The Blue & Blacks came of age at the Gnoll as they succeeded where all their predecessors failed. They thoroughly deserved a first-ever cup victory over Neath on their own ground thanks to a wholehearted defensive performance, an overwhelming superiority in the lineouts, and a willingness to move the ball at every opportunity. The icing on the cake was provided by a brace of outstanding tries that would have graced any cup encounter of the past.
The first came in the 16th minute when Ross Johnston burst onto a flat pass in midfield and, with everyone expecting him to do the decent thing worthy of all hookers (that is, look for support and offload the ball at the first opportunity), he bamboozled all and sundry by simply keeping on running for all of 40 metres, finishing with a flourish that saw him take on and beat the last of three would-be tacklers on the outside. Craig Evans converted from half way out on the left and the 7-nil lead was the perfect start to what was to be a memorable afternoon.
Golden moment number two arrived in the 13th minute of the second half. Again jack-in-the-box Johnston was involved as the pack smuggled turnover ball deep in Neath’s half and he took route one to the posts. This time he had the bulk of the opposition blocking him at close quarters but still he made the hard yards before recycling the ball for it to be spun wide to the right. There seemed every likelihood of the backs running out of space only for Jamie Roberts to take the final pass. He had already contributed a coruscating tackle to bury a Neath attacker in a classic one-on-one last ditch situation. Now he was to use his power to squeeze over inches inside the corner flag. As Neath and sundry touchline staff disputed the decision, all of Cardiff celebrated because it was to be the killer blow of the match, even though Evans’ towering attempt at the conversion rebounded off the far post.
A twelve point cushion against a home side already smarting from a couple of deserved yellow cards - one against centre Spratt in the 16th minute after persistent killing the ball and a second when wing Kevin James took out Adam Powell in mid-air as he went for a high box kick in the 41st minute - was a good but not impregnable position against Neath at the Gnoll. Seasoned Cardiff travellers wondered when the traditional ten-minute points’ spree would rear its familiar if ugly head. It never happened. The pattern of the game had long been set: magnificent lineout work by Chris Stamatakis and James Down, as safe as houses on their own ball and featuring seven ‘steals’ on Neath throw-ins in the first half alone. Then there was the impressive handling skills of the pack, augmented by a confident willingness to off-load before and during contact.
Neath, albeit the rather pedestrian 2007 model, were visibly shaken. They took some solace from a magnificent 48-metre penalty goal from Arwel Thomas three minutes after Roberts’ try. Yet no sooner had he opened his side’s account than he was mysteriously replaced by Gareth Bowen. There was some speculation that the former Wales’ fly-half was injured, though he walked off in no apparent discomfort. Whatever the reason, Neath suffered as a result. Bowen missed two penalty goals from 25 and 42 metres, the second after Gareth Gravell was sin-binned for killing the ball. But in the 70th minute, the lead was reduced to a mere two points when he successfully converted a try by another Neath replacement, scrum-half Gareth James from a midfield scrum after a Cardiff 22 drop out had gone into touch on the full.
There were inevitable anxieties about another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory but this Cardiff team was made of sterner stuff. Despite losing their first lineout of the day in the 79th minute, they held out a sweeping home attack and cleared from the ensuing scrum. The reaction from coach Justin Burnell at the final whistle said it all. When the excitement had died down he said, “This was a real team effort and something that the squad as a whole needed after all the hard work this season. They showed great character. When the cup draw was made a few people forecast a quick exit for us but we always took the view that to progress in the competition you have to beat the best at some time. This afternoon we did just that.”