CROSS Keys are through to the Principality Premiership play-offs for the first time after a stunning bonus win over big rivals Newport in a superb game of rugby that was a huge credit to both sides.
The hosts just about squeezed home but the Black and Ambers were desperately unlucky not to emerge as party poopers.
Newport hammered away at the Keys try-line in the closing stages but the home side lifted the siege, breathing a collective sigh of relief after being pushed all the way but guaranteeing themselves a shot at being crowned league champions, also for the first time.
Pontypridd have guaranteed their spot and home advantage in the grand final and it will be down to Keys and Carmarthen Quins to battle it out for the right to join them.
Llandovery’s 15-14 bonus point defeat at the Quins wasn’t enough to keep them in the mix because they are five points behind Keys with just a game to go, the Gwent Valleys men ending the season with more victories than them come what may, which means they can’t now be caught.
Keys can secure home advantage in the second versus third play-off but matters are out of their hands.
They will have to at least win at Bridgend on Saturday and hope Quins pick up no points from their visit to Aberavon.
It all could have been so different but they held their nerve to beat a rapidly improving Newport side who could challenge for honours next season if they can consistently perform like this in the campaign to come.
An entertaining first half saw Keys lead 18-13 and it was they who went 6-0 up after two early penalties by outside-half Dorian Jones.
The excellent Newport full-back Geraint O’Driscoll slotted over two of his own, he ended the game going past two milestones in surpasssing 200 league points for the season and chalking up 300 in his Black and Ambers career, before Keys scored the opening try.
About the only blot on O’Driscoll’s copy book was that he was robbed by Jones as the visitors made an ill-fated counter attack deep in their own half before the ball was recycled and lock Dan Hodge romped home for his 11th try of the season.
Jones converted to make it 13-6 but Keys joy was short-lived after Newport hit back immediately when their classy wing Owen Broad scored a stunning solo try to ghost through the home defence for a score that the legendary Shane Williams would have been proud of, O’Driscoll’s conversion drawing his side back on equal terms.
Newport had looked the livelier in the opening half, openside Ollie Griffiths setting off on a terrific run and promising right wing Ashton Hewitt looking dangerous.
But it was Keys who scored a crucial try just before half-time when Jones finished well after a patient build up by his teammates saw hooker Henry Palmer and openside flanker Scott Matthews combine to nearly put full-back Ryan Lee over before the fly-half crossed in the corner.
O’Driscoll brought the city side back to within two points when he struck another penalty early in the second half before replacement tighthead prop Anthony ‘Vinnie’ Lott, who came on at half-time for stalwart Craig Gould who was making his 200th league appearance for the club, powered over for the former Bargoed and Ebbw Vale man’s first try for Keys in his two seasons at Pandy Park.
Again the usually reliable Jones missed with the extras on an unusual off-day for him.
But Newport bounced back again almost immediately.
Centre Dom Franchi should have crossed for a try in the corner, after great work again by Hewitt, when the line was at his mercy only to fumble the ball.
But it didn’t matter too much because lock Adam Frampton powered over almost immediately when the Black and Ambers regained possession about a minute later, O’Driscoll nailing the conversion to make it 23-23.
Replacement fly-half Angus O’Brien restored Keys’ lead with a penalty before O’Driscoll cancelled it out with one of his own.
The game looked as though it would swing in Newport’s favour when substitute openside Jack Perkins was sin binned in the 67th minute for a high tackle on Hewitt, the hosts having also lost their influential pack leader, the wonderful number eight Adam Powell who went off injured after hurting his hip and knee making a vital touchline tackle on the excellent Broad.
And when O’Driscoll landed his fifth penalty soon after to put the visitors into the lead for the first time, it looked as if Keys would have to sweat on winning in Bridgend in their last game to make the play-offs.
But a mistake by Newport with six minutes to go when they again tried to attack from deep gifted possession to Keys.
A thunderous run by the up-and-coming James Cordy-Redden through the midfield opened up a big gap in the visitors’ defence, the talented wing keeping his composure to time his pass to centre and captain Leon Andrews to perfection, the latter finished well to cross for the bonus point fourth touchdown which helped celebrate his 150th game for the club in fine style.
O’Brien’s conversion put his side four points clear and it took all of Keys’ luck and grit to keep Newport out as they threw the kitchen sink at the hosts in final act.
A brilliant tackle by Andrews prevented O’Driscoll from scoring the winning try and soon the hosts could start the celebrations. But what a scare they got.
Cross Keys: Ryan Lee (Nathan Trowbridge 60), Elliot Jones, Leon Andrews (capt), Phil Williams, James Cordy-Redden, Dorian Jones (Angus O’Brien 54), Rhys Dyer (Owen Jones 58), Richard Cornock (Luke Garrett 67), Henry Palmer (Darren Hughes 62), Craig Gould (Anthony ‘Vinnie’ Lott 40), Danny Hodge (Ollie Hodge 11-13), Tom Lampard, Reuben Tucker, Scott Matthews (Jack Perkins 54), Adam Powell (Ollie Hodge 62)
Cross Keys scorers: Tries – Dan Hodge, Dorian Jones, Anthony ‘Vinnie’ Lott, Leon Andrews, Conversions – Jones, Angus O’Brien, Penalties – Jones (2), O’Brien.
Newport: Geraint O'Driscoll, Ashton Hewitt, Dan Robinson, Dom Franchi (Ethan Davies 64), Owen Broad, Matt O'Brien, Andrew Quick (Jamie Leadbeater 72), Dai Pattison (capt) (James Greenfield 72), Jamie Jeune (Evan Whitson 67), Alex Jeffries (James Monck 67), Adam Brown (Dafydd Rosser 60), Adam Frampton, Sam Waldron (Ross Gibbon 58), Ollie Griffiths, Brendan Lampitt.
Replacement: Tom James
Newport scorers: Tries – Owen Broad, Adam Frampton, Conversions – Geraint O’Driscoll (2), Penalties – O’Driscoll (5).
Referee: Rhys Thomas (WRU)
Argus star men: Adam Powell and Geraint O’Driscoll