In a pulsating match and one of the best seen at Rodney Parade for some time, Newport finally ran out worthy winners. They were the better side and outscored the visitors by 4 tries to 2 and so got a hard earned bonus point. Newport went into this game without a recognized kicker in the starting XV and at times it looked as if it would cost Newport dear as the ever reliable Arwel Thomas hardly missed a kick all afternoon – ending with a personal tally of 22 pts - while centre Tom Riley who was outstanding in his role as centre, struggled with his place kicking. His midfield partnership with Scott Williams has been one of the reasons for the backs revival this season and his pace and running angles makes a perfect combination with Williams’ strong running, good hands, useful sidestep and left boot. Tom Riley scored a brace of tries - to make it 7 in the last 4 games and the ever alert and dangerous Mike Poole on the wing scored his usual try to take him to 16 from 17 games this season and make him overall top scorer in the Premier League this season with 12.
Newport went straight off at the whistle and within 2 mins Riley was put over by wing Mike Poole. The League champions responded with penalties from Arwel Thomas on 5 and 13 mins but then Poole crossed himself on 16 mins only for poor Riley to miss the conversion again. Neath hit back with a great individual try by centre Luke Ford – added by surprisingly poor Newport tackling – and Thomas converted to make the score 10-13 to Neath on 21 mins. The pace continued and Newport skipper Andrew Coombs got over after driving from the base of a 5m scrum. Finally Tom Riley converted and Newport led 17-16 at HT but only after a lengthy delay with in-form Newport No 6 Richard Dale being stretchered off with his neck in a brace after a freak line-out accident with team mate Alex Jones. The luckless Dale was making his 100th appearance for the club but the brace has since been removed and fingers crossed that he will soon be 100% fit again very shortly.
appearance for the club but the brace has since been removed and fingers crossed that he will soon be 100% fit again very shortly.
The see-saw nature of the game continued in the 2nd half – in fact the lead changed hands no fewer than 10 times during the match. On 44 mins Tom Riley kicked a penalty and then Newport open-side Paul Williams was yellow-carded on 45 mins for dangerous play. Arwel Thomas kicked two penalties on 7 and 10 mins but that man again – Tom Riley scored a superb try breaking through the defence and Arwel Thomas to boot to go over ion the corner. Replacement full-back and specialist kicker Dan Griffiths took the conversion having replaced Dragon full-back Kevin Morgan who was a returning to the game after a long term, on 50 mins. Griffiths missed the kick but what a part he was to play in the remainder of the match. His full-back play and place kicking was to be one of the deciding factors of the game. His first points contribution was a penalty on 62 mins for a score of 28-22 in Newport’s favour but back came Neath when replacement centre Dafydd Lockyer – helped by what looked like a forward pass - broke through several weak tackles including full-back Griffiths on 64 mins and of course Arwel converted to give Neath the lead 28-29. On 69 mins Griffiths kicked an excellent penalty after Neath full-back was sin-binned for killing the ball to give Newport a 31-29 lead only for Thomas to kick a superb one from the touchline on 72 mins and give Neath the lead back at 31-32. But the lead was to change for one last time when on 80 mins up stepped Dan Griffiths to stroke an excellent penalty for a lead of 34-32. There was still a nervous 2 mins before referee Tim Hayes blew up much to the delight of the coaches and Newport supporters who had out-chanted their Neath counterparts all afternoon. Newport kept their league title hopes alive and all the players played their part including the replacements Dan Griffiths and Alex Walker who had replaced the industrious scrum-half Andrew Quick on 58 mins. It is difficult to pick out individuals – certainly Tom Riley more than played his part - but much praise should go the 2nd rows - the evergreen Mark Workman and Alex Jones returning from injury who was forced into action due to the late withdrawal of Adam Frampton. These players helped Newport to dominate the line-outs and provide continuous good ball for their hungry backs and so denying Neath’s dangerous backs and let's not forget "Dan the Man" who came on to kick 3 crucial penalties.
Newport head coach Sven Cronk was delighted with the spirit shown as Newport looked to be heading for defeat by the boot of former Welsh International Arwel Thomas after he had kicked Neath’s 6th penalty but then Newport’s own points machine Dan Griffiths slotted over one on the 80th min to spark jubilant scenes at the final whistle.
“What character to come out and play and earn that last shot at goal! In fairness I thought the game had gone with that last penalty of Arwel’s,” said Cronk. “I harped on about it to the lads this week but if we are going to move forward then we have to beat these top sides. We let ourselves down against Llanelli and Aberavon (at Rodney Parade earlier in the season) and it would have been to the detriment of us progressing if we had lost again today. Hopefully this will be the catalyst and we’ll have to wait and see how the title race unfolds. We have to go down to Llanelli and Aberavon, they are tough asks but that is what we need to do. It’s going to be tight at the top and that is the pleasing thing for this league, Neath are not running away with it.”
Cronk felt the key to Newport’s victory had been their attacking mindset with their strike runners relishing the chance to go after the champions with ball in hand.
“We took the game to Neath, which is what we have been doing all season. We took a decision with Kevin Morgan there to go without a recognised goal-kicker and I think that set the stall out and the boys just went after it. They want to play (attacking) rugby and we are just giving the heads up to do that. They have confidence and we want to keep them in the structure but give them the freedom to play what is in front of them. The game has moved on, you can’t afford to go set piece and send the strike runner up and build from there. You have to play and fizz the ball around – that is the way you unlock defences. We played some fantastic rugby and then Dan Griffiths came on and slotted those penalties, which was a great effort on his part. It was a brilliant advert for the Premiership and a great game of rugby.”Photos courtesy of Ron Sutcliffe: