Aberavon 16 – 7 Merthyr
Principality Premiership, 19th January 2019
(by Paul Williams)
Aberavon bounced back from a heavy defeat at Pontypridd a week earlier to register a league double over Merthyr with a top-drawer performance that stunned the league leaders, who in turn gave way to increasing indiscipline as the match went on. With skipper James Garland nursing a hand injury, and Liam Popham ruled out with a dislocated shoulder, Joe Gage was pressed into service as an emergency fly-half, with new signing Gwyn Parks a contingency measure on the bench. The captaincy went to popular all-action flanker Joe Tomalin-Reeves.
The first half looked like ending without any score, as each side in turn tested the other’s defence with neither yielding, but seconds before half-time Merthyr number eight Phil Rees made the rash decision to blatantly obstruct Lee Purnell as he was about to make a tackle. With time having run out, a kick at goal was opted for and scrum-half Rhodri Cole put the Wizards 3-nil ahead.
The Wizards got off to a dreadful start to the second half. With the visitors on the attack, a penalty five metres from their line saw the home side assume that Merthyr fly-half Richard Powell would either kick for goal or touch, but he did neither; with an open line ahead Powell tapped and darted in for a try converted by Matthew Jarvis.
The Wizards’ response was to up the tempo, while the Merthyr response appeared to be a decline in discipline, to the obvious frustration of coach Dale McIntosh. Tempers flared, and while Tomalin-Reeves was identified as having initiated one of a number of off-the-ball scuffles, Merthyr skipper Craig Locke trumped him by lashing out with his foot at Tomalin-Reeves’ head, so while the Aberavon man was sin-binned, referee Ben Breakspear red-carded Locke.
While both sides were reduced to fourteen men, the momentum switched in Aberavon’s favour. With the visitors visibly lacking leadership, scrum-half Cole was a tactically astute controller for the Wizards, directing play superbly. The Wizards went ahead following an attack from deep which ended with Chris Banfield being hauled down. Quick ruck ball was presented and, with Rhodri Hughes, Ieuan Davies and Jordan Walters offering themselves as runners, a long pass from Cole found Walters on a superb angled run that saw the young prop burst through for a fine try.
Cole converted with a fine left-footed kick, and shortly afterwards Tomalin-Reeves returned to the fray to resume his ‘lead-by-example’ captaincy, with Cole at the same time directing operations superbly behind the scrum.
With ten minutes remaining the Wizards’ 10-7 lead became 13-7. By now Merthyr’s indiscipline had hit rock bottom, and after Iwan Temblett was denied a try by a pass that could only have been very slightly forward, and with Mr Breakspear having issued a team warning to Merthyr for successive high tackles, Rees was the man to perpetrate the next one, earning a yellow card while Cole duly slotted the penalty.
Home confidence was clearly high as the clock ran down. A brief Merthyr sortie into the home 22 found the Wizards’ defence as unyielding as ever, and as the ball was turned over, Rheon James sent Banfield speeding away. The diminutive full-back made short work of dumping the substantially larger Jay Baker on the ground before outpacing the Merthyr midfield and making ground up to half way before finding support inside. Recycled ball was worked out to the left where Shaun Pearce took play into the Merthyr 22, and inevitably another penalty followed, with Cole’s trusty left boot making it 16-7.
As Merthyr threw all they had into salvaging at least a bonus point, the Wizards again turned over possession, and a clever kick by Temblett saw Cole and Morgan in hot pursuit, with the former collaring Powell deep in the visitors’ half and the latter following up with a crunching tackle that drove him into touch. The lineout was the final play, and the Wizards secured the ball, driving towards the Merthyr line until the maul collapsed, bringing on the final whistle.
Singling out individuals was nigh-impossible after such a performance. Cole won the popular vote for Man of the Match, while Tomalin-Reeves’ contribution was typically whole-hearted. Jac Morgan was hugely influential at the breakdown, while back-row colleagues Lee Purnell and replacement Andrew Waite were big ball-carriers. Sam Williams put in a great 80-minute shift despite only just returning to action after a long injury lay-off, while fellow lock Rhodri Hughes complemented him perfectly. Jordan Walters was another who played the full game, while Geraint James and Ieuan Davies both played their parts superbly before giving way to effective ‘impact’ players Rhys Henry and Cameron Lewis. Gage at fly-half was happy to let Cole dictate tactics, but his strength in attack and defence, as well as his sublime distribution skills, were well in evidence. The Price-James centre partnership were immovable objects, the back-three of Pearce, Banfield, Andrews and later Temblett were an effective last line of defence, and although attacking opportunities were few and far between, those that did present themselves were seized with both hands. A fact that failed to hit the headlines, however, was that during the final quarter as the result swung the Wizards’ way half of the Aberavon pack were under the age of 21, as was emergency wing Temblett – an inconvenient truth for those who choose to dismiss the Premiership’s role in player development.