The Steelmen missed out on the chance to close the gap at the top as they slumped to a bonus-point defeat against the resurgent Wizards, allowing the Drovers to stretch their lead with a win at Swansea.
Aberavon’s victory was their first in five games and their first at home since the opening day of the season. Coming five days after they were beaten 64-26 by Cardiff at the Arms Park it was a massive change in fortunes.
It was enough to have long-standing head coach Jason Hyatt moved to tears as he faced the cameras after the game.
“I’m very proud of the players because it’s been a tough week – we needed that! There was a lot of soul searching carried out after a disappointing result last weekend,” said Hyatt.
“We had a very honest and open meeting on Tuesday when we focused on what we needed to do to get out of where we are. It was all about good old fashioned values.
“We used an old Mike Tyson quote to try to get a reaction – there are two types of people in this world, those who get punched in the face and get beaten, or those who come out swinging.
“We came out swinging against Ebbw Vale. Hopefully, we can build from this and take it forward into the rest of the season.”
Ebbw’s defeat also opened the door for Newport to move up to second when they host bottom of the table Neath. If the Black & Ambers can pick up a bonus-point win they can leapfrog their two Gwent rivals, Pontypool and Ebbw Vale, and enhance their title challenge.
Everything started well enough for Ebbw against a side that was coming off the back of a hammering against Cardiff at the Arms Park five days earlier. The Wizards had lost their previous four matches and hadn’t won at home since the opening day of the season.
Ebbw Vale dominated the opening quarter and were first to score with a try from Owen Conquer after a snipe by scrum half Jonathan Evans from a close-range scrum. The Wizards had been defending for their lives and refused to buckle as they had done at the Arms Park last time out.
They managed to score with their first chance, when hooker Cam Lewis burrowed over from a driving line-out move and went into the break only trailing by 7-5. Former Ospreys wing Jay Baker then latched onto a neat cross kick two minutes into the second half to run in for a try that gave his side the lead.
Lloyd replied with two penalties to edge The Steelmen back in front, but on the hour mark a Bradley Roderick kick through and regather paved the way for replacement scrum half Aaron Hemmings to cross to put the Wizards ahead 19-13.
Then a Frankie Jones try in the 74th minute broke the hearts of The Steelmen as it earned the home side a bonus point and ensured the visitors left with nothing.
“Aberavon is always a tough place to come, and I thought it was pretty even throughout the game, but they took their chances and ground out the win. But I’m still proud of our boys because we dug in deep and fought right to the end,” said Ebbw skipper Dom Franchi.
“It’s a long season and you always have a purple patch. The important thing is how you respond the week after you have a loss. We’ll just try to learn from our mistakes and get better.”
But reigning champions Llandovery are in the box seat at present and are showing no signs of letting up in the defence of their crown. St Helen’s should provide them with the type of surface on which they like to play and head coach Euros Evans has once again rotated his side to keep players fresh.
“There is still a long, long way to go in this league, so it would be nice to build up an even bigger cushion at the top. I’m well aware that teams will have purple patches, and that we haven’t had a bad patch as yet,” said Evans.
“We’ll be very young on Saturday. It’s important to give players minutes and to strengthen the depth of our squad.
“We know that injuries will come and there will be Wales U20 calls in the New Year. That’s why we have to keep players fit and fresh.”
Hooker Taylor Davies, who scored twice in the big home win over Newport last week, drops to the bench for the trip to Swansea, while Wales U20 candidates Macs Page and Gabe McDonald will be involved in the back line.
Pontypool have postponed their trip to north Wales to meet RGC due to a lack of front row forwards, while Cardiff will be looking to build on their big home win over Aberavon when they head to Carmarthen Quins.
Pontypridd will travel the short distance up the A470 to Merthyr to face the Ironmen at The Wern. Gareth Wyatt’s side have been vastly improved of late and will be chasing a fourth win in a row, while Merthyr are unbeaten in their last four.