Neath's Hill feat blues

Neath 26 Cardiff 27
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The Independent Online
As sure as black is black, the harsh new realities of professional rugby union are hitting Neath with all the force of a flanker in full flight.

Yesterday, all the physical grit and determination of the Welsh All Blacks was not quite enough to counter the financial clout of Cardiff. Neath's raw, hungry talent failed in the dying moments to a side assembled from the very best that is available in Welsh rugby.

In the final minutes of the game, the Wales A and Cardiff outside-half Lee Jarvis converted a last gasp try by the Wales and Cardiff wing Simon Hill to snatch the game.

Hill had looked a strong and enterprising runner throughout the afternoon, scoring his other try earlier in the second half. The third Cardiff try came from the Wales full-back Justin Thomas. All three tries were converted by Jarvis, the only man in the Cardiff back division without a full cap.

It emphasised the difficulty faced by Neath, a town that has seen better days now that employment in coal and steel has declined. The town has always lived and breathed rugby and loved and bred rugby players, but now their stars are being lured away to richer places - like Cardiff.

For much of yesterday's game Neath's new blood and the remnants from last year's squad after the summer transfers performed heroically to keep them ahead until all but the very end.

The Neath pack hunted like mad dogs. They tore into Cardiff, knocking them back in the ruck and maul. The traditional Neath method of moving fast and hitting hard simply knocked the glossier Cardiff side out of its stride.

They scored three tries and conceded none in the first period, a half in which the Neath back row rampaged about the Gnoll as though they owned it. The No 8 Steve Williams and flanker Ian Boobyer each battered their way over to leave Cardiff gasping.

Left-wing Barry Grabham got the third Neath try, albeit with some luck - he tripped over himself but recovered before the two Cardiff defenders between him and the line ran in to each other. The Neath full-back Geraint Davies converted one of the tries and kicked a couple of penalties.

The margin was not enough because Cardiff revealed the class for which the players are paid. With the pack refusing to buckle, the backs changed direction, spreading the ball wider. Leigh Davies, the Cardiff and Wales (formerly Neath and Wales) centre, with his bristling running and telling distribution, was crucial. And as time wore on, Neath wore out; the Cardiff tries came and Neath's hopes went.

It was a sign of the times that a prosperous club that can afford to assemble a galaxy of stars should ultimately triumph over a proud, poorer club.

One of the main sponsors of yesterday's game was Larkin Thomson, the barbers by the station ("Appointments not necessary," as the tannoy kept saying). With all respect to the Larkin Thompson product, the business can't quite compete with the big commercial moneybags and conglomerates that finance English rugby.

It would be nice if Neath could defy professionalism and the toll it takes on poor areas. Yesterday, they nearly did - but these days "nearly won" is a synonym for "lost".

Neath: G Davies (D Morris, 43; C Bridges 52); C Higgs, G Evans, D Hawkins, B Grabham; P Williams, P Horgan; L Gerrard, B Williams, J Davies (capt), M Glover, A Kembery, G Newman, S Williams, I Boobyer.

Cardiff: J Thomas; S Hill, L Davies, M Hall, N Walker; L Jarvis, R Howley; D Young, J Humphreys, A Lewis, J Wakeford, K Stewart, M Bennett, H Taylor (capt), J Ringer.

Referee: D Davies (Llanbradach).