By Tony Poole
At Sardis Road
LLANELLI last night upset the odds to deny Pontypridd the Welsh Premiership title along with a coveted double.
Becoming league champions for a first time rounded off a superb end to the season for the Parc y Scarlets side, who only occupied third place in the final league table.
Though Ponty topped the table, they were undone in the play-off final against a side packed with players who have tasted regional action with the Scarlets.
The week before Llanelli caused another major surprise in reaching the final at the expense of defending champions Neath, triumphing 46-5 at The Gnoll.
The Parc y Scarlets side knew that they had to repeat that level of performance and in maintaining a high-octane tempo, the House of Pain factor was tempered.
Ponty, who beat Aberavon, 35-24, earlier in the month in the SWALEC Cup final, were hoping to become only the third team in Welsh club history to record the double.
Llanelli recorded the feat back in 1993 with Neath following suit three years ago.
But at the end of a long and arduous season spread over nine months, Ponty were unable to make one final push to collect league honours.
However, you have to feel for Ponty, who topped the table at the end of the season on 107 points from Neath 100 with Llanelli a distant third on 91.
Sentiment afterwards around Sardis Road was filled with talk of injustice.
However, that shouldn’t tarnish the Llanelli victory, as they played it by the book and on the night were clearly the better side.
The final attracted a superb crowd, estimated at 5,000, and the early exchanges matched the powder-keg atmosphere.
But on similar lines to the win at Neath the previous week, Llanelli benefitted from an early try.
They hit the ground running, recycling ball skilfully, and eventually wing Dale Ford released full-back Dan Newton for a second-minute try.
Fly-half Steven Shingler, playing a final game for Llanelli before joining London Irish, added the angled conversion.
Back came Ponty to trim the deficit to 7-6 via penalties from fly-half Simon Humberstone in the 10th and 20th minutes.
Llanelli fly-half Shingler was on target with a penalty three minutes later, but the game took a dramatic twist in the 36th minute.
Ponty had flanker Wayne O’Connor sent off for illegal use of a knee on opposite number Nic Cudd – and a minute later Llanelli enhanced the lead.
Slick hands from the Llanelli three-quarters resulted in a try out wide for centre Nick Reynolds that fly-half Shingler improved on for 17-6.
But Llanelli then had wing Dale Ford binned in the final move of the half, but for a third time Humberstone missed out with a penalty chance.
Llanelli were reduced to 13 men with the yellow carding of replacement lock Nathan White in the 45th minute, but Ponty were unable to take advantage.
Superb Llanelli defence kept them out – and they struck in devastating fashion in the 57th minute.
A break from full-back Newton was taken on by wing Ford and his kick ahead led to wing Lee Williams getting to the loose ball first for the touchdown.
The conversion from fly-half Shingler took Llanelli out of sight on 24-6, but Ponty dug deep to pull back two late tries through replacement scrum-half Rhys Downes, one of which replacement fly-half Dean Gunter goaled.
Though Llanelli finished with just 13 men – fly-half Shingler and replacement hooker Rhys Lawrence getting late yellow cards – they clung on and were duly crowned league champions with flanker Cudd man of the match.
Pontypridd: Tries – R Downes (2); Pens: S Humberstone (2); Con: D Gunter
Team: A Thomas (L Williams 69); G Wyatt, D Lockyer, G Dacey, O Williams; S Humberstone (D Gunter 59), L Jones (R Downes 58); S Williams, K Dacey (H Dowden 46), R Harford (S Hobbs 46-66), C Locke (C Hill 55), R Savage, D Waters (E Siggery 65), C Dicomidis (capt), W O’Connor
Llanelli: Tries – D Newton, N Reynolds, Lee Williams; Cons: S Shingler (3); Pen: S Shingler
Team: D Newton, D Ford, N Reynolds, J Lewis (C Keenan 69), Lee Williams; S Shingler, G Davies; P John (S Hopkins 61), C Hawkins (capt) (R Lawrence 73), S Gardiner (R Jones 58), Adam Powell (N White 43), D Day, D Eager, M Gilbert, N Cudd
Red card: W O’Connor (Pontypridd) 36
Yellow cards: D Ford 40, N White 44, S Shingler 79, R Lawrence 80+1 (all Llanelli)
Referee: David Jones (Pontllanfraith)
Principality star choice: Nic Cudd (Llanelli)