CROSS Keys exorcised last season’s Swalec Cup demons by defeating Neath at the Gnoll with a win that was closer for comfort than it should have been.
The 2012 cup winners were knocked out last February away at the Welsh All Blacks but avenged that bitterly disappointing setback in what turned into a thriller.
The hosts had been on the up since the return of cult figure Pat Horgan as head coach in the middle of December, halting ten competitive defeats in a row so far this season with back-to-back derby wins over Bridgend and Aberavon.
And it was Neath who struck first when former Keys No 10 Dai Langdon struck over an early penalty in an even opening which saw both sides sizing each other up.
But it was the visitors who started to gain the upper hand and fly-half Dorian Jones turned good field position and possession into points with a neat drop goal after quarter of an hour to level the scores.
Keys suffered a setback soon after though when centre Aled James was yellow carded for a professional foul.
The Welsh All Blacks looked to put the squeeze on the visitors when they were down to 14 men, but a sensational run by Dorian Jones from his own line, taken on by wing Nathan Trowbridge, took Keys to the home 22 where they were awarded a penalty.
But the visitors’ outside-half missed the eminently kickable attempt before making up for it about a minute later with a superb long range drop goal.
Keys’ own Jannie de Beer was narrowly off target with a third drop kick before he slotted his first penalty to give his side a deserved 9-3 lead just before the interval.
Neath’s handling was poor in the opening 40 minutes and they were unable to get a grip on the visitors who led by six points as the second half kicked off.
It was the Gwent side who continued to dominate and the hosts’ worries were compounded when their blindside and captain Lee Evans was sin binned for pulling down a maul.
Keys made them pay almost immediately when ex-Neath boy, their captain and number eight Adam Powell scored a try from a pushover scrum, Dorian Jones’ conversion making it 16-3.
And their forward power told again in the 56th minute when lock Tom Lampard was driven over the whitewash for his side’s second touchdown with the extras being added again to increase their lead to 20 points.
With Evans back on the field, Neath did finally mount a meaningful attack and wing Ceri Young sliced through the visiting defence to score a try under the posts, Langdon converting to make the score 23-10.
Horgan’s men really began to get their act together in the last quarter and a driving lineout deep in Keys territory saw them lose their lock Dan Hodge to the bin.
It was Neath’s turn to make their opponents pay when they were a man short, replacement back row forward Gareth Bateman being shoved over the line by his pack.
Langdon’s fine conversion brought them back to within six points with just over ten minutes to go.
Dorian Jones could have steadied Keys’ nerves with a penalty, but his attempt was short.
A complete sea change saw the Neath hunt for what earlier would have seemed the most unlikeliest of wins.
A series of driving mauls were repulsed by some gritty Keys defence and they managed to clear their lines.
Their replacement hooker Darren Hughes went off injured and it was all hands to the pump as Keys just held on despite a nervous last few minutes with Neath hammering at their line.
Neath: Dale Ford; Alec Jenkins, Aaron Bramwell, Arron Pinches, Ceri Young; Dai Langdon, Josh Davies; Roy Jones, Sean Crocker (Ieuan Dobbs 57), Marc Jones (Jim Reeves 52), Jack Jones, James Goode (Gavin Evans 61), Lee Evans (captain), Kyle Tayler, Leon Ward (Gareth Bateman 57).
Replacements: Dafydd Morgan, Garyn Daniel, James Helliswell, Steffan Stone.
Neath scorers: Tries – Ceri Young (61), Gareth Bateman (68), Conversions – Dai Langdon (61), (68), Penalties – Dai Langdon (5).
Yellow cards: Lee Evans (45)
Cross Keys: Rhys Jones, Elliot Jones, James Cordy-Redden, Aled James (Phil Williams 62), Nathan Trowbridge, Dorian Jones, Rhys Dyer (Kristian Baller 57), Richard Cornock, Gerwyn Price (Darren Hughes 62), Anthony Lott, Dan Hodge, Tom Lampard, Rhys Peebles (Jevon Groves 33), Reuben Tucker, Adam Powell (captain).
Replacements: Craig Gould, Ollie Hodge, Nathan Williams.
Cross Keys scorers: Tries – Adam Powell (50), Tom Lampard (56), Conversions – Dorian Jones (50) (56), Penalties – Dorian Jones (35), Drop goals – Dorian Jones (14), (24).
Yellow cards: Aled James (19), Dan Hodge (65)
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Gower)
Argus star man: Dorian Jones