Aberavon 36-15 Bridgend
Indigo Premiership Cup, 13th November 2021
by Paul Williams
Aberavon held onto their lead at the top of the West group with this bonus-point victory, having been made to work hard by a determined Bridgend team before going well clear in the final quarter.
With both teams missing some key personnel, the early stages were somewhat tentative as new combinations took time to settle in, and were further disrupted when Bridgend prop Curtis Hicks had the extreme misfortune to sustain a serious ankle injury, which led to a lengthy stoppage before the unfortunate victim was stretchered off.
On the resumption of play Aberavon full-back Chris Banfield landed a penalty-goal to open the scoring, but almost directly from the restart a defensive slip saw the Wizards fall behind as the visitors swiftly capitalised with full-back Ed Howley touching down at the posts for fly-half Jacob Chilcott to convert.
The Wizards were just as quick to strike back, with their pack taking control. A well-executed line-out became a well-organised driving maul that made short work of the twenty or so metres to the visitors’ try-line, with the familiar sight of hooker Ieuan Davies emerging from the pile of bodies having claimed the try. Banfield’s conversion attempt from way out on the right sailed inches wide of the posts.
It was a lead the Wizards were never again to lose, although Bridgend made them work hard to extend it beyond a handful of points. Half time arrived with a score of 15-7, with flanker Lloyd Evans having rounded off a series of forward drives by diving over a ruck to touch down, with Banfield converting.
The only score of the third quarter was a Chilcott penalty goal, but the Wizards turned up the intensity going into the latter stages, putting the visitors’ defence under intense pressure. After a series of forward drives that seemed to involve Ashton Evans’ effective ball-carrying at every phase, hooker Davies fed replacement prop Rhys Fawcett who drove over from close range with lock Sam Pailor adding his weight. Banfield again converted, taking the score to a more comfortable looking 22-10.
The result was effectively put beyond doubt when the visitors, increasingly desperate to escape the vice-like grip of the home pack, attempted to run the ball out of defence. Replacement wing Frankie Jones, apparently wise to their intentions, went racing up into the perfect position to intercept a long pass intended for Howley and run in unopposed beneath the posts for Banfield to convert.
A rare visit into home territory saw young replacement scrum-half Harvey Nash squeeze over from a line-out in the left-hand corner to reduce the arrears, but it proved to be no more than a consolation as the Wizards finished in style. As the ball ran loose from a ruck, Rheon James made ground down the right-hand touchline before being tackled. 17-year-old replacement scrum-half Rhodri Lewis then threw a huge pass across to Banfield in midfield, and he in turn sent an equally long and accurate pass to Joe Thomas out in the wide open spaces. The Bridgend defence, having been stretched one way then the other, finally gave way with Chay Smith running on to the ball at speed and leaving most of what remained of the cover in his wake before sending Stef Andrews over in the corner. Banfield converted with magnificent effort from the touchline, and a few minutes later the final whistle brought down the curtain on an absorbing match.
An absorbing match, perhaps, in which both sides deserve credit. For the Wizards, there were big performances from some players returning to action; prop Jordan Walters celebrated his first start of the season with a solid performance and a display of powerful ball-carrying and tackling, Shay Smallman continues to impress as one of this season’s big successes thus far, while the back row of Ashton Evans, Andrew Waite and Lloyd Evans combined superbly in all phases. There was also an Aberavon debut off the bench for Wales U20 lock Tristan Davies, whose play caught the eye several times. Bridgend, meanwhile, fielded an mainly young side that can surely only improve with experience.
Meanwhile, it would be remiss not to also mention the contribution of the match officials, in particular Simon Rees, one of Wales’ more experienced referees, whose consistency, fitness, positioning and decision-making were first-class.