Phill Lawrence looks back on pre-season and forward to the coming campaign:
Hello everybody and welcome to the new Principality Premiership Season. A new season and a new start for the most famous and oldest rugby club in Wales, as we bid ‘farewell’ to Neil ‘Nelly’ Edwards, but welcome back the man, the legend that is Rowland Phillips.
There are also changes in the playing personnel, with influential leader James Goode and lethal sniper Ceri Young departing for the capital, but club favourites Lee Beach, Luke Ford, Jamie Davies, Ryan Evans and Lloyd Phillips returning, as well as new boys Aaron Coundley, Calum Thomas and Giulio Cenedese.
We have also signed some promising youngsters from Glynneath in Rhod Cole and Josh Jones, plus Alex Humphries from Crymych, James Locke formally of Tata Steel, Nick Clancy and Nicky Eaves.
There are also more arrivals on the horizon, and we have a better relationship with the Ospreys than ever, as Daf Howells, Jordan Collier and Calum Davies return to us, plus the electric Ashley Evans, solid prop Gareth Thomas and promising Hooker Scott Otten joining the Dark Side.
I’m sure all supporters of the Blacks will make these boys feel most welcome, along with the current crop of warriors we have at the club.
Everyone acknowledges that we had a year to forget last year, both on the field and off the field, but hopefully a fresh start and a fresh outlook from the players, coaches and also supporters will make this a season to remember.
Our pre-season has been a little mixed to be honest. It started with a very credible 15-all draw against a determined, and fully pro, Doncaster Knights team, where a bad bounce of the ball went against us. We were definitely the stronger team come the Second Half.
Next came Plymouth Albion, and a bit of a reality check, as we went down 7-34. More disappointingly was the fact we lost Dale Ford for the Season with a really nasty injury, probably for the whole Season. I’m sure everyone associated with Neath wishes Dale well for his recovery, as he had made a big commitment to stay with Neath, despite serious overtures from a number of other Premiership Teams #KeepStrongDale.
On Tuesday August 19th Neath brought the whole region to the Gnoll as the Ospreys, Aberavon, Bridgend and Swansea came to the Gnoll for the Premier 4×4 Challenge. This was a unique event as each club had 20 minutes to challenge the regional boys and test themselves at a higher level than normal. Aberavon were first up and did well to hold ‘Y Gweilch’ to 0-0, then Bridgend came calling and weren’t so lucky – 12-0 to the regional team.
Swansea were next in the firing line and held the Ospreys well, before conceding a late score and losing 0-5, which left the home team standing against a 17 point deficit!
Neath came out strong at the start and sent the Gnoll into raptures as Rhod Cole jinked through and sent new boy James Locke over at the posts for a first try against the Ospreys, converted by ex-Glynneath man Cole.
Neath led 7-0 and needed just one more converted score to take the ‘overall’ lead, but the Ospreys were not just going to lie down. They duly fought back via a penalty to the corner from Sam Davies and a quick lineout resulted in the ball being fed to Natoga, who held onto his first pass of the night, having dropped several balls already, and he skated over. Sam Davies drew the scores level with the conversion.
Neath then tried to pressure the Ospreys from the kick off, but a couple of mistakes led to a penalty for not releasing the player. The resulting tap penalty was quickly spread to Hanno Dirksen, who didn’t drop the ball over the line this time – remember the Play Off Final in 2010?! – and Sam Davies duly planted the extras to give the Ospreys a deserved 14-7 victory, and the Premier 4×4 Challenge Trophy, but Neath earned the plaudits after being the only team to score against the regional men.
That exercise proved useful, as two days later Neath took on local team Trebanos. It was a golden evening for new boy Ashley Evans, who bagged a hat trick, and also for Rhodri Cole – filling in at 10 – with a personal haul of 15 points (1 try and 5 conversions). Also scoring were Kyle Tayler and Lee Evans, who allegedly skipped around ten players and ran 40 yards to score!
The other try came from good forward pressure resulting in a Penalty Try, but only after a lot of pounding on the Neath Line from the Trebanos lads. They never gave in all night and the 45-0 scoreline, although reflective of the most part, was a little unfair on the Swansea Valley team’s efforts.
We moved onto the Foster’s 7s and for the second year running we came up against a team chock full of Sevens Stars as we played Carmarthen Quins – The West Walians winning 28-7 and we fared no better in the plate, losing to Cardiff Met.
Next came our BIC Qualifier away to Aberavon. To say we were disappointing would be a massive understatement. Outplayed up front and not enough ball behind. We showed what we were capable of in the early stages, as a try from Dai Evans, converted by Ceiron Thomas, was negated by a try from Ash Evans, converted by Rhod Cole.
But that is as good as it got for the Blacks, as Jon Phillips scored before half time to give the Wizards a 12-7 interval lead.
Things got worse after the break as Ben Davies crashed over, but two missed conversions, and a penalty from Rhod Cole reduced the arrears to 10-17.
Aberavon completed the win with a try from Nicky Thomas and a further penalty from Ceiron Thomas to seal the 25-10 scoreline in favour of the boys from the TAG.
RP was very disappointed with the result, but he and the players know the areas that require work before this week’s trip to Pontypridd, where the Champions will be looking to get their campaign off to the best possible start, while we will be looking to cause a big upset at The House of Pain.
From a personal point of view I feel we will do well this season and we will regain some of the pride and poise we have lost over a couple of difficult seasons…
…But the boys cannot do it on their own… they need all the support we can muster for them… Let’s get behind them, let’s make The Gnoll a fortress again and let’s make people fear the Blacks and the mighty Maltese Cross!!
See you all at Sardis on Saturday!