After a disappointing December the Blue and Blacks opened the New Year with the first trip west of the season to face Neath in the WRU National Cup competition. After recent results and a side without a number of players (either through injury or Wales Under 20 duty) many Cardiff supporters will have travelled to the Gnoll more in trepidation than expectation. The mood was not improved with the news that winger James Beal had been forced to withdraw from the side and would be replaced by Olly Smyth with Fraser Young taking the replacement back spot on the bench. Neath were not without their own selection issues with 21 of their side being unavailable for the game – a fact that occupied many column inches in the Western Mail which chose to ignore the Blue and Blacks plight.
A cool afternoon with bright sunshine greeted the players but the play in the first 20 minutes did not match the pleasant weather. The home side had the advantage of a strong wind and held the ascendency in the opening exchanges. A dominant opening by Neath was rewarded after 10 minutes with a kickable penalty. They spurned the points and went for the jugular, kicking the ball into touch in the corner. The Cardiff defence held out though and managed to clear the danger. When they were presented with another opportunity after 21 minutes they decided that they couldn't afford to turn down the points again and Full Back Ed Howley slotted the kick. Things got even better for Neath a few minutes later when a sniping run from the base of the scrum by Scott Gibson found the Cardiff defence slow to react and the scrum half was able to score a try, Howley adding the conversion.
Cardiff were trying to make an impression on the game and were running the ball from deep positions. Unfortunately, attacks were thwarted as the final pass was deemed forward or unable to be taken cleanly. Finally, with just over half an hour gone Cardiff got into the Neath 22. From an attacking line-out the ball was won and dropped into the hands of Ian Jenkins on a front peel. His unopposed run in to the line was celebrated with the hooker raising the ball aloft in triumph before touching down. Thompson’s conversion attempt from the touch line was unsuccessful, but as half time approached there was all to play for. Both sides had opportunities to improve the score but none were taken and when the half time whistle sounded the score was Neath 10 Cardiff 5
The wind had clearly played a significant part in the first half because in the second period far more of the attacking play came from the visitors. Cardiff were rewarded when a Neath player infringed, but Gareth Thompson hit the upright from what looked a simple kick just to the left of the posts, on the Neath 22. From the next Neath attack Cardiff turned the ball over and Tom Daley broke through the home defence. He was finally brought down just inside the 22 and Cardiff were awarded another penalty as a Neath player came into the ruck from an offside position. This time they chose the scrum option and when the Neath prop wheeled the scrum and then kicked the ball out the referee was left with no option but to show him he yellow card. With the man advantage Cardiff went for another scrum but conceded a penalty and the danger for Neath was averted.
Cardiff continued to dominate play and were controlling the scrum. Neath gave away a number of penalties in the tight play and when they conceded another penalty five yards from their own line the referee had no hesitation in awarding the Blue and Blacks a penalty try. Twenty minutes left and all to play for. Neath kicked off and vey nearly retook the lead with only desperate defence saving the Cardiff try line. With 10 minutes left Neath regained the lead as Howley was successful with a simple penalty from 25 metres out. As the Blue and Blacks sought victory basic errors were proving costly with handling continuing to be a problem and kicks to touch being put out of play on the full. Another penalty was awarded to Cardiff wide out on the Neath 22 metre line but this time Thompson hit the opposite post. There would be one last chance. When Will Rees-Hole was taken out off the ball the referee had no hesitation in awarding the penalty (and also a second yellow – upgraded to red – to the Neath prop). This was Thompson’s most difficult kick, to the right of the posts and forty yards from goal. Having previously hit both uprights this kick was good and true, both touch judges raising their flags to indicate success. As the ball landed the referee blew for time and Cardiff had successfully, if somewhat fortuitously, negotiated their way into the draw for the next round of the cup.