Rugby Union: Lewis drops in to sink Neath

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Llanelli. . 21

Neath. . . .18

THE SCARLET ribbon was finally tied round the Swalec Cup but only after the fiercest tussle in a classic final at the National Ground in Cardiff as Llanelli had to fight every millimetre of the way to add the trophy to their League title.

In the end, Neath's heroic defiance was only overcome by the most unlikely drop goal by Emyr Lewis, a hulk of a forward who found for one inspired moment feet nimble enough to send the Cup back to Stradey Park for the ninth time.

It has now been in the cabinet there so often it must be wearing a groove in the shelf, and the rest of Wales may well despair that anything short of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission can deprive them of it.

Neath started their heroic attempt yesterday by deciding that the pundits who had placed them as also-rans even before the game began were talking twaddle. From the very start until the very end, the All-Black pack tore ferociously into the Scarlets like men possessed. Behind this fearsome machine, the full-back Paul Thorburn and Matthew McCarthy thumped teasing, rolling kicks deep into Llanelli territory for the forwards to follow.

But this irresistible force met the unstoppable object of a Llanelli pack that refused to bend. Phil Davies was immense in the Llanelli second row. He surged forward, knocking opponents from his path like mere irritants.

With little to choose between the front fives, the Llanelli edge came on the fringes. Mark Perego tackled like an American footballer; Lyn Jones, the other Llanelli flanker, continued to prove - if he needs to any more - that it's not size that counts.

He continued to defy his diminishing band of size-ist detractors by generating the try that broke open the tight Neath game. The scrum- half Rupert Moon darted forward in broken play, and Jones, of course, was backing up to free the ball for the Llanelli backs who had open space to exploit. The British Lions wing Ieuan Evans sauntered over to complete the overlap.

No more difficult was the Wales captain's second try: Llanelli's outside-half Colin Stephens put a ball up into the clouds, the defending winger Steve Bowling caught it together with the scarlet pack in over- drive. In the melee on the line, Evans simply fell on the ball to score.

So at half-time, everyone was sticking to the script. Neath were playing their allotted part of plucky, gritty underdogs to fight but ultimately lose; Llanelli were keeping to their role of skilful footballers who merely had to exert a bit more effort before collecting the trophy on which their names were already deeply engraved.

But someone somewhere decided to tear up the script. Back Neath came with two superb tries. First, Bowling broke a tackle to batter his way over. Five minutes later, McCarthy played the classic outside-half role, switching play to the blind-side and wrong-footing Llanelli in the process. Thorburn continued the attack, lobbing the ball inside for the flanker Adrian Varney to cross.

And if Neath could disregard the script, so could Llanelli. There is no more unlikely part than that of Emyr Lewis the drop-kicker. But so it was that this 6ft 4in, 16st 11lb No 8 put himself into the spotlight. From 25 yards, he dropped a goal of which any neat outside-half would be proud.

That was enough to keep Llanelli ahead and the Cup down at Stradey. It typified the thrill and unpredictability of a fine game. Scarlet and Black combined in classic style that lends hope of a genuine new dawn for Welsh rugby.

LLanelli: I Jones; I Evans, N Boobyer, N Davies, W Proctor; C Stephens, R Moon (capt); R Evans, A Lamerton, D Joseph, P Davies, A Copsey, M Perego, E Lewis, L Jones.

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

Referee: G Simmonds (Cardiff).

Scorers: Thorburn (pen, 8 min, 0-3); Evans (try, 26 min, 5-3); Evans / Stephens (try / con, 40 min, 12-3); Bowling (try, 45 min, 12-8); Stephens (pen, 48 min, 15-8); Varney / Thorburn (try / con, 50 min, 15-15); Stephens (pen, 52 min, 18-15); Thorburn (pen, 54 min, 18-18); Lewis (drop goal, 63 min, 21-18).