The Gnoll. A ground that was usually approached with trepidation by Newport RFC supporters. We had seen some fearful batterings of our teams over the years and supporters often travelled there in the hope of not being beaten too badly or, in more modern terms, coming away with the odd bonus point. But that has changed over the last few years. This old warrior, once the most ‘feared’ club in the UK, is ailing and the club currently sit flat last in the Principality Premiership with eight defeats in as many games. Newport’s last visit to the club propping the league up ended in a spanking in Llanelli one Sunday afternoon. Clearly the coaching team were going to remind the players of that, and their responsibilities. Equally clear was the fact that Neath were going to target the visit of Newport as the game to kick their season off. An intriguing tactical afternoon was in store.
It was the first game of winter as woolly hats were de rigueur for supporters, the partly cloudy and dry conditions being paired with northerly winds to drop the temperature. Neath, in their traditional black kit, kicked off with veteran outside half, Ceiron Thomas, wearing jersey number 16, kicking towards the clubhouse end.
After the initial phases, Matt O’Brien sent the ball rolling towards the corner of the pitch only for Neath full back Ed Howley to return the ball to touch some 27 metres from their try line. With the lineout won, Garin Harris made some hearty thumps at the black defence followed up by Matthew Reed before the ball was spread wide, only for the pass to Chay Smith to be knocked forward as he stretched his finger tips to catch it.
Neath wing Ian Ellis broke the Newport line with a well-timed run before forming a ruck only for Neath to concede a penalty when openside flanker Lloyd Evans was seen taking Matt O’Brien out off the ball. So, that was one of their tactics revealed.
Newport managed to steal a lineout and Matthew Reed set off, bulldozering both Ceiron Thomas and his centre Gavin Evans away before the ball was passed wide to Elliot Frewen but he received both man and ball at once and, unsurprisingly, spilt the pass forward. Neath tried to capitalise quickly as a wonderful pass from former All Black Regan King, a Rolls Royce of a centre on his day, put his captain, flanker Jordan Collier in space but the pass inside to centre Gavin Evans was knocked on; a warning that Newport had to heed.
Neath were pinged offside on thirteen minutes, Matt O’Brien kicked Newport to fifteen metres out on the cricket pitch side of the ground. Andrew Mann took the lineout for hooker Will Evans to couple himself to the tail of the rolling maul. The maul squeezed forward, slowly, gently, until it reached five metres. Ryan James, restored to his starting position a scrum half, picked out Tom Pascoe running at speed but disappointment again for Newport as the referee, Mr Wayne Davies, found that there had been a knock on in the setting up of the resulting ruck.
It took until the 19th minute for the scoreboard operator to have something to do. The Neath scrum was found guilty of wheeling. Matt O’Brien took the shot at goal to make the score Neath 0 Newport 3.
Newport made a botch of the restart as Dan Partridge, making his first start of the season, could only palm the ball backwards. Ryan James missed the bobbling, bouncing ball only for home hooker Sion Crocker to dive onto it, giving Neath an excellent field position. Neath swung the ball from side to side, Ed Howley going close in the far corner before Newport fullback David Richards halted him. The ball progressed left again only for centre Gavin Evans to knock on. Mr Davies had a long chat with the captains as frustrations began to come to the surface, particularly after a clumsy high tackle by Garin Harris that the home support felt went unpunished. They were awarded the penalty for the challenge and kicked to the corner. Neath lineout jumper Rhys Jones went high then fell quickly to earth with a bump; in this observer’s opinion, Jones’ lifter behind him lost his grip and let him go. Play went on as the ruck formed for no.8 Ieuan Jones to dive over from close range for the try. Ed Howley added the conversion to make the score Neath 7 Newport 3. Mr Davies, however, possibly felt that he had to give something to stop tempers boiling over any further. First he singled out Kyle Tayler before selecting Andrew Mann as the player to spend ten minutes on the naughty step.
