Division Three West A: Milford Haven 12–7 Aberaeron

It was never going to be pretty, but it was always going to be intense.

The clash between Milford Haven and Aberaeron had been built up as a pivotal in the Division Three West A title race - and that was reflected in a fiercely contested 80 minutes as the Mariners prevailed 12-7.

Tries from Dan McClelland and Lee Riley ultimately sealed the win while Dyfrig Dafis crossed for Aberaeron, although the home side were forced to defend like their lives depended on it in a frenzied finale.

Indeed, the jubilation and relief on the faces of the Milford players at the final whistle was evident in equal measures.

The club went to great lengths during the week to promote the fixture and it paid off as a big crowd crammed into The Obs – but perhaps unsurprisingly given two organised teams were meeting on a heavy surface, scoring chances were rare early on.

Much has been made this season about the physicality of the Aberaeron pack and the home side seemed intent on moving them around as they tried to go wide in the opening stages. Steve Martin and Dan Jenkins combined to put winger Riley away but he was bundled into touch by a covering Dafis, before a spell of Milford pressure ended when Aberaeron No 10 Rhodri Jenkins put in a big hit on namesake Dan and forced a turnover.

But as the pitch cut up, it soon became clear it wasn’t going to be an afternoon for expansion and sure enough, it was the direct approach that saw Milford take the lead 23 minutes in.

It was Martin who kicked a penalty into the 22 and then the full back himself was stopped inches short from the clean ball that followed, but after a series of forward drives in which Dewi Williams also went close, No 9 McClelland dummied and darted over. James Trueman converted from out wide.

But Aberaeron responded. Centre Ollie Sawyer, one of the standout players from both sides, broke free in midfield but then put too much on his chip ahead.

No 10 Jenkins was then uncharacteristically off target with a penalty before Sawyer again surged into the Milford 22, but after he was hauled down home flanker Ryan Mansell was first to the break down to force a crucial turnover.

However, having been rock solid in defence towards the end of the first half the Mariners shot themselves in the foot at the start of the second.

They failed to clear their lines as outside half Efan Morgan was caught on his own line, and when the ball went loose it was Dafis who pounced for the try. Jenkins converted and with 35 minutes left, the contest was back in the balance.

But the Mariners then upped the ante. With No 8 Mark Wonnacott as prominent as ever, the pack began to carry with more purpose and three times in quick succession Aberaeron were penalised. From the last of those penalties McClelland went quickly and nearly forced his way to the line, but moments after that attack broke down the defining score came.

It was centre Dan Birch who set the platform as his burst took him within 10 metres, and after McClelland opted to go blind Martin’s miss pass was gathered by Riley and he dived over in the corner. Trueman was short with the conversion but Milford soon turned the screw again, and from a driving lineout Aberaeron hooker Sion James was yellow carded for collapsing the maul.

Mansell was next to threaten with a powerful break and chip ahead but it came to nothing, and after Aber survived the 10 minutes with 14 men, the tide turned.

Suddenly it was visitors forcing the penalties and Jenkins frequently kicked his side into attacking positions, while Milford second row David Round, otherwise a key figure all day for his side in the lineout and the loose, was fortunate to escape a card for a late hit.

Then came a frenzied finish. With second rows Gethin Hughes and Bleddyn Thomas to the fore an Aberaeron lineout drive took them with metres of the line but after a series of ‘pick and go’s’ referee Ian Jones blew for accidental offside.

From the final play, another close range lineout chance came followed by two penalties in front of the posts. Both times Aber chose to run them and at one point seemed to fashion an overlap but the scrambled Milford defence halted Morgan Llewellyn out wide – and after a number of phases eventually it was home prop Zac France-Miller whose work on the ground won his side a penalty and prompted a roar from players and supporters alike.

Tempers had flared in the final quarter and then came another melee here, but after referee Jones restored order, it was Trueman who ended matters at the subsequent penalty by hoofing the ball off the field.

