Neath recover their prestige with breathtaking new style

Steve Bale on the revival of Pontypridd's opponents in Saturday's Swalec Cup final
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The statistics of Neath's return to eminence in Welsh rugby are not quite as breathtaking as the rugby that has caused them. But even so, they tell an astonishing story of how the youngest team representing Wales' oldest club stormed towards Saturday's Swalec Cup final against Pontypridd. The also lead the Heineken League.

In fact, Cardiff are well-placed to remove Neath from the top by the time an attenuated season ends on 14 May, but the transformation from try-shy anti-heroes - remember the Springboks' visit - into a try-scoring phenomenon in one season has been a rapturous affirmation of rugby in all its glory.

Who would have believed it that the team everyone beyond The Gnoll loved to hate is now so widely admired? Last season Neath amassed all of 33 tries in their 22 First Division fixtures. This season the aggregate is already 104, still with two games to go. But for an uncertain beginning when a callow bunch of youngsters were familiarising themselves with each other and their new-wave rugby, the title would by now be theirs.

Still, the cup would be more than mere consolation if Cardiff do the expected. "This is already a successful season, and we haven't won anything yet," Neath's coach, Darryl Jones, said yesterday. "We have developed a pattern of rugby with young people who are ready to take us forward playing this way for the next five years.

"My policy has never been anything but to play fast and open rugby and I'm happy to say this is the type of rugby that suits the players we have. After all, you can only play the game if you have the players able and willing to do it."

This is less of a cliche than it sounds. There is not a coach in the land who does not notionally embrace "fast and open rugby", but then its implement- ation is another matter. The point about Jones is that he has already spent a quarter of a century successfully implementing this ambition as a schoolmaster; his triumph is in translating the general principle into the specifically less accommodating world of adult rugby.

Last season he dipped his toe in the water by coaching Aberavon to the Second Division championship. This season he came home, thereby fulfilling a lifetime aspiration and bringing a bevy of his school old boys from Aberavon to Neath to join others already there. The majority of the Neath back division - including the Wales centre Leigh Davies - are aged just 20 or 21.

Beyond Neath, Jones is remembered as the obscure outside-half who led Oxford in the centenary University match of 1972 when Tim Seymour, the Dark Blues captain, was injured. Jones, a very mature student, was at Oxford on a postgraduate course when he played one game for the Greyhounds before being dropped and asked to coach the Blues.

Injuries then caused him to play in Oxford's penultimate pre-Varsity match against Gloucester and in Seymour's absence his second appearance was at Twickenham as both captain and 30-year-old freshman Blue. Oxford lost, Jones went back to Neath and has since coached Neath Grammar School, Dwr-y-Felin Comprehensive and Neath College, successive manifestations of the same illustrious rugby institution.

The latter has won the British colleges' competition 11 times and the Rosslyn Park Schools' Sevens three times under Jones's tutelage. Mind you, guru status in schools' rugby does not equate with the same at senior level and Jones would concede that it has taken him and his players - eight of the cup-final team are Neath College old boys - all of this season to come to terms with what could politely be called the cynicism of opposing defences.

"Teams try to stop us at schools' level as well but we've been playing this adventurous, explosive rugby much longer so have our methods to counteract it," he said. "We are getting there with Neath too. It's a great challenge for a coach to devise how we stop them stopping us but Neath have shown often enough that it can be done.

"We have to recognise that we won't do it all the time, so the team also have to be capable of doing something different. Fortunately we have the forwards to change the game and drive us forward, but I have to say that my way of playing rugby is the only way for me and if people think they can prevent you by infringing all the time we'll just have to do it that much better."

Occasionally but decreasingly - not least in the semi-final against Newport which Neath required Patrick Horgan's last-minute penalty to win - things do not work out to Jones's plan. This would matter less if it were not for the asset-strippers for whom The Gnoll seems to represent Eldorado in rugby's new entrepreneurial age.

Darryl Jones is looking at a brilliant prospect five years hence when his talented tiros have all matured but already the Llewellyn brothers are about to leave for London and who knows who else might soon find a fast buck more attractive than fast and open rugby?