Neath undone by revolutionaries

Cardiff 16 Neath 12
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The internecine war ravaging Welsh rugby is focused on the number of clubs playing at the top and the distribution of money. Far healthier and positive in impact would be an investigation into the quality of play, the level of basic skills and the standard of coaching, if this match was anything to go by.

Cardiff triumphed in the end, thanks to a last-minute drop-goal from the replacement full-back, Nicky Robinson, and a more effective use of the biting easterly wind. But any claim to be superior than their perceived poorer relations from the west is grossly misplaced. Neath were the more dynamic in the first half with Duncan Jones, Roland Phillips and Barry Williams to the fore, but Cardiff turned matters around after the interval with Spencer John and Semo Sititi leading the way.

The Welsh are ever such a sensitive nation, especially when it comes to rugby. An appalling run of defeats against the Irish provinces in Celtic League and Heineken Cup matches, together with a miserable set of performances in the autumn internationals, has left the mandarins at the Welsh Rugby Union, led by the national coach Graham Henry, apoplectic with the domestic game's existing structure.

Change is demanded now, with no apparent scrutiny or appraisal of skill levels or, dare I say, of the abilities of national and club coaches. So the solution, according to their superficial analysis, is to chop the number of leading clubs, denying Welsh rugby of everything that has made it a strong brand and destroying the unique tribal environment in which competitive pride and passion have juxtaposed with the communities' talent base.

One of the casualties of this downsizing, change in direction, rationalisation, or whatever other polite term you wish to use, is that Neath, the Welsh All Blacks no less, will in all probability vanish from the surface of the professional rugby world despite having been one of the instigators and founder members of its parent body. That same body, the WRU, is now preparing unscrupulously to sanction and oversee Neath's last rites, in favour of six more fashionable clubs who seem hellbent on their own self-preservation.

The very origins of the union can be plausibly traced to the Castle Hotel in Neath back in 1881 at a recorded meeting convened specifically to consider forming such a body to govern and move forward the game in Wales.

Neath have been present ever since and even in modern times were the first winners of the Welsh Cup competition in the early Seventies and also the inaugural champions when the domestic league was established in 1990. All the prevaricating and assumed superiority of the "gang of six clubs'' added resonance to this clash at the Arms Park where Cardiff, one of the revolutionary half dozen, was seeking credibility as well as league points.

Creative Neath produced all the early positive action, based on quick release in the tackle and a well organised lineout. The visitors gained vast amounts of territory with their power-packed drives, but their finishing was abject with the wing Dave Tiueti ignored twice in breakaways when he was standing unopposed and in the clear.

Fly half Lee Jarvis opened the scoring in the 13th minute with a monster 55-metre penalty, and doubled Neath's lead a few minutes later with a wobbly 30 metre drop-goal.

Neath were certainly in the driving seat, the more cohesive and creative outfit, but Cardiff's impressive defence denied them any further, deserved advantage.

It was fully 30 minutes before Cardiff launched their first positive attack, through the centre Pieter Muller, who broke from inside his 22. The movement ended deep in Neath's territory and Iestyn Harris, who failed with three other first-half attempts, opened Cardiff's account with his first successful penalty.

Jarvis had no such problems, adding his second penalty and a drop goal, although he erred minutes after the restart by retreating inside his own 22 and yielding field position to Cardiff. The Blue and Blacks took advantage as Craig Morgan sliced through and Craig Hudson crossed at the posts. Harris converted to put Cardiff ahead for the first time.

Cardiff's second half improvement just about earned the win with Robinson's drop-goal proving the clincher. But superclub status at Neath's expense? I am not too sure.

Cardiff: C Morgan; C Hudson, J Robinson, P Muller (M Allen, 35), A Henry (N Robinson, 50); I Harris, A Booth; S John (P Rogers, 65), J Humphreys (A Lewis, 68), D Young (capt), C Quinnell, J Tait, S Sititi, R Appleyard, E Lewis.

Neath: S Connor; K James, A Bateman, J Storey, D Tiueti; L Jarvis, A Moore; D Jones, B Williams, A Howell (A Jones, 70), S Martin, G Llewellyn (capt), A Mocelutu, R Phillips, B Sinkinson.

Referee: P Adams (Ebbw Vale).