Neath stray from the faith

Click to follow
The Independent Online
As semi-finals of anything have a reputation for being - almost by deliberate design - a let-down, perhaps the Swalec semi in which Neath precariously made their way past Newport by 24-22 was bound to provide an imperfect view of the most exciting club side in these islands.

This is a big compliment to pay to a bunch of callow youths who in some respects play their rugby as if they were at school - and you can take that as either a compliment or an insult. Neath are as fresh but also as fallible as any schoolboy who imagines rugby to be as carefree as a run (and pass but preferably not a kick) in a field.

That said, they have turned themselves into an attacking phenomenon and will decorate European rugby next season. For now, though, there is unbounded relief that they have reached as far as the final against Pontypridd at Cardiff Arms Park on 4 May. At the club ground next door Patrick Horgan's fourth penalty, after 79 min 45 sec, eked out a 24-22 advantage that on the one hand should have been much more and on the other was ample reward after Gareth Rees's own fourth for Newport three minutes earlier.

Given that Newport had succumbed 65-23 at The Gnoll just a fortnight previously, this was a lesson for Neath - though, in fact, none of them is still at school - that nothing in rugby can be taken for granted. It's simple really: their startling rise to the top of the Heineken League was achieved by playing rugby of the most liberated kind, whereas their near-departure from the Swalec Cup occurred because they temporarily lost that faith.

"It's like talking to the kids in the house: you tell them one thing and they do another," Brian Thomas, Neath's rugby director, chided. Daryll Jones, their coach, agreed that it had been contrary and counter-productive to decelerate the game when Neath's strength - as revealed in the stampede of 94 tries compared with last season's paltry total of 33 which have taken them up the league - is to accelerate as hard as possible.

Jones should know, since in his time he has taught most of the kids who now make up his Neath team. He is master in charge of rugby at Neath Tertiary College, an institution remembered outside Wales for winning the Rosslyn Park Schools' Sevens and alma mater of every one of Saturday's back division (average age 22 because Chris Higgs is 28).

Jones is a product of the enlightenment. His school teams exclusively play the open game and he expects his adult teams to overcome the cynicism of opponents and do likewise. "I don't believe in keeping the game tight," he said. "This isn't frivolous or nonsense rugby. It should be very controlled. But you do have to do it at speed."

It was curious, then, that here Neath quite deliberately played otherwise, and by slowing the speed they directly assisted Newport's more ponderous forwards. Now we shall see if the recent ex-schoolboys learn the lesson. Pontypridd will be better, if no more stubborn, opposition than Newport and if Neath try to take them on with the close-quarters, mauling rugby that played into the eager hands of Newport's obdurate defenders, they will forfeit their chance.

They nearly did against Newport because they made as bad a beginning as it is possible to make when Richard Jones changed the direction of the kick-off and, after picking out Richard Rees as if he had meant it, then had to watch as the former Neath wing ran straight to the line for a try in 12 seconds. It is scarcely possible to score more swiftly.

Newport could not have planned it better if they had taken the kick-off - though even Gareth Rees, whose fondest memory of Cardiff is booting Wales to defeat for Canada in 1992, would have been gratified to be as unerring as Jones. Once he had converted, Newport's duties became relentlessly defensive with the occasional relief of a breakout which tended to end with Rees kicking a penalty or dropping a goal.

It was an epic rearguard by underdogs who had played this status for all it was worth. Rees was unerring in accruing 17 points and though Neath did enough for a collectively created try by Darren Morris in the first half and a superb individual one by the underutilised Leigh Davies in the second, Newport were understandably happier to concede penalties than tries and Horgan had neither Rees's accuracy nor his range.

Still, it worked out for him in the end. Afterwards Rees complained at Gareth Simmonds's "lop-sided" adverse penalty-count (21-9), though given the pressure Neath exerted it was no surprise Newport should persistently offend.

Eventually, Newport had not Simmonds but a touch-judge to thank for the penalty with which Rees put them ahead for the last time.

There was never much doubt that Rees would hit the bull's-eye but you would not have put your house on Horgan, who engagingly admitted that the occasion had got to him, then making his kick from 45 yards. "It's difficult to play when the penalty-count is that way," Rees said. Daryll Jones might have replied that it's difficult to play when the opposition is infringing that way.

Last season Jones coached Aberavon to promotion from the Second Division; this season he came home to Neath and brought four members of Saturday's back line with him.

Loyalty, though, is a two-edged sword and the coming of professionalism has given impressionable young men a new priority to consider in their rugby lives.

So this Neath team may not develop, as other things being equal it should, into one of the finest in Europe because the salaries available elsewhere mean it will not exist and another will have to be developed. Jones perforce recognises that the magnificent Llewellyn brothers, London-bound, are probably only the start.

Neath: Tries Morris, L Davies; Conversion Horgan; Penalties Horgan 4. Newport: Try R Rees; Conversion G Rees; Penalties G Rees 4; Drop goal G Rees.

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, J Burnell, I Boobyer.

Newport: S Davies; R Rees, D Hughes, A Palfrey, M Llewellyn; G Rees, J Hewlett; R Snow, A Peacock, S Cronk, M Voyle, K Moseley, M Workman, R Goodey (capt), D Gray.

Referee: G Simmonds (Cardiff).