A local derby in the Championship League during the seasonal period for both teams, but Otter fans, starved of a Boxing Day fixture, travelled into Ceredigion in considerable numbers to swell a large holiday crowd at the Newcastle Emlyn Dol Wiber riverside ground.
Those present received a souvenir programme celebrating 40 years of Newcastle Emlyn Rugby Club, whose beginnings were built on the enthusiasm of a few, but who were supported by the local community.
In their inaugural season, on their first outing, they managed to produce two sides, playing the second team of Laugharne and third team of Cardigan.
The club secretary was Chris Jones, who is still secretary today and has seen the club rise in reputation and develop both on and off the field. The club captain of that 1977/78 season was Ieuan Evans who in the 1960s along with his brother Towyn played for Narberth, both captaining the Otters in the then Pembrokeshire League. After his playing days with a young family, Towyn put his efforts into his home club, eventually as chairman and more recently as president. Ieuan stayed with Narberth and along with his wife Jessie are staunch supporters of the Otters.
The Otters last Saturday were without Ianto Griffiths, Rhys Lane, Ryan Banner, Sean Jenkins and Richard Rees. Starting respectively at scrum-half and fly-half were young Lewys Gibby and Jonathan Rogers, while in the back row were Dewi Williams, Tom Powell and Steffan Phillips.
The recent wet weather played a part, providing a sodden and heavy pitch.
Newcastle Emlyn kicked off and for a few minutes both teams resorted to a kicking duel, until Emlyn kicked to touch standside. Alex Jenkins leapt high to provide the basis for a rolling maul, before being forced to break forward. At the breakdown, the Otters rucked, enabling Lewys Gibby to supply Jonathan Rogers, who produced one of his long kicks. Chasing forward, centre Paul Davies collected before being brought down near the posts. Emlyn were adjudged to have offended at the ruck and on four minutes Jonathan Rogers made short work of kicking three points as a result.
Both teams adjusted their play to the heavy wet conditions. Having advanced into the Otters’ half, Emlyn set up an eight-phased movement, before kicking into the 22. At the subsequent lineout, about 10 metres from the Otters line, they failed with a rolling maul, with the referee awarding a scrum to the Otters.
The Emlyn back row were then hoodwinked by Lewys Gibby who, instead of kicking, sprinted forward, quickly supported by the back row, enabling the Otters to move into the Emlyn 22, where the home side were penalised at the ruck. The ball was kicked forward into touch and from the lineout, the Otters’ pack set up a rolling maul before being forced to ruck.
Lewys Gibby fed Jonathan Rogers, who chip kicked to wing Liam Hutchings, who was challenged and tackled by fullback Dan Davies, but via a second movement was able to touch down in the far corner for an unconverted try, giving the Otters an 8-0 lead.
A few minutes later, the Otters were penalised and ex-Tenby and Otters player, Ashley Sutton, playing at fly-half for Emlyn, took over the kicking duties from the injured Dan Davies to give his side three points.
Emlyn had three heavy, ball-carrying forwards who attempted to break through the gain line with determined and powerful surges, but the Otters were well prepared and ensured they made little progress with their stout defending and when possible kicking long into touch.
Emlyn took off fullback Dan Davies, who was struggling with a leg injury, being replaced by Joel Jones, which caused a reorganisation of their backline.
On 22 minutes, in stopping another Emlyn forward charge, the Otters were penalised for a high tackle when flanker Joel James forced his way through three tacklers. Ashley Sutton was again on target with the kick, adding another three points and bringing the score to 8-6.
At this point, Emlyn took off injured second row Dan Havard, replacing him with Luke Kendall.
Taking a penalty, Jonathan Rogers put in another huge kick to touch. At the lineout, Alex Jenkins gained control and steered the pack in a rolling maul, ending over the line with Alex touching down for an unconverted try.
For the remaining 15 minutes, Emlyn set up numerous attacks, only to be stopped in their tracks by the well-organised Otters defence.
When the whistle went for half-time the Otters led 13-6.
Reflecting on the half, it was the Otters who gained the upper hand with the two tries, despite Emlyn spending much time with the ball. However, the well-organised Otters defence was proving too strong for the home side.
Immediately after half-time, the Otters were awarded a penalty just inside their half. Up stepped Nick Gale, who in past seasons has shown his ability with long range penalties. On this occasion, he achieved the height and range, but the westerly wind took it to one side of the posts.
