CROSS KEYS 25 NEWPORT 18
CROSS Keys players jubilantly hugged each other at the final whistle after securing a hard-earned victory over fierce rivals Newport that means they will lock horns with foreign opposition next season.
It certainly wasn’t pretty and was certainly not a game for the neutral but Keys won’t care a jot.
They earned the play-off win that means it will be them and not their Gwent rivals that will be in next season’s British and Irish Cup.
In the end the game swung on an all-too-rare moment of quality on 73 minutes – with a player that left Rodney Parade last summer applying the killer blow.
With the visitors leading 18-15, replacement scrum-half Owen Jones conjured a marvellous offload to set lock Tom Lampard in motion and Keys’ player of the year put Nathan Williams under the sticks.
Fly-half Steffan Jones converted, then added a penalty before the hosts withstood a late Newport charge on their line.
It was a game where the result was all that mattered and it showed in a scrappy and disappointing clash.
The breakdown was a mess and an encounter that promised much unfortunately went the way of many a Gwent derby.
Perhaps it was just wishful thinking to head to Pandy Park hoping for an entertaining game.
It was tense - as was to be expected given what was at stake - but was not a play-off of flowing rugby.
Keys enjoyed a marvellous regular season, breaking into the top six with performances based on strong scrummaging and some mobile loose forwards.
They once again looked for their front row of Richard Cornock, Richard Emms and Marc Jones to lay solid foundations and for lock Tom Lampard and number eight Jevon Groves to hare around Pandy Park.
Newport, meanwhile, were boosted by the presence of number eight Andrew Coombs, a man who was the key figure in their pack over the previous two seasons.
He may now be a vital Dragons squad member – with 21 regional appearances under his belt this campaign – but he is one that bleeds black and amber.
And that was expected to be an apt phrase in ferocious, no-holds-barred opening exchanges.
But instead it was a scrappy, tetchy and frankly low key opening to the game with neither side hitting their straps.
Newport had the edge 9-6 approaching the half hour thanks to three penalties by fly-half Gareth Bowen to two by opposite number Steffan Jones, who was strangely off-colour with the boot.
Jones, second in the regular season Premiership points chart to Aberavon’s Jamie Davies, missed three shots at goal to let the visitors off the hook.
The whistle of frustrating referee Wayne Davies dominated a first half of few try-scoring opportunities and scarcely any moments of quality.
But Newport woke the game from its slumber on 30 minutes when a patient attack ended with hooker Andrew Brown charging towards the line only to be pushed into touch by full-back Gareth David’s firm tackle five metres short of the line.
But that exciting attack was a rarity.
That was before Bowen added his fourth from four to send Newport into the changing rooms the happier, though Keys would have been content to have been in touch.
And the hosts certainly started the half with more intent, working their way into Newport territory and earning a penalty that Jones knocked over to make it a three-point game.
Not for long though. Robinson ripped the ball off Rob Nash from the kick-off and Keys offended at the breakdown for Bowen to make it a six-point game.
Not for long though. Jon Evans was pinged for offside and prop Dai Pattison, who had only been on the field for a minute, prevented a quick tap penalty.
The result was a yellow card for Pattison and a 15-12 score line.
Suddenly a game of rugby broke out, yet it was Newport who came closest to scoring, sprightly wing Owen Broad just brought down short of the line after dashing past forwards in the Keys defensive line.
But the scores were level, with extra time looming, by the time Pattison returned after another Jones penalty.
The pendulum swung back towards the Black and Ambers thanks to the boot of Bowen, though the experienced number 10 did miss his first shot at goal with nine minutes left.
Newport seemed to have the momentum but then came Williams’ score and it will be Keys that go up against the English, Irish and Scottish next term.
Not only that but this season they can boast of being Gwent’s top dogs.
Cross Keys: G David, M Johnstone (N Trowbridge 53), L Andrews, N Williams, J Davies, S Jones, R James (O Jones 68), R Cornock, R Emms (J Sollis 68), M Jones, D Hodge, T Lampard, M Popham (C Trayhern 46), R Nash, J Groves.
Scorers: try - N Williams; conversion - S Jones; penalties - S Jones (6)
Newport: J Leadbeater, O Broad, P Leach, S Williams, A Awcock, G Bowen, J Evans, D Morgan (D Pattison 46), Andrew Brown, G Robinson, D Rosser (Adam Brown 60), A Jones (captain), S Waldron (D Morgan 56-60), C Hill, A Coombs.
Scorers: penalties - G Bowen (6)
Referee: Wayne Davies (WRU)
Argus star man: Richard Cornock
Report By Chris Kerwyn South Wales Argus