Leigh Halfpenny set the tone for a successful afternoon at the Gnoll with a fifth minute penalty goal and the Blue & Blacks were never headed as their added a Premiership win to their cup scalp last season.
Halfpenny went on to make an impressive contribution but the entire team deserves a pat on the back for a marvellous defensive effort in the second half in particular. Neath have been lauded for their achievements in recent seasons but their third defeat against a top-six club this campaign might give them food for thought. The mantle of big-spenders in domestic club rugby has firmly passed to them (where allegedly and ironically the ‘c-book charlies’ label originated when pointing in an easterly direction) and now they may be experiencing the same difficulties in matching pounds and performances. Whatever, this result was a significant victory for the development lobby.
Cardiff mirrored their opponents in one respect by not announcing their starting line-up beforehand, a classic case of ‘When in Rome...’ but took the field with Ben White and Mark Lewis on permit from the Blues, Darren Ryan making his senior debut after previous experience with Cardiff under-21s, and Owen Ruttley reprising his former role as captain. Neath player-coach Jason Forster started at open-side flanker and captain and Arwel Thomas was at fly-half, club captain and former Blue & Black Martin Morgan at lock, with two other ex-Cardiff forwards Ross Davies and Gareth Gravell also in their 22.
Halfpenny and Thomas exchanged penalties in the first 15 minutes but it was Cardiff who were showing the greater attacking intent. Their reward came when text-book passing provided Halfpenny with the hint of an overlap on the left and he flew over near the corner and then added the extras. The youngster’s elevation to first-choice goalkicker was an interesting sub-plot to the game plan, allowing Craig Evans to concentrate on his pivot’s role. But when the opportunity came to attempt an outrageous downwind 60-metre plus penalty in the 38th minute, he was not shy and missed only narrowly. Two minutes later Halfpenny successfully resumed the role from all of 20 metres and the half-time whistle followed immediately with a fairly satisfactory 13-3 lead.
There were understandable concerns about a second half into the strong wind and with Arwel and also Howard Thomas ready to maximise any penalty chances. But the latter failed with a 35-metre attempt and moments later the visitors were back on the attack. After initial surges by Ryan Howells and then Mark Lewis the ball was recycled to the open-side and Gareth Chapman cut the last line of defence for a fine try; Halfpenny nervelessly converted and now the lead was 20-3.
It was always likely that the Welsh All Blacks would come back but not, on this occasion, with any great purpose. Howard Thomas succeeded with a close-range penalty goal and converted a 65th minute try by Ross Davies.
But Cardiff survived the final 15 minutes with something to spare and twice came close to adding a third try. In the end, the 20-13 victory was enough in itself and Justin Burnell was right to hail their regrouping after the desultory performance seven days earlier at Llanelli.