Aberavon 30-23 Cardiff
Indigo Group Premiership, 8th December 2022
by Paul Williams
In clashes between these two old clubs in the ‘post-regional’ era there has been something of a consistent feature that has observers either wearing delighted smiles or shaking their heads sadly depending upon where their allegiance lies. The scrummaging prowess of successive Aberavon packs has been decisive in so many of these fixtures, from the early years of the 21st century and the era that saw the likes of Mike Harris, Lloyd Howell, Chris Wells, Paul Breeze and Anthony Edwards reign supreme, right up until the present day. Indeed, when Cardiff Blues just over a year ago found themselves struggling to field a front row in back-to-back European clashes with Toulouse, it came as no surprise that their SOS call was aimed at the Talbot Athletic Ground, where Rowan Jenkins and Geraint James stepped forward in their hour of need.
Ironically, the contribution of that pair, along with man-of-the-match hooker Ieuan Davies, played no small part in bringing Cardiff’s unbeaten Premiership run to an abrupt end on a cold December evening at the Talbot Athletic Ground. The sight of the Cardiff pack reversing rapidly towards their own try-line in the face of the relentless power of the Aberavon eight just before half-time will be an enduring image in the memories of those who braved the cold to watch this absorbing match, presenting, as it did, the opportunity for Rhodri Cole to send in Jay Baker for what must surely have been the easiest try of the many he has scored in his career to date.
It was a crucial moment at the end of a first half that was otherwise an uncompromising case of “defences on top”, with the trusty boots of fly-halves Rhys Jones and Dan Fish having provided the only other scoring of the half.
The Aberavon scrum continued to be central to their efforts after the interval, winning several penalties even after the visitors had replaced their entire front row midway through the second half, and although Cardiff did briefly snatch a four-point lead through close-range tries from Fish and flanker Alex Mann, both converted by replacement Harrison James, the Wizards’ forward power again proved too great for them as a driving lineout drew in their defence, exposing space out wide for impressive young centre Callum Carson to send through a perfectly-judged grubber kick into the path of the speeding Jonathan Phillips who made no mistake in regathering and claiming a memorable try.
Jones’ conversion made it 23-20, and although the visitors drew level with a James penalty, the home pack were at it once again a few minutes later, driving relentlessly for the line until the maul was dragged to the ground inches short of what would have been a trademark try for Davies. Referee Ben Whitehouse had no hesitation in awarding the penalty try and issuing a yellow card to replacement Cardiff hooker Alun Rees.
As far as scoring was concerned, that was that, but the visitors did have a late opportunity to close the gap as Mann was first to claim a charged-down kick in the home ‘22’. What initially looked like a clear run-in was scuppered by Stef Andrews, who sped across and felled the former Wales U20 skipper with a copybook cover tackle, assisted within a split second by Baker. A tense moment followed as the incident was referred to the TMO, but footage revealed that Mann had clearly rolled, in an effort to ground the ball over the line, after the tackle was completed, yielding an Aberavon penalty for a ‘double-movement’. Jones sent the ball upfield, and shortly afterwards brought things to an end by receiving the ball from a scrum on halfway and kicking it off the field to herald the final whistle.
The result brought an end to a recent dip in form for the Wizards, due in no small part to an injury crisis that considerably depleted the depth of the club’s playing squad, while it also constituted a first league defeat of the season for top-of-the-table Cardiff.