CROSS Keys head coach Greg Woods has called on his men to step up a gear or face the prospect of being knocked out of the British and Irish Cup on Saturday by Newport.
Keys were pushed all the way by a determined Ebbw Vale side at Pandy Park in this play-off clash before they emerged as winners by the skin of their teeth.
The Steelmen showed they are able to be more than competitive at this level after a four-year hiatus since their relegation from the Premiership in 2010.
They led 10-0 before conceding six points to the boot of Keys fly-half Dorian Jones just before half-time proved costly and they were reduced to 13 men with just over ten minutes to go after two players were sin binned as the game descended into something of a farce.
In the end Keys, British and Irish Cup finalists in 2012, had too much for them although they were given an all mighty scare.
With the Black and Ambers trouncing Bedwas 41-25 away in their tournament play-off, it sets up another potential humdinger of a Gwent derby back at Pandy Park this coming weekend.
For Vale, it’s a case of them left to ponder what might have been after they dominated the first half.
Woods is looking for a big turnaround from his men if they are to qualify for the British and Irish Cup for the fourth consecutive season.
“We need to drastically improve if we are going to beat Newport,” he said.
“We are still two weeks away from where we need to be and I’m concerned about our lineout and attacking play. It leaves us plenty to work on.
“This was a potential banana skin for us and I think our experience just got us over the line.”
Ebbw Vale head coach Jason Strange was bitterly disappointed not to have got their start back in the big time off with a famous win over last season’s Swalec Cup finalists and Premiership runners-up.
He said: "At 10-0 up we were pretty much in control of the game. Our scrum began to dominate and we were in the ascendancy only for us to have two front row forwards sin binned towards the end.
"This was a big game for us and one we really wanted to win.
“It’s no consolation for us to have come so close.”
The Steelmen deservedly took the lead after 12 minutes when their outside-half Iain Smerdon struck a fine penalty from 40 metres.
Keys suffered a big blow when experienced loosehead prop Richard Cornock was forced off by a calf injury and he is expected to be absent from at least the Newport game.
The Steelmen were in control for most of the first half and when Keys captain and number eight Adam Powell was sin binned for infringing at a ruck in the 26th minute, they took advantage.
Left wing Owen Williams scored a sparkling try on the half an hour mark after a well executed backs move saw right winger Wes Cunliffe burst into the line before passing to his teammate.
Smerdon's conversion gave his side a 10-0 lead to the delight of the many travelling fans.
But they gave away two late penalties before the interval which Vale old boy Jones punished them for to leave the hosts fortuitously just four points adrift at the interval.
Keys started to get their act together in the second half and they took the lead for the first time when full-back James Cordy-Redden crashed over in the corner just five minutes after the break when the hosts went through the phases, lock Dan Hodge prominent.
Jones converted well from near the touchline and soon put his side further ahead with his third penalty.
But Vale weren’t going to throw in the towel and their scrum began to cause the home side all sorts of problems, their reward coming when Smerdon kicked an easy penalty after the visitors put the Keys try-line under serious pressure.
Jones had a chance of putting his side in a more comfortable position but he missed a drop goal and penalty.
A comedy of errors marred the closing stages after Vale lost, in the same passage of play, hooker Mathew Williams (infringing at a maul) and replacement tighthead prop Gethin Robinson (high tackle) to the sin bin after both were yellow carded.
With Vale needing three front row players to be able to scrummage, there was confusion as to the interpretation of the rules over passive scrums as hooker Joseph Franchi came onto the field and then promptly left in chaotic scenes as the game was held up while referee Neil Hennessy struggled to assert his authority.
In the end, we had passive scrums but the delays spoiled what might have been an enthralling climax.
Cross Keys: James Cordy-Redden, Nathan Williams, Aled James (Polu Uhi 60), Phil Williams, Nathan Trowbridge, Dorian Jones, Rhys Dyer (Ryan James 46), Richard Cornock (Luke Garrett 16), Darren Hughes, Anthony Lott (Craig Gould 56), Danny Hodge, Tom Lampard (Scott Andrews 72), Reuben Tucker (Carl Townsend 12-14, 74), Scott Matthews, Adam Powell (capt)
Replacements: Jon Howard, Elliot Jones.
Scorers: Try - James Cordy-Redden (45), Conversion - Dorian Jones (45), Penalties - Dorian Jones (37) (40) (54)
Ebbw Vale: Dan Haymond (Lewis Reece 61), Wes Cunliffe, Tom Hiscock, Jordan Howells, Owen Williams; Iain Smerdon, Dai Jones (Christopher Thomas 64); Ross Jones, Mathew Williams (Joseph Franchi 77), Rob Sevenoaks (Gethin Robinson 61); Damien Hudd (capt), Ashley Sweet; Aaron Harris (Spencer Gibson 61, John Lavender 74), Ronny Kynes, (Steffan Jouxson 77), Cameron Regan.
Replacement: Thomas Watkins.
Scorers: Try - Owen Williams (30), Conversion - Iain Smerdon (30), Penalties - Iain Smerdon (12) (68)
Referee: Neil Hennessy (WRU)
Argus star man: Dan Hodge