Rugby Union: Howley's solo efforts in vain

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Neath. . . . . .33

Bridgend. . .15

IT WAS billed as 'the underdogs' semi-final' - a mere sideshow with the victors offered the dubious honour of being slaughtered in the Swalec Cup final in a fortnight.

In fact, it turned out as a scintillating and absorbing struggle between two fine sides with completely different styles, a contest between the rapier of Bridgend's astute backs and the bludgeon of Neath's fearsome forwards.

Strength it was, though, that won at Stradey Park. Neath triumphed with a pattern of robust forward play and strong-running backs that kept them on top of Welsh rugby throughout the 1980s.

Their first three tries were all in this same mould of relentless foraging in the loose, with the backs then liberated. The wings Steve Bowling, with two tries, and James Reynolds, with one, had the space and the pace to capitalise.

And after an hour of merciless pressure, Bridgend finally crumpled. From the whirlwind that buffeted them first the full-back, Paul Thorburn, and then the outside-half, Matthew McCarthy, emerged to cross and take Neath on into the final on the Saturday after next.

Bridgend had fought against the onslaught tenaciously, always looking for the chance to run round the great Neath juggernaut.

Nobody was more alert to the main chance than the Bridgend scrum-half, Robert Howley, looking like a class act who might just see his side through. First he collected the rebound from a charged-down drop-kick and sprinted 80 yards. Then, half an hour later, he tore down the blind side of a ruck to score, again when Bridgend seemed in danger of losing touch.

But Howley's inspiration was ultimately not enough against collective Neath might. Whether that power will be enough to lift the trophy remains to be seen.

Underdogs, as Neath will clearly be, can give a nasty bite, but on the evidence at Llanelli yesterday they remain vulnerable to any side with solid forwards and the imagination and skill in the backs to use the ball.

Neath: P Thorburn; J Reynolds, A Donovan, H Woodland, S Bowling; M McCarthy, R Jones; B Williams, A Thomas, J Davies, Glyn Llewellyn, Gareth Llewellyn (capt), M Morris, S Williams, A Varney.

Bridgend: C Bradshaw; G Webbe, P Wintle, L Evans, G Wilkins; M Lewis, R Howley (N Flay, 79 min); D Rees, I Greenslade, R Shaw, S Jenkins, A Gwilym, S Bryant, N Spender, D Bryant (capt; O Lloyd, 62 min).

Referee: R Yeman (Taibach).

Scorers: Bowling (try, 1 min, 5-0); Howley / Evans (try / con, 13 min, 5-7); Bowling (try, 23 min, 10-7); Evans (pen, 27 min, 10-10); Howley (try, 37 min, 10-15); Thorburn (pen, 40 min, 13-15); Thorburn (pen, 58 min, 16-15); Reynolds (try, 69 min, 21-15); Thorburn (try, 76 min, 26-15); McCarthy / Thorburn (try / con, 82 min, 33-15).