Even the prospect of an hour plus in the car could not dim our enthusiasm for this game, as we all knew that we had a brand spanking new kit awaiting us when we finally limped in off the North Circular.
For those not familiar with the Hampstead set up, they operate out of a nondescript building in the middle of the Hampstead Heath extension, which at first glance appeared to be ringed by some sort of Moat. Closer inspection by ill-advised suede shoe confirmed that it was, in fact, just one example of the sort of bog that we were just about to immerse ourselves in for 80 minutes.
Having been left to find the pitch by instinct alone, due to no help at all from the oppo, we walked past 2 perfectly good, unused pitches before starting the descent to the remedial area where they obviously park the lower leagues in this part of town.
The upper half of the pitch (partially hidden by cloud owing to the 45 degree angle that it was marked out on) was just about playable, but the lower half along the touchline was dreadful and basically a swamp. The referee told me that it was Captain’s call whether or not to allow play to commence on that surface, but after the aforementioned journey I thought it best to agree to go ahead anyway. (Plus I wasn’t planning on getting mud all over my nice new shirt by actually falling over in that muck).
We received from Kick off, and it was clear to see that Hampstead were up for it. They are a well drilled side, and both backs and forwards had clearly been working on various set piece and open play moves. Despite hard tackling from the Bulldog Flyers, it wasn’t long before the oppo scored their first try. Their number 8 did a full Jonny Wilkinson preparation for the conversion, including a drink of water and the longest foot placement many of us have seen, before lumbering to the ball and toe punting it right between the sticks. Our sardonic laughter slightly died off at that point.
About 10 minutes later, and again after some hard yards gained by their forwards, despite our best efforts Hampstead went over for a further score, which Jonny (eventually) also converted. 14-0, with 20 odd minutes gone – not good.
We got our act together though, and after several massive drives from the likes of man of the match Michael O’Connor, we got down to their side of the pitch and stayed there for several phases. Owing to the dreadful conