John leads Pontypridd's great escape

SWALEC CUP FINAL at Cardiff Arms Park
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The Independent Online

A fitting finale allowed Nigel Bezani, at the ripe old age of 39, to lift the Swalec Cup for Pontypridd for the first time after they had turned a 22-9 deficit into a famous victory. "The devil vomited on our laps," Lyn Jones, Neath's forward coach, said. It was one way of putting it.

"Pontypridd played some excellent rugby and were more tactically aware than us," Jones said. Accurate on both counts. In a remarkable final, Neath scored three tries in the space of 10 minutes either side of half-time but ultimately paid a severe penalty for the loss of Paul Williams who went off with an arm injury in the 27th minute. Neath had no reserve stand-off and nobody with the experience or nous of Neil Jenkins to control the game. Nor, indeed, anybody to kick goals or even find touch.

Geraint Evans, the left wing, was moved to stand-off and with Patrick Horgan trying to protect his new partner, Pontypridd did not so much turn the tables as reduce them to matchwood. "Even when we were 13 points down I knew we would come back because they had profited not so much from their own play as our mistakes," Dennis John, the Pontypridd coach, said.

At the heart of the great escape was Dennis's son, Paul John. While Horgan was attempting to play two roles, John had such an influential second half that he was named man of the match although he was run close for that particular honour by Steele Lewis and Mark Rowley. Pontypridd's three-man line-out became increasingly effective and with Rowley getting the better of Gareth Llewellyn, John's appetite for the counter-attack was suitably fed.

"That was one easy lesson in how to throw a game away," Llewellyn, the Neath captain said. "We let ourselves down. The game was there to be wrapped up and we didn't do it. We kicked virtually every ball straight to them when we should have been kicking to the corners."

If Neath were kicking themselves, such was their standard in this department they would almost certainly have missed their own backsides.

At the point at which they had scored four tries to nil, Neath turned to John Funnell to attempt a conversion and the ball was so badly miskicked it did not even threaten the corner flag. "We know our limitations when it comes to kicking and we try to play around them," Lyn Jones said. "The trouble is that in the big games there is no hiding place." Even so, at 22-9 up Jones admitted: "I was tying the ribbons around the cup."

To emphasise Pontypridd's belief that a good old boy will beat a good young 'un, Jenkins contributed 14 points taking his total in five cup games to 102. While Neath did not have sufficient cover for Paul Williams, Pontypridd were bemoaning the loss of Lee Jarvis, Jenkins's understudy. The mere mention of Jarvis's name had the effect of wiping the smile off Dennis John's face. Pontypridd are furious at the departure of the 19-year-old Jarvis, an outstanding prospect and a home-nurtured player, to Cardiff. John thought the move was "morally wrong" and added: "We have looked after Lee and given him excellent support. He has never given us anything back.

"We don't have much money which is why we develop our own players. I hope that this victory will draw some people to the club."

When John referred to Neath benefiting from Pontypridd's mistakes he had in mind the first try scored by Leigh Davies and the third by Horgan. Both were the indirect result of a misconception by Pontypridd, namely a fear of the Neath line-out.

To avoid giving Neath the throw-in they were determined to keep the ball in play under almost any circumstances. Thus David Manley's frantic pass near the touchline to Crispin Cormack which gave Davies his chance and a similar effort from Dale McIntosh which was intercepted by Horgan.

McIntosh and Steve Williams had a tremendous duel at No 8 and when the latter breached the gain line from a scrum in the opening move of the second half, Horgan went over for his second try and the ribbon around the cup looked for all the world as if it would be all black.

That Pontypridd could score 20 points without reply says an immense amount for their spirit, fitness and almost fanatical respect for the leadership of the old warrior, Bezani. "I know they were the younger side but I think Neath had gone in the last 20 minutes," Bezani said.

Mentally and tactically, if not physically, the Welsh All Blacks lost the plot. "Life's a bitch and then you die," a crestfallen Llewellyn said. Not quite as colourful as the devil's rainbow but this was a particularly sickening result for the Neath captain who may play at the Arms Park again but not in a Welsh Cup final. In his case a lucrative move to Harlequins makes life a rich bitch but before that he has to lift Neath, second in the Heineken League, to another challenge - against Pontypridd on 14 May.

Pontypridd: C Cormack; D Manley, J Lewis, S Lewis, G Lewis; N Jenkins, Paul John; N Bezani (capt), Phil John, N Eynon, G Prosser, M Rowley, M Lloyd, D McIntosh, R Collins. Replacement: M Spiller for McIntosh (74).

Neath: Richard Jones; C Higgs, L Davies, J Funnell, G Evans; P Williams, P Horgan; D Morris, B Williams, J Davies, Glyn Llewellyn, Gareth Llewellyn (capt), Robin Jones, S Williams, I Boobyer. Replacement: H Woodland for P Williams (27).

Referee: D Bevan(Clydach).