Nathan Williams (Milford head coach):

“I’m happy with that.

“The hunger we showed in the last 10 minutes is something you can’t coach. It’s a pleasure to be part of the group at the moment.

“We upped it a notch after they scored in the second half. If there is one disappointment it’s that we didn’t capitalise when they went down to 14 men but I’m not going to be critical of the boys today. It’s a big win and we go again next week.”

Man of the match: Ryan Mansell

It was always going to be a day for the tenacious.

And Mansell was exactly that. His speed to the breakdown was showcased with one vital defensive turnover in the first half, and his work rate in defence was pivotal.

But just as importantly, he played with head as well as heart. His tendency to live on the edge has led to yellow cards this season but yesterday he picked his moments cleverly. When an Aberaeron player was isolated he was all over it, but at dead rucks he was quickly into the defensive line in midfield.

His link up play, and break and chip ahead in the second half also stood out and he epitomised the effort of the Mariners. I’d imagine he’ll be struggling to move much this morning – and not because of a night in Circles either.

Milford come through a major test:

The conditions were never going to allow for a classic today, but at kick off you sensed an absorbing clash was coming.

In their crunch games this season, namely Haverfordwest home and away, Laugharne, Neyland, and yesterday, Milford have come through by less than a single score. This is a side not only with the squad to win the league, but one prepared to dig deep to do so.

There were two periods today of huge significance. When the Mariners were pegged back by that Dafis try it would have been easy for them to have lost momentum and composure. Instead, they immediately upped the pace and took things by the scruff of the neck, culminating in that Riley try.

And of course in the final few minutes it was simply bodies on the line. I was slightly dubious by the huge emphasis the Mariners had put on the game via social media and so on, and it’s often easy to lose focus when you hype up matches. But talk the talk, walk the walk – and Nathan Williams and co did just that.

Aberaeron will be naturally disappointed. To have conceded so soon after getting back level was a body blow but you have to credit their resilience. Midway through the second half the game was going away from them and yet they rallied and threw everything into the closing stages. Coach Justin Wilson will rue this late missed chances, but he can have no complaints about the commitment shown.

One hand on the title?:

Milford are now five points clear of Neyland in second, but with two games in hand. Laugharne and Aberaeron have played less than the Mariners but are 17 and 19 points off respectively.

It was refreshing afterwards to hear Williams, despite the obvious elation, immediately speak about concentrating on Tregaron next week. He and Steve Martin will be guarding against complacency and the old cliché of ‘one game at a time’ will be frequently re-iterated.

After all they still have more big games to come, the reverse fixture of this clash among them, and in the next four consecutive weeks they go to Mid Wales, welcome old friends Neyland, and then play home and away with Llanybydder. Yesterday would have taken a lot out of them mentally and physically and the squad will have to be managed carefully.

But having said all that, the reality now is this.

It’s Milford’s title to lose.

Milford Haven: Steve Martin, Lee Riley, Dan Jenkins, Dan Birch, James Trueman, Efan Morgan, Dan McClelland, Zac France-Miller, Luke Ryan, Adam Rees (capt), Brandon Cooper, David Round, Dewi Williams, Ryan Mansell, Mark Wonnacott. Replacements: Nathan Williams, Chris Hall, Ben Groves, Garin Gardner, Craig Thomas.

Aberaeron: Morgan Llewelyn, Dyfrig Dafis, Dafydd Llewelyn, Ollie Sawyer, Rhodri Thomas, Rhodri Jenkins, Gareth James, Owain Wozencraft, Sion Evans, Alex Danton (capt), Gethin Hughes, Bleddyn Thomas, Aaron William Lewis, Daniel Lewis, Tudur Jenkins. Replacements: Matt Roberts, Ceri Dorian Davies, Dafydd Lloyd, Lewis Tomlins, Gethin Dafis.

Referee: Ian Jones.