Glittering Keys’ knockout show
By Chris Kirwan
Cross Keys 45 Neath 18
THEY must have been pinching themselves in the Pandy Park clubhouse after Cross Keys’ clash with Neath in the British and Irish Cup.
Not only did the hosts hammer the Welsh All Blacks – their first win over the side from the Gnoll since 2006 – but the news filtering through from Ireland meant a place in the knockout stages was secure.
Munster’s failure to secure a bonus point in their win against Ayr meant that the first two sides in the quarter-finals were Keys and the Cornish Pirates.
Keys have not put a foot wrong in the cross-border competition and sit proudly at the top of Pool Two with a perfect 15 points from 15.
Few would have tipped that when the Gwent village earned the chance to lock horns with English, Scottish and Irish opponents back in May.
But they have done so with honest graft and a hard edge, and never was that needed more than on Saturday against a fully loaded Neath.
The Premiership leaders headed to Pandy Park with their own ambitions of making the knockout stages while Keys desperately wanted to avoid having to head to Cornwall on Sunday needing victory.
The hosts produced a display that was a combination of skill, determination and a sprinkling of niggle – the Keys blueprint.
There were a raft of top performers but one man stood out against a side that he left for Pandy Park in the summer.
Hooker Gerwyn Price is producing Keys performances every bit as good as those that earned Lloyd Burns a contract at Newport Gwent Dragons.
Keys would not swap him for any other Premiership hooker, nor plenty of those on the books of the four regions, for that matter.
Price is performing admirably in the set piece – aided by the lineout expertise of Jevon Groves and Tom Lampard and the scrummaging prowess of props Marc Jones and Richard Cornock – but it is in the loose where he has been most destructive.
Price was at the fore in a Keys second-half display that left Neath shell-shocked.
It was anybody’s game after an engaging if slightly limited first half that Keys edged 10-6.
It was largely an arm-wrestle between the packs but the one moment of dazzling skill and precision, after just four minutes, gave the hosts the advantage.
A fine piece of deception sent wing Kristian Baller in full flow in midfield, and fine assists by centre Phil Williams and fly-half Matthew Jones allowed scrum-half Rhys Dyer to score a marvellous try.
Other than that it was largely an attritional encounter, with flanker Rob Nash and lock Dan Hodge rivalling Robbie Savage and El-Hadji Diouf for the way they got under their opponents’ skin.
The teams headed back out for the second half with Keys down to 14 men courtesy of a yellow card for workaholic flanker Rhys Peebles.
The chance for Neath to apply the pressure surely? Not a bit of it, Keys scored a point for every player they had on the field in that 10-minute period thanks to a brace of converted tries.
They played it tight and with patience for prop Marc Jones to barge over following another fine carry by that man Price.
Then Keys wing Nathan Trowbridge pounced for an interception – which was to become a theme – to make it 24-6.
That scoreline meant that Neath had to chase the game and their playmakers proved to be particularly creative... for Keys.
Price snaffled a stray pass to secure the bonus point after 50 minutes and pretty much secure the win.
Keys were keen to slow Neath ball down and protect their lead, hence three more yellow cards for Lampard, Nash and Groves.
Neath managed a well-worked try for hooker Rhodri Clancy and another for former Keys wing Jamie Davies.
But it was the hosts who had the final say when Baller scored his second interception try of the final quarter to make it a drubbing.