gareth O Rees over for a try. Rhys Jones converted.
Winger Ryan Griffiths raced into the Swansea 22 as Neath looked to respond immediately, but hooker Owen Thomas stole possession with Rhys Jones able to clear.
Lock Matthew Davies spilled a lineout and a chip ahead forced full back Lewis Evans into a hurried clearance, which he miscued straight into touch to give the visitors an attacking lineout.
The Swansea pack formed a rolling maul, which was taken down illegally by Neath, so Rhys Jones kicked his side four points ahead.
Gareth O Rees came to within metres of a 50/22, but his opposite number Lewis Evans was only able to clear up to the 22 anyway. Another maul formed and this time Owen Thomas broke away and raced clear to score a try in the corner. Rhys Jones converted.
Lewis Evans took a quick tap free kick and made 20 metres upfield, forcing the Whites’ defence to give away an offside penalty. A patient build up by the Neath forwards almost saw flanker Ben Williams power through the defence, but he lost possession. Play was brought back for a Neath penalty, but Steff Williams turned down the kickable chance to chip into the corner.
Owen Thomas initially turned over possession but was penalised for holding on after the tackle, before a quick tap penalty kept the home side on the attack, but prop Tim Ryan was tackled backwards. Neath came again through Ben Williams, but he lost possession forward over the line.
Number eight Morgan Kneath cleanly took the lineout and Swansea were again penalised for an offside offence, but this time Steff Williams chose to kick at goal, and was successful with his three pointer.
Neath looked to spread play inside their own half and a clever grubber kick by Steff Williams could have been more fruitful for winger James Roberts, but the bounce eluded him into touch.
Lock Matt Dodd lost a lineout inside his own half and a long pass out wide saw Griffiths race up to the 22, but he lost the ball forward, signalling half time.
Half-time:- Neath 9-17 Swansea
The visitors took the initiative after the interval and built up an attack that reached the Neath 22. The home side gave away a penalty, which Rhys Jones successful kicked to extend the Whites’ lead back up to 11 points.
Scrum half Gareth J Rees superbly hassled his opposite number Horgan at the base of the scrum, with the visitors awarded a penalty that Rhys Jones kicked for territory. Owen Thomas’ throw wasn’t straight though.
Swansea illegally brought down a player at the lineout so a booming Steff Williams kick fund touch on the opposing 22. Morgan Kneath and centre Kristian Jones tried to power through but were well tackled.
Then a cynical professional foul saw replacement prop Cameron B Jones yellow carded. Flanker Sam Pailor was also sent to the sin bin for speaking out of turn, and following all this melee, Steff Williams kicked a penalty goal.
Neath gained a turnover with Davies and Roberts powering forward and the home side were awarded a penalty when the visitors crept offside. Steff Williams chipped found touch deep inside the Swansea 22. Fergus Kneath took the lineout and the Neath pack rolled towards the line, but a knock on brought an end to the move.
The All Blacks came again when Morgan Kneath burst out of a tackle and fed Jones, who stretched over to score under the posts. Steff Williams converted to bring his side back to within a point.
A superb chip ahead by prop Jack Powell forced Swansea back inside their 22, but they managed to survive the onslaught with Gareth O Rees marking a high Steff Williams kick.
Morgan Kneath powered forward with the supporting Horgan racing 20 metres upfield. Griffiths looked to have scored out wide but was tackled into touch a metre short of the line.
The elusive Morgan Kneath again tried to make yards from a scrum, but was tackled, and the All Whites cleared long, almost in spectacular fashion as Morgan Rees nearly took Rhys Jones’ miscued kick, but lost the ball forward.
Replacement prop Ed Thompson made a break following a Neath mistake, but a poor pass by Rhys Jones almost saw Steff Williams hack the ball downfield to create a dangerous chance, but flanker Lloyd Evans bravely scavenged possession on the ground.
Substitute number eight Alex Ashton took a lineout on half way but lost possession forward, although Ben Williams was penalised for holding on after the tackle. Replacement Keillen Cullen missed his effort at goal though.
Swansea looked the brighter of the teams in the final few minutes with Neath unable to gain any useful possession. Instead, the All Whites managed the game really well with Cameron B Jones powering up to the 22, before centre Joe Thomas weaved his way up to within five metres of the line, but play was brought back for an early penalty.
The visitors looked to have sealed victory when Cullen found touch a few metres from the line and an excellent rolling maul saw Owen Thomas power over for a try. Cullen converted.
In the dying seconds, the visitors gave away a penalty in front of the posts and Steff Williams was successful with his effort of goal to claim a losing bonus point for his side.
Next up for Neath is a home derby match against Aberavon, while Swansea travel to Bridgend, who’ll be looking to avenge last week’s cup defeat.
Full-time:- Neath 22-27 Swansea
Tries:- Kristian Jones (59)
Cons:- Steff Williams (60)
Pens:- Steff Williams (4, 8, 39, 50, 80+8)
Tries:- Gareth O Rees (13), Owen Thomas (21, 80+3)
Cons:- Rhys Jones (14, 22, 80+4)
Pens:- Rhys Jones (19, 43)
Yellow cards:- Cameron B Jones (50), Sam Pailor (50)
Venue:- Lextan Gnoll, Neath
Weather:- Drizzle, 11C
Referee:- Ben Connor
Man of the match:- Owen Thomas
15 Lewis Evans
14 James Roberts (rep: Louis Rees 68)
13 Ryan Evans ©
12 Kristian Jones (rep: Keiran Charles 68)
11 Ryan Griffiths
10 Steff Williams
9 Elis Horgan (rep: Gruff Williams 80+1)
1 Jack Powell (rep: Mason Morgan 80+5)
2 Sion Crocker (rep: Josh Clark 80+1)
3 Tim Ryan
4 Jacob Blackmore
5 Matthew Davies
6 Fergus Kneath (rep: Dyfan Caredig 80+1)
7 Ben Williams
8 Morgan Kneath
16 Josh Clark
17 Mason Morgan
18 Elis Hopkins
19 Thomas John
20 Dyfan Caredig
21 Gruff Williams
22 Keiran Charles
23 Louis Rees
15 Gareth O Rees
14 Brandon Wood (rep: Kyle Hamer 56-64, Matthew Jenkins 76)
13 Joe Thomas
12 Osian Knott
11 Morgan Rees
10 Rhys Jones (rep: Keillen Cullen 71)
9 Gareth J Rees (rep: Dan Roderick 68)
1 Garyn Phillips (rep: Cameron B Jones 32)
2 Owen Thomas
3 Ellis Fackrell (rep: Ed Thompson 64)
4 Lloyd Ashley
5 Matt Dodd
6 Sam Pailor (rep: Cai Davies 64)
7 Lloyd Evans
8 Joe Greaves (rep: Alex Ashton 64)
16 Kyle Hamer
17 Cameron B Jones
18 Ed Thompson
19 Alex Ashton
20 Cai Davies
21 Dan Roderick
22 Keillen Cullen
23 Matthew Jenkins