By Gary Baker at The Gnoll, Neath
RUGBY League was the big winner at The Gnoll, Neath, on Friday as ten teams from across South Wales played outstanding stuff at the Champion Schools Finals. It was the first time that all five finals were played on the same ground and on the same day and it did not disappoint at all.
The matches were from Year Seven to Year 11 with Ystlafera, Cwm Rhymni, Pencoed, Lewis Boys and Strady, Llanelli, picking up the titles although all their opponents – Cwm Rhymni (Year Seven), St Joseph’s Port Talbot (Year Eight), St Joseph’s Newport (Year Nine), Ystlafera (Year Ten) and St John’s Aberdare (Year 11) contributed enormously to the great finals.
And the added bonus were some brilliant individual performances from players who have shown brilliant promise for the future of the game in Wales.
Top of the list in terms of matches and individualism was the Year Ten match between Ystlafera and Lewis Boys which neither side deserved to lose but which ended in a dramatic conversion from Conor Hathaway for the Boys to come from behind and win 46-44 having trailed for most of the second-half.
The individualism came via two supreme efforts. Ystalfera’s Keiran Williams could not stop scoring and ran in five of his side’s eight tries while Lewis Boys’ Patrick Lewis did even better with a magnificent seven tries out of the nine scored by his team.
Ystlafera looked to have the game wrapped up as they lead by ten points for a lot of the second-half but, with seconds to go and after Lewis had returned from the sin-bin, the Boys snatched the win after Ystlafera lost the ball in what would have been the final set of six of the game.
That final Lewis try left the scores level and Golden Point extra time was the next option. But the try was under the posts and Hathaway held his cool to slot over the conversion and start the Lewis Boys’ celebrations.
Ystlafera had one trophy to take back to school, though, after their Year Seven side beat Cwm Rhymni in an enjoyable final that saw Ystlafera’s Ben Griffin score a hat-trick of tries and send the cheering school supporters in the stands into overdrive.
Cwm Rhymni had their revenge in the Year Eight final as a ding-dong battle with St Joseph’s Port Talbot went down to the last ten minutes before tries from Eli Shuffley and Shane Reynolds drove the valleys team into an unassailable lead.
Tom Williams was another to have a great individual day at The Gnoll as his hat-trick of tries helped Pencoed through to the Year Nine title at the expense of St Joseph’s Newport. Pencoed were 16-6 up at half-time and kept the momentum going right the the game, with captain Tommy Reffell scoring the last of the six tries for a 30-16. It means Pencoed retain their Champion Schools title at the next age group level having won as Under Eights in 2012.
And Strady rounded off an incredible rise for rugby league in the Llanelli area, which included three players who are age group internationals in the union code, to overwhelm St John’s 50-20.
Rhodri Rees scored three tries and kicked five conversions for a personal haul of 22 points and was also dazzling to break through the St John’s gaps. Matthew Pearce, at centre, was the man of the match but St John’s had their own really good prospect in Garyn Payne who scored two tries and two conversions in his side’s total.
Overall, the matches were really good, and sometimes, as with the Year Ten game, breathtaking in skill and competition and proved again that rugby league is thriving in the schools of Wales.