Neath 35 Stirling County 22
Stirling County completed their eventful debut season in the British and Irish Cup, finishing as credible runners-up in Pool 2, following a tough assignment at Welsh Premiership side Neath.
County endured an arduous journey to South Wales, reaching Cardiff at 3am on the morning of the match, after their travel plans were disrupted by the weather causing their Friday evening flight to be delayed by seven hours.
They arrived in the wintry Welsh valleys keen to build on last week’s strong performance against Bedford Blue minus a number of regulars due to Heineken Cup duties for Sean Kennedy and Byron McGuigan and Scotland Under-20 involvement of Adam Ashe, Jamie Bhatti and Mark Bennett, along with unavailability of winger Rory Hughes.
County brought back Johnny Hope, Matt Lamb and Ross Aitken in the back line, with Edinburgh elite development player Alex Black returning at scrum half. Jon Welsh replaced Mike McDonald at prop, with Jon’s Glasgow Warriors colleague Ed Kalman on the bench. Ruaridh Leishman was drafted in to the second row as a late replacement for Rob McAlpine who was called-in to the Edinburgh squad on Friday afternoon.
The pitch at The Gnoll was covered with an inch of snow, but the ground was soft underneath and playable, and the Neath groundstaff did a good job of clearing the lines.
County started strongly, and from a penalty line-out take the forwards drove the Neath pack back a full 25 yards, allowing Alex Moffat to touchdown, with the try converted by Brian Archibald, giving the visitors a 7-0 lead after three minutes.
Following another penalty line-out catch and drive, prop Welsh grounded the ball for County’s second try, with Archibald adding the extras, to extend County’s advantage to 14-0 after 14 minutes.
But County immediately let their hosts back into the match, and Neath winger Kevin James charged down a slack clearance kick and followed up to score an opportunist try, converted by Dean Cummins.
In 34 minutes, Benji Barsanti was sin-binned for persistent infringement by County and Cummins kicked the resultant penalty. Neath were then reduced to 14-men after Rhys Jones was yellow-carded for a high-tackle within the hosts’ 22, which allowed Archibald to re-establish County’s seven point lead. However a minute later Neath struck back with a long- range Cummins’ penalty after County had strayed off-side.
One minute into the second-half came the key turning point in the match, when Alex Black found himself in an off-the-ball tussle with an opponent, and after the pair squared-up the County scrum-half was sent off for allegedly throwing a punch.
Surprisingly the Welsh referee didn’t even speak to the Neath player, who was immediately substituted. With County reduced to 14-men for the remainder of the match, Jonny Hope moved to cover scrum-half. Neath immediately exploited the gaps in County’s stretched defence, and following a quick-tap penalty, scrum-half Luc Jones ran 40 metres unchallenged to score a try, which Cummins converted to put the home side in the lead for the first time.
Cummins increased Neath’s lead to 23-17 with a 66th minute penalty after County were adjudged offside.
With eight minutes remaining a clever cross-kick by Cummins caught out visitors’ defence napping and Neath left-winger Chris Morgans scored in the left corner, converted by Cummins to extend the homeside’s lead to 30-17.
Worse was to follow for the tiring County defence when they failed to kick the ball dead and inadvertently set up an opportunist try for Lloyd Philips who touched down in the right corner.
County’s Stevie Swindall scored a last-minute consulation try.
Neath: K Davies, James, Phillips, Cummins, Morgans, Langdon, L Jones; Ford, A Davies, C Jones, R Jones, Griffiths, Evans (capt.), Collier. Replacements: R Davies, Clancy, Williams, Ward, Rees, M Jones, B Jones.
Stirling County: Hope, Lamb, Gilmour, Archibald, Aitken, Edwards, Black; Welsh, Moffat, Mountford, Leishman, Deacons, Swindall, Clarke, Barsanti. Replacements: Kalman, Kennedy, Hutton, Robertson, Boswell, Hogg, Turnbull.
Referee: A. Davies (WRU)
This was a useful work-out for County who dominated most of the first half but couldn’t convert their superiority into points on the board. The second half was difficult playing with a man less against a mobile Neath side who moved the ball well in the wintry conditions. The experience of playing in the cross-border competition against top sides from England and Wales has undoubtedly benefited the players and coaches, who will be looking to feature in the tournament in the future.
On Saturday it’s back to domestic action when County entertain Boroughmuir in a vital match in the RBS Premiership. Kick-off at Bridgehaugh is 3pm. Thanks to County’s main sponsor Ondeo Industrial Solutions and all others who continue to support the club.