IT WAS a dead rubber game in name only because Saturday’s superb, highly charged and thoroughly bad-tempered Gwent derby between Newport and Cross Keys was pure box office entertainment.
Any notion this was just going to be a phoney war affair with nothing on it was dispelled by both sets of players from the off.
They clearly weren’t going to go along with the script.
Newcastle’s 93-0 demolition of the Black and Ambers at Kingston Park before Christmas had already seen the Falcons qualify for the British and Irish Cup quarter-finals after only four pool matches.
But the weekend’s game at Rodney Parade meant so much to both Newport and Keys and they went at it hammer and tongs in a pulsating 80 minutes.
Bragging rights had been evenly shared between the two Gwent clubs this season going into this game.
Newport had drawn first blood, winning 24-20 in this competition at Pandy Park in October, only for Keys to make amends with a 29-9 bonus point win at the end of December.
Honours remain shared after Saturday’s stalemate, with everything now to play for in March’s Premiership showdown at Rodney Parade.
Newport had raced into a 16-0 lead in the opening quarter which saw no fewer than four players sent to sin bin.
Skulduggery was in and playing rugby seemed to only be optional. Referee Darren Gamage’s determination to get tough early paid dividends.
The English official first yellow-carded home lock Dafydd Rosser and visiting hooker and captain Garry Horrigan after just eight minutes.
Then opposing second rows Rhodri Jones and Dan Hodge were given their marching orders at the end of the opening quarter.
After that the game simmered down and the 1, 200 fans were treated to a fantastic encounter that yielded seven tries and ended up being a humdinger.
Newport started the game like a supersonic jet, their points coming from a fine try by their dangerous wing Elliott Frewen, a touchdown by Rosser after superb work by lively scrum-half James Leadbeater and two penalties from the boot of fly- half Tom Hancock.
Keys looked shellshocked but started to take the game by the scruff of the neck, using their dominant scrum as a platform to hit back and chip away at Newport’s healthy lead.
Visiting outside-half Dean Gunter’s try near the half-hour mark was the catalyst for an impressive comeback that saw them go from 16-0 behind to 24-16 ahead.
Gunter was guilty of missing a couple of penalties but was nothing compared to Hancock’s gaffe, he fluffed one in front of the posts on the stroke of half-time.
Keys were on the scoreboard from the restart when centre Aled James crashed over for a converted try.
And Horrigan’s men took the lead just four minutes later when scrum-half Ryan James touched down after an excellent run by replacement blindside flanker Sean Higgins.
When they crossed for their bonus-point score in the 59th minute from a penalty try after crushing Newport in the scrum, it looked as though Keys would completely run away with it.
But Newport showed great character to deny Keys victory and centre Tyler Morgan’s unconverted try brought it back to 24-21 with just under 20 minutes left on the clock.
Both sides had missed a hatful of shots at goal and decided to change their kickers.
Keys full back Gareth David slotted over a 67th-minute penalty before his opposite number got two of his own to tie the scores.
David missed two late attempts, one difficult, the other eminently kickable.
Keys ended the stronger but Newport held on for what is a rather remarkable third draw in four outings, their winless run stretching back to seven.
Newport captain and tighthead prop Gethin Robinson said: “We were very disappointed to let them back in it after going 16-0 up but I was pleased we got back into the game after leaving them start the second half so well.”
Keys head coach Greg Woods said: “It was a fair result but our pack were outstanding and we destroyed their scrum.
“I thought our youngsters Scott Matthews, Sean Higgins and Will Owen were superb.”
Newport: G O’Driscoll, O Broad (A Hewitt 55), D Robinson, W Richards, E Frewen, T Hancock (S Sneddon 74), J Leadbeater (R Downes 60), J Jeune (D Pattison 63), R Prosser (D Rogers 63), G Robinson (capt), D Rosser (J Sullivan 74), R Jones, B Lampitt (L Randall 40), O Griffiths, R Coombs.
Scorers: Tries – Elliott Frewen, Dafydd Rosser, Tyler Morgan, Penalties – Tom Hancock (2), Geraint O’Driscoll (2).
Cross Keys: G David, J Lewis, W Owen, A James, N Trowbridge, D Gunter (D Jones 78), R James (N Williams 57), R Cornock (J Johnstone 40), G Horrigan (capt), C Gould, D Hodge, O Hodge (S Higgins 29), T Lampard, S Matthews (G Price 17), A Powell (R Nash 56).
Replacement: R Dyer
Scorers: Tries – Dean Gunter, Aled James, Ryan James, Penalty Try, Conversions – Gunter (2), Penalty – Gareth David
Referee: Darren Gamage (RFU)
Argus star man: Scott Matthews