Rugby Union: Simmonds freed by action replay after a night in jail: Referee vindicated over Lewis' cup-winning drop goal for Llanelli - Hopley turns tide to lead defeat of Northampton at Twickenham

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HALLELUJAH, Gareth Simmonds was saying on a rainy Sunday morning, for television replays. To the bitter end - and the end was bitter - Welsh rugby's season had been plunged in acrimony. But then a second viewing of the controversial winning moments handsomely vindicated the referee. His apology, never more than provisional, for allowing Emyr Lewis's drop goal has been duly retracted.

The 22nd Welsh, and first Swalec, Cup final had been a thrilling example of outsider galloping neck and neck with favourite. Never mind; what ultimately seemed to matter was that the Scarlets, cup winners three times in a row and nine in all, had bogusly beaten the Blacks. Not so.

That Llanelli should have had the drop on Neath through a No 8, though as singular an occurrence as rugby could offer, became almost incidental because Lewis's bizarre inspiration followed a free-kick and nowadays the ball has first to have gone dead or been touched by an opponent before a goal may be dropped. On Saturday night everyone - even, in his heavy heart, Simmonds - assumed the worst.

Enter BBC Wales to reveal that Brian Williams and John Davies of Neath got their hands on the ball as Phil Davies drove forward. It then went out to Lewis via Rupert Moon. These were defining as well as decisive moments, exemplifying as they did a Neath grievance against the referee that went beyond whether or not he was right in that decision.

Our words can return to haunt us. As the dust settled Neath could not be mollified, however diplomatic Leighton Davies, their coach, tried to be: 'I feel very disappointed that the game should be lost on that decision but I do sympathise with the referee that in the heat of the moment mistakes are made.' Or not, as the case may be.

In fact Simmonds was ready for his chastisement. 'If it was a mistake, it cost Neath the game and will live with me for a long time,' he said at the time. By yesterday this had become: 'I felt covered in sackcloth and ashes because so many people were telling me a mistake had been made that I was beginning to believe it myself. But having viewed it again, I see no reason to alter the decision.'

At the same time Simmonds remains profoundly hurt by the accusation of the Neath captain, Gareth Llewellyn, that his refereeing was always anti-Black: 'The times Gareth Simmonds has refereed Neath this season, it's difficult to understand some of the decisions he makes without thinking he is perhaps biased in some way.'

Simmonds said he would not respond to this other than to Llewellyn in person. But Neath did have a more general grumble: in their mad scramble they were out-penalised 21-9, were unfortunate with the award of Llanelli's second try and should have had a kickable, possibly equalising penalty for a late tackle with the last kick of the match.

Alas for Welsh rugby, which badly needs to accentuate the positive. This was a marvellous match in front of 50,000 which warranted celebration. Lewis, meanwhile, could explain the first drop-goal attempt of his career only as 'panic'. 'In totally embarrassing himself he has won us the cup,' his coach, Gareth Jenkins, said.

What had gone before was superbly unpredictable, nothing like the routine victory Llanelli insisted they never expected even after their prolific charge to the league title. 'We knew exactly what it was going to be like; we've all been through the Neath experience before,' Rupert Moon, the Scarlets' captain, shuddered.

Neath had comprehensively studied Llanelli's strengths and weaknesses, and put in fantastic forward performance headed by the man-of- the-match award-winner Llewellyn and Adrian Varney, complemented by outside-half Matthew McCarthy and the hesitancy under pressure of the Scarlet backs.

Llanelli scored one splendid Ieuan Evans try, Lyn Jones providing the vital continuity which switched the movement from left to right, and another by the Lions wing that should not have been, Nigel Davies scrabbling illicitly for the loose ball after tackling Steve Bowling. Evans has been a try-getter in each of Llanelli's last five finals.

In the second half Bowling picked his way through threadbare Llanelli tackling for Neath's first try and their second enjoyed the benefit of a forward pass from McCarthy to Paul Thorburn - or so Llewellyn confessed. It was that kind of day.

Jenkins, retiring after 11 years as Llanelli coach in order to concentrate on helping coach Wales, knows that his team's double and league averages of 41 points and six tries were as misleading as they were impressive. Welcoming Neath's resurgence, he said: 'We've got to question the value of this year's Division One. It was totally unbalanced.

'It suggests there isn't enough depth in the league and we have to look outside Wales for realistic opposition.' So Llanelli got fed up with running in half-centuries and would prefer to get into bed with the best of the English and maybe the French. Over to the administrators - which means it could take years.

Llanelli: Tries I Evans 2; Conversion Stephens; Penalties Stephens 2; Drop goal Lewis. Neath: Tries Bowling, Varney; Conversion Thorburn; Penalties Thorburn 2.

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, Glyn Llewellyn, Gareth Llewellyn (capt), M Morris, S Williams, A Varney.

Referee: G Simmonds (Cardiff).

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