Action Replay (Carmarthen Programme Notes)

Aberavon 17-16 Merthyr
Premiership Cup Quarter-Final, February 13th 2022
by Paul Williams

Although the well-worn statement that “forwards win matches, backs decide by how many points” has found its way into rugby folklore, this was one of those occasions when the weather took the margin of victory out of the backs’ hands and turned the ensuing encounter into one of those old-fashioned mud-strewn cup-ties that are strangely far less common than they were during the days of yore.

Steady rainfall throughout the preceding night continued into the afternoon, and after eighty-plus minutes of play had turned the usually (these days) impeccable Talbot Athletic Ground pitch into a scene that will no doubt have had the ground staff sadly contemplating the prospect of getting the surface back into pristine order in readiness for another home match just six days later.

Merthyr haven’t enjoyed too much success in their meetings with Aberavon, both home and away, over the past few seasons, and although they were six points ahead until quite literally the last second of the match, they were once again denied a win as the Wizards’ mighty scrummaging prowess snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

Conditions dictated that it was never going to be a free-flowing, fast-moving contest, and for much of the play defences were well on top, no matter which side was doing the attacking. A wet, slippery ball on a wet, slippery surface inevitably gave rise to a high error rate whenever either side attempted to move the ball, and it was always going to be decided by the combined factors of effective tactical kicking and forward strength.

Merthyr took an early lead with a penalty from accomplished fly-half Gareth Thompson, but that was swiftly cancelled out by a similar effort from Chris Banfield. Thompson once again repeated the feat, but the home side came surging back, putting the Merthyr defence under immense pressure and eventually being awarded an attacking scrum five metres out from the goal line. What followed was something that has become a familiar sight to Aberavon supporters, with the visitors’ pack being driven backwards and eventually splintering for Andrew Waite, having expertly controlled the ball at the back of the advancing scrum, to claim the try. Banfield’s conversion put the Wizards 10-6 ahead, but Thompson was to have the last word with his third penalty to make the half-time score 10-9.

The second half was largely a case of more of the same, but started badly for the Wizards when an innocuous-looking cross kick appeared to be safely covered, only for a dreadful (from an Aberavon viewpoint) bounce to present Merthyr wing Ashley Norton with a clear run-in for a try that Thompson converted to make it 10-16, and so it remained until the dying seconds, despite the home pack laying siege to the Merthyr line for much of the remaining play.

It spoke volumes for the strength of Aberavon’s front-row resources that they could replace Rowan Jenkins, Luke Davies and Geraint James with Rhys Fawcett, Ieuan Davies and Chris Davies without any discernible difference to the effectiveness of the scrum. Merthyr, despite replacing their entire front row before engaging in one defensive scrum, found their fresh players being shunted backwards by the home starting line-up, and by the end of the match were still finding only reverse gear when confronted by Aberavon’s replacements. It was this scrummaging prowess that was to prove decisive. As the match moved into stoppage-time, the Wizards set-up camp deep inside the visitors’ 22, and penalty after penalty followed as the Merthyr pack repeatedly fell foul of referee Aled Evans’ whistle in their efforts to stop the irresistible advance of the Aberavon eight.

Almost inevitably, the grinding-down process succeeded. The Merthyr pack once again fragmented as a desperate attempt to illegally wheel the scrum around to prevent the relentless drive failed miserably, and with the Aberavon pack playing their part by keeping things on an even keel, Mr Evans had no option other than to run between the posts and award a penalty-try before sounding the final whistle immediately afterwards.

Away from the decisive area of scrummaging, for Aberavon Sam Williams shone like a beacon in the lines-out, while it would be wrong not to mention debutant scrum-half Zac Fifield, son of former Penarth scrum-half Ian, who was sent on to replace the outstanding Rhodri Cole for the last ten minutes and did all that could be expected. Elsewhere there was a heroic defensive effort from the entire team that was as important a factor in the victory as any.