A for effort, another A for achievement and, positively, nothing short of an A-star for sheer guts as the Blue & Blacks took another step up the ladder.
Anyone still doubting that the tide has turned, is turning, and will continue to turn for this Cardiff team would have been well advised to witness this latest upturn in fortunes. Back to back Premiership victories against successive table-toppers Ebbw Vale and Neath have merely confirmed what regular observers have suspected for most of the season: Gareth Gravell’s side are now serious contenders against the best teams and are well worth their highest ever league placing in four years.
Against double champions Neath, the pack came out on top in scrums and lineouts, the back-line defence recovered from the early jitters to become far more convincing in a demanding second-half, and points-scoring opportunities were taken with some style.
The match started well. Though playing against the wind, the Blue & Blacks forced their opponents to concede four penalties in as many minutes. Step by step they took play from their own 22 to the opposite end courtesy of four touch kicks and four clinical lineouts. A bonus was that from the fourth Neath had flanker John McPhail sin-binned. Moments later, Andy Powell peeled away from a ruck, took the wide outside of the defence, and slipped the ball to the looping Richard Jones for the opening try.
Great stuff. But the alarm bells then rang as full-back Neil Clapham cut the midfield defence too easily and Kevin James crossed for a try converted by Arwel Thomas.
When Thomas then added a penalty goal for a 10-5 lead for his side doubters could be forgiven for wondering whether a fourth Premiership defeat in as many home matches against the visitors was taking shape.
Not a bit of it. Nick Macleod showed great footwork to make a killing break of his own and Nick Gill claimed the touchdown. Craig Evans succeeded with a very tricky conversion across the teeth of the wind and the whole side fully deserved the rapturous reception as they headed for the half-time tunnel.
Early in the second half the lead changed hands twice as Thomas and then Evans traded penalty goals, but 15-13 was not a comfortable position with the Neath tempo increasing. Now it was the turn of Cardiff’s defence to make its mark and for the remaining half-hour covered itself in glory. But first there was attacking opportunism as well.
Surviving near capitation from a swinging arm on half way, Owen Ruttley, a late pre-match replacement for Darren Allinson, raced away from the tap penalty, made 30 metres on a corkscrewing run and found Richard Jones for a tumultuous try under the posts. Evans’ straightforward conversion stretched the lead to a much more agreeable 22-13 after 50 minutes. That was reduced to a single point after Thomas kicked a 25-metre penalty goal but failed to convert a bulldozing try by Martin Morgan.
Now the chips were down and it was Cardiff who cleaned up. Thomas missed with two speculative attempts at penalty goal, Evans succeeded with one of his own and Neath needed to manufacture a late try if they were to come back. They nearly did but Powell pulled off an exceptional cover tackle in his own 22 after a Neath attack swept 70 metres up the right touchline.
And at the very end came a sight to gladden every Blue & Black heart. Requiring ‘safe ball’ at a defensive lineout, Grav’s pack went one better, catch-and-driving all of 35 metres to put their final imprint on their latest victory.
Beforehand, Justin Burnell had called for the momentum of recent weeks to be maintained. He got it.