By Glyn Barlow
8.00pm KO @ The Gnoll
It doesn’t seem that long since we were previewing the team’s final game of last season against Fylde (which for the record was a very fine 57-0 win) and here we are embarking on the pre-season games for 2017/18 with a trip to South Wales this Friday.
As has been the case in recent seasons we look forward to the game with a mixture of excitement, anticipation and trepidation for a step into the unknown. Wholesale changes on the playing front sees a new coaching team at the helm and two thirds of the squad new to the club. Suggesting how the team will approach the fixture, let alone the result, is almost impossible.
Last season the men in black were the first visitors of the season to Billesley Common, with Birmingham Moseley securing a 31-14 victory. The win was achieved on the basis of a strong forward performance; with Jacques Le Roux, in his first game for the club, very much to the fore. As one of only seven players that day still with the club we will need to look for a big performance from him again.
Despite the relatively small number of players who faced Neath last season the team can call on some tactical input from new signings James Dixon and Rob Lewis who will have faced the Welsh All Blacks when playing for Bedwas and Ebbw Vale respectively.
Last season Neath finished the first part of the revamped and expanded Principality Premiership in 14th place having won 14 of their 24 fixtures. In the new format for the league the teams split into two with Neath going on to finish second in tier 2 (the bottom 8 teams in the “regular” season league) on equal points with top placed Newport who just pipped them on games won. The impressive improvement during Tier 2 was underlined by the fact that the team averaged nearly 30 points per game. In the subsequent Tier 2 play-off final at the Gnoll Neath went down to Newport 14-32.
This season the league swaps (again) to separate East & West leagues, coming together to form one league of 16 for the final part of the season. In preparation for the upcoming campaign Neath have recruited wings Richard Smith, a former Wales Sevens international, from Llanelli and James Roberts from Glynneath, full back Mike Evans and scrum half Scott Gibson from Llandovery plus No 8 Scott Hicks from Maesteg. On the debit side last season’s top try scorer Aaron Grabham (25) has moved on to Bridgend.
Last weekend the men from West Glamorgan undertook their first pre-season match at National Plate finalists Ystalyfera securing a 17-38 victory, picking up six tries in the process. With all tries being scored by the backline it suggests Neath will be giving Head Coach Simon Cross’ defensive strategy a good testing.
The challenge of a hard game in Wales is just the sort of fixture the team needs to steel themselves for the league campaign, let’s hope they can return with a good win.
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