Despite the match finishing three tries apiece it was Merthyr that earned the Valleys Derby bragging rights after a tough eighty-minutes of rugby at The Wern.
Pontypridd’s already injury-ravaged set of backs was dealt a further blow when Ryan Wilkins pulled out with injury prior to kick off. Kyan Lewis moved from the bench to replace him with young University of South Wales back Oli Shepherd coming into the matchday squad. Oli joined his USW team mate Dylan Kelly on Ponty’s bench.
Pontypridd got this early-afternoon match underway and the opening exchanges were frenetic, both teams having possession of the ball but the territory was all in favour of Merthyr.
The home side had the first few decent chances in the match, but Merthyr’s first mini-period of pressure in the first five minutes came to nothing after some strong Ponty defence forced a ball-spill in contact. Then a few minutes later Merthyr had a great attacking platform via a lineout deep in Ponty’s 22 only for Cally James to steal it superbly off the Ironmen’s throw.
Pontypridd’s first real attacking platform came after quarter of an hour when, after they were awarded a penalty for ‘holding on’ at the ruck, Josh Phillips kicked Ponty to just outside Merthyr’s 22. The Valley Commandos won the lineout and some slick hands worked an opening for right winger Tom Edwards but the final pass and running line didn’t align and the chance was missed.
Shortly after this chance it was Merthyr that got the first points of the match. Ponty looked to have secured a good turnover on halfway but Cally James was adjudged to have placed his hands past the ball when winning it. From the resulting penalty Josh Lewis nudged Merthyr deep into Ponty’s 22 and when the rolling maul formed from the lineout win, it yielded a try for Ellis Shipp. Lewis kicked the conversion for a 7-0 lead after 17 minutes.
Five minutes later Merthyr turned down a kickable penalty-goal in favour of going to the corner, but more solid Ponty defence kept them out before winning a penalty at a scrum a couple of minutes later.
Unfortunately from Ponty’s point of view the first half of the match was almost exclusively played in their own half, apart from the occasional fleeting visit into Merthyr territory. Just over half an hour played and Merthyr flyhalf Josh Lewis put a kick through which was about to skip out for a 50:22 so Josh Phillips did his utmost to keep the ball in play, but in doing so knocked on. The Ironmen had a scrum five metres out in the right hand corner and from that solid platform they spun the ball left and Lloyd Rowlands dived over for the home side’s second try down the left – extras added for 14-0 after 32 minutes.
Pontypridd showed some real intent from the restart – a superb run from Tom Edwards was followed by some good handling and this was backed up by a great carry by Aled Ward, and Ponty were putting some real pressure on the home side in their 22 for the first time in the contest. A few minutes before the break Ponty were awarded a penalty and turned down an easy three points to go into the corner. The decision paid off when Rob Jones crashed over at the back of the lineout-rolling maul. The conversion was missed but it was all to play for in the second half.
HALF TIME – Merthyr 14-5 Pontypridd
The second half started with some kick-tennis before Ponty worked a good opening five minutes into the second period from a lineout 40 metres out. The ball was secured and play swept across the pitch right, before the ball was spun back left to the dangerous Tom Edwards but he was hauled down into touch ten metres before the Merthyr try-line.
Shortly after this, and despite Ponty’s positive endeavours it was Merthyr that extended their lead. A punt over the top and a foot race forced Ponty to carry the ball over their own try-line. From the 5-metre scrum the Ironmen worked an opening down the left for Lloyd Rowlands to score his second try against his old club. The extras were added and Merthyr led 21-5 after 51 minutes.
Ponty were down on the scoreboard, but far from out and despite being three scores behind showed lots of heart to drag themselves back into this Valleys Derby. At this point, such are the sheer amount of injuries amongst the Ponty backs Sion Parry saw himself playing the rest of the match at outside centre.
After some sustained Pontypridd pressure and multiple penalty awards, Merthyr fullback Ben Jones was binned for a misdemeanour at the breakdown. Even more Ponty pressure followed and skipper for the day Macauley Cook was the recipient of another rolling maul-try. Josh Phillips missed a tough conversion but Pontypridd were back in the contest albeit 21-10 behind.
In the 67th minute more Ponty pressure secured another penalty, and another kickable one. But again they rolled the dice, kicked into the corner but this time the gamble didn’t pay off when Merthyr disrupted and cleared their lines.
It’s fair to say that the first half was all-Merthyr, but the second half was a real arm-wrestle. The closing stages saw Pontypridd looking for the try that would give the match a grandstand finish whilst Merthyr were looking for the try to give themselves a bonus point win. It was to Ponty’s credit that the former part of the previous statement was true when Josh Phillips jinked his way over for a try in the dying seconds. Phillips was receiving treatment for an injury sustained whilst scoring so Joseph Scrivens took the conversion, but it slammed against the upright.
There were thirty seconds left on the clock when Merthyr restarted and despite Ponty gathering, being awarded a penalty which allowed them to work their way up to halfway it wasn’t to be when possession was lost and Merthyr booted the ball out of play for the final whistle.
A stoic effort saw Pontypridd head home south down the A470 with a losing bonus point for their efforts.
FULL TIME – Merthyr 21-15 Pontypridd (3/2/2024)
Match report – Geraint Thomas
15. Josh Phillips. 14. Tom Edwards. 13. Garyn Smith. 12. Kyan Lewis (Cai James). 11. Cavan Davies (Oli Shepherd). 10. Joseph Scrivens. 9. Joel Raikes (Harvey Nash).
1. Ben Stephens (Kian Mattravers). 2. Rob Jones (Dylan Kelly). 3. Tom Harper (Morgan Bosanko). 4. Mitch Barnard (Kristian Parker). 5. Macauley Cook (c). 6. Cally James. 7. Sion Parry. 8. Aled Ward (Joe Miles).
Subs: 16. Dylan Kelly. 17. Kian Mattravers. 18. Morgan Bosanko. 19. Kristian Parker. 20. Cai James. 21. Harvey Nash. 22. Joe Miles. 23. Oli Shepherd.
Tries: Rob Jones, Macauley Cook, Josh Phillips
15. Ben Jones. 14. Morgan Meaclem. 13. Cole Swannack. 12. Seb Ripley. 11. Lloyd Rowlands. 10. Josh Lewis. 9. Ethan Lloyd.
1. Travis Hawkins. 2. Ellis Shipp. 3. Rhys Lewis. 4. Craig Locke. 5. Callum Bradbury. 6. Chad Thomas. 7. Lennon Greggains. 8. Paddy McBride (c).
Subs: 16. Liam Wiggins. 17. Callum Lewis. 18. Dave Whiting. 19. Tom Davies. 20. Kian Evans. 21. Nathan Griffiths. 22. Gareth Thompson. 23. Adam Hoskins.
Tries: Ellis Shipp, Lloyd Rowlands x 2
Conversions: Josh Lewis x 3
Yellow Card: Ben Jones
Referee: Simon Mills
Assistant referees: 1 – Karim Cosslett, 2 – Owen Wrangham
WRU Man of the Match: Tom Edwards