Neath made a schoolboy error of letting a rugby ball bounce not just once but twice as their backs looked on. Newport prop Lewis Smout helped himself and charged forward, setting up the ruck. Will Evans was in close support and carried on the good work. Matthew Reed did further damage to the black line before the ball zipped right to Tom Pascoe on the crash ball. Pascoe lost the ball in contact and Neath played on; Ed Howley kicked ahead for Elliot Frewen to gather and form a ruck. Mysteriously, the ball re-appeared on the Neath side perfectly legally before outside half Ceiron Thomas kicked for touch. From the line out, Neath jumper Scott Andrews knocked on. The ball fired out to Matt O’Brien who skilfully stepped his way around All Black Regan King before finding Chay Smith to his left. Chay arced around the defenders with Elliot Frewen hot on his heels. Smith passed to Frewen who drew the last defender before releasing David Richards, head back and sprinting, to take the ball and leave the black shirts in his wake. Matt O’Brien added the two-pointer to make the score Neath 7 Newport 10 on 33 minutes.
Neath responded instantly. From a lineout they worked the Newport defence, looking for the overlap with Andrew Mann still cooling his boots on the side line. After some excellent work by hooker Sion Crocker again, showing soft hands in midfield, it was left to wing Mike Evans to cross in the corner under the gaze of the clubhouse. Ed Howley’s conversion sailed across the face of the posts to leave the scoreboard reading Neath 12 Newport 10 on 36 minutes.
Neath were becoming loose at the lineout, yet another slapped ball by their jumpers simply allowed Matthew Reed to cause more havoc. Kyle Tayler, Garin Harris and Will Evans all pumped away at the defence until a pass out to Matthew Reed, just metres from the Neath try line, was ruled out as it was deemed that ‘crossing’ had taken place.
Neath centre Gavin Evans gave away a soft penalty on 40+4 minutes which Matt O’Brien lined up, struck sweetly and watched it sail between the uprights to give Newport a thirteen points to twelve lead as the halftime whistle blew.
Half Time Neath RFC 12 Newport RFC 13
Matt O’Brien restarted affairs on the pitch, Jonny Morris on the wing, took the kick return before the game ground to a halt due to an injury to Neath flanker Lloyd Evans. His replacement on, the game continued only to be stopped a minute later when the referee, Mr. Davies, took a knock himself when he turned his head only to come into contact with one of the players. He appeared to be given the Head Impact Assessment test that players have to take when taking hits to the head and continued.
Neath managed to fabricate an overlap on their left but he pass from wing Mike Evans to number 8 Ieuan Jones was much too low and Jones couldn’t do much else other than knock on; a chance butchered by the Welsh All Blacks and a claxon for Newport to pay attention to.
An unpleasant feature of the game was the amount of low level scuffling that was taking place on and off the ball. Nearly every set piece and each contact resulted in needless pushing and shoving. Mr Davies had to speak with captains on numerous occasions but little seemed to change. It seemed, though, to be working to Neath’s favour as Newport were getting sucked into playing their game at their pace. Neath centre Gavin Evans conceding just a penalty for an off-feet, no-arm interjection at a ruck may well have earned a yellow card on a different day.
Mr Davies was evidently still feeling the effects of his collision and, on 55 minutes, handed the whistle over to his Assistant Referee, Mr Richard Brace.
Jonny Morris caught a kick before setting off across field, looking for an opening in the Neath defence. He was snared but set up the ruck before Ryan James fired out a long pass to the wing where, naturally, replacement prop Dan Preece was lurking. Preece sprinted away before demonstrating no little skill by placing a delicate grubber kick for the whippet-like David Richards to chase but the ball rolled harmlessly into touch.
Neath’s Ieuan Jones punted a kick towards the corner on the hour for David Richards to field. Richards’ youthful exuberance got the better of him as he tried to run out of defence only to be smothered by black shirts. He conceded a penalty for holding on in the tackle. Neath fullback Ed Howley kicked to the corner. Home jumper Ryan Bean claimed the ball but the Newport pack closed in around him, shunted and shifted the maul away from their line before it eventually collapsed and earned the Black and Ambers the turnover. Newport made heavy weather of getting away from their own 22 metre area and, as soon as they did, conceded a penalty for hands in the ruck. Ed Howley stepped up to take the shot at goal but the kick was still climbing as it went to the right of the posts.