On 48 minutes, showing good line speed on Emlyn’s 22-metre line, the Otters turned over the ball via Steffan Phillips, who slipped it on to the backs and they spread it wide across the heavy ground, enabling wing Jack Parkinson to sprint close to the far touchline to score the third try in the corner. The conversion attempt failed..
A minute later, Tom Powell was yellow carded for an offence on the ground, but Ashley Sutton failed to add points for Emlyn.
With the Otters down to 14 men, the advantage stirred Emlyn into attempting a number of attacks into the visitors’ half, but either the Otters’ defence or ground conditions or a combination of both thwarted their threequarters.
A minute later, the Otters were again penalised, enabling Sutton to kick to touch on the 22. Emlyn captain Alex Williams threw long. The ball was taken by the back row and fed to Williams, who drove forward before being pulled down near the posts. Emlyn retrieved the ball and flanker Joel Jones drove forward, again being tackled near the try line. The ruck enabled Emlyn second row Kendall to attempt a further charge for the line, only to be swamped by the dour Otters’ defence.
The Otters retrieved the ball via hard-working Bradley Davies and Jonathan Rogers was able to clear the danger.
On 60 minutes, the Narberth coaches took the opportunity to begin introducing fresh legs. Young Rhys Davies went on for Bradley Davies, Rhodri Owen for veteran Dan Smith, followed by a leaner looking Adam Clark, home from London for the Christmas holiday, replacing second row Jake Simm.
Further Emlyn attacks were snuffed out by a dogged defence. Then on 75 minutes, Emlyn were rewarded for their efforts when captain Alex Williams, using every ounce of effort, managed to shrug off a few would-be tacklers to burst over the line by the posts and, with Sutton converting, it narrowed the score to 18-13.
Lewis Gibby, who had played well throughout, was withdrawn, with Jonathan Rogers moving to scrum-half and Jake Jenkins taking over at fly-half. Nick Gale was replaced by Moritz Neumann.
Now at the base of the scrum, Rogers kicked Emlyn back into their half. Keiron Jones made a powerful run and when brought down, Emlyn were penalised, enabling Rogers to add a further three points with his penalty kick.
Emlyn restarted and then suffered the wrath of the referee for indiscipline. With time running out, Otters captain Alex Jenkins chose a scrum instead of kicking for a five-metre lineout or kicking for three points. The referee penalised the first scrum and penalised again. This time the Otters drove for the line via Alex Jenkins. Several rucks occurred as the Otters attempted to cross the line, before flanker Tom Powell broke away and dived over for an unconverted, bonus point try.
The referee blew full-time with the score at 26-13, giving the Otters and their supporters a real holiday treat. Emlyn had attempted to use the heavy conditions and tactical kicking with strong forward surges, but the Otters’ defence was too strong on the day.
The threes, when opportunities occurred, showed great ability. Clearly the game plan worked and the game showed the confidence and spirit within the squad.
Reflecting on the game, head coach Sean Gale commented that it had been a good win with an excellent defence.
“We were in a good place last week, but we seem to be getting in a better place each week,” he said. “We had a lot of boys missing, we are not able to put out our best side and the boys stepping in are going well. We brought on Moritz Neumann and Jake Jenkins. In September they were not able to claim their place. There was no Ianto Griffiths, Sean Jenkins or Richard Rees and we still won with a bonus point. We are in a fantastic place.
“Alex Jenkins made a tremendous decision to go for the bonus point try when he could have had a three-point penalty. It demonstrates the ambition of the squad.
“Keirion Jones had his best game for the club, Dewi Williams had his best game. Both were defensively strong. Lewys Gibby is coming through nicely. Tom Powell played despite a heavy commitment. In fact, the whole back row played well.
“Next we play Premier League side Bedwas, there is no expectation on us, but we will play with confidence, we have a strong defence and it will be good to play a team from a higher league.”
Narberth fielded: Nick Gale (Moritz Neumann), Liam Hutchings, Keirion Jones, Paul Davies, Jack Parkinson, Jonathan Rogers, Lewys Gibby (Jake Jenkins), Bradley Davies (Rhys Davies), Dan Smith (Rhodri Owens), Tom Slater, Jake Simm (Adam Clark), Alex Jenkins (capt.), Dewi Williams, Tom Powell, Steffan Phillips.