The niggly nature of the game paid off for Neath on 68 minutes after Newport struggled to clear their lines in the face of determined Neath pressure. They home team, devoid of a win all season, could sense one coming. Neath’s Gavin Evans aggressively ripped the ball from a falling Elliot Frewen. The ball passed right for Ryan Bean to carry the ball forward. The ball then went left before a great pass from Regan King split Newport wide open. The pass to Ed Howley was textbook and he raced across in the corner to give Neath a lead of 17 points to 13. Howley missed his own conversion.
Newport had to change it up. Neath were notably ponderous in places and an injection of pace could be their undoing. Scrum half Geraint Watkin replaced Ryan James to do just that. The ball was now zipping from the back of rucks and scrums keeping Neath thinking and working hard. They won a 71st minute penalty which Matt O’Brien kicked to forty metres from the Neath line. Neath got a hand to it, Matthew Reed was through on it and away but the play was called back for lineout not straight.
Newport kept on with the pressure and Neath were visibly buckling. Matt McGovern, on for Tom Pascoe, showed how effective he can be by making ground and buying his teammates an extra second here and there. Matt O’Brien was beginning to pick out runners again and, on 75 minutes, a crack in the Neath armour showed when replacement prop, Luke Garrett, was massively offside as he took a pass running back through the Newport backline. He was invited to ten minutes on the naughty step and this was just the impetus that Newport needed to go on and claim all four points. Matt O’Brien kicked to the corner for Josh Skinner, on as a replacement, to just about claim the throw. Tom Piper and Henry Palmer, replacements both, carried hard towards the Neath line. Newport were patient in attack before Chay Smith went agonisingly close only for Mr Brace to judge that he had knocked on in the act of scoring.
Deep into injury time and Neath were endeavouring to keep Newport at bay. A high kick went straight down the throat of Geraint O’Driscoll, on for David Richards, who set up a ruck. Matt McGovern bustled his way forward, ball in hand, before Geraint O’Driscoll tracked behind him and progressed up to the Neath five-metre line. Geraint Watkin could pick out his runners until Jonny Morris, the Ninja Warrior, bisected the line and crashed over for a try, much to the jubilation of the travelling support and the despondency of the locals. Matt O’Brien added the conversion to make it Neath 17 Newport 20 on 80+4 minutes.
And still, we played on. Neath were desperate to win the game and pressurised Newport. An 80+8th minute scrum had Matthew Reed’s heels on the Newport 22 metre line. Newport managed to squeeze play backwards but a penalty was conceded by the Black and Ambers as Mr. Brace appeared to decide that a player was off his feet at the ruck. Decision time for the Blacks; go for goal and a draw? Or go for gold? With ten minutes of injury time played and the prospect of much more being added slim, they went for gold. Ed Howley kicked to the corner only for the lineout to gift Newport the win when their replacement hooker threw before the jumpers had left terra firma. Matthew Reed stuck out a grateful hand, gathered the ball in and sprinted fully forty metres before he was downed. The ruck set up and Matt O’Brien blasted the ball into the back of the temporary stand to seal a scrappy, hard-earned win for the Black and Ambers.
Grim days at the Gnoll, then. Neath are still rated by the bookmakers as surviving the cut this season, and they’re usually not too far adrift with their predictions, although the odds must surely be lengthening.
The Black and Ambers have a weekend free of league games this weekend coming up. Their next fixture is at home, on Friday November 9th when the Whites of Swansea RFC visit us for a Principality Premiership fixture. After that the club has a series of tough away fixtures. We visit Ebbw Vale, Pontypridd, Merthyr and Llandovery in turn. Please keep an eye out for announcements about travel to these games organised by the Friends of Newport Rugby Trust.
Onwards and upwards Newport.
Your City. Your Colours. Your Club
Final Score Neath RFC 17 Newport RFC 20
Newport RFC Man of the Match – Matthew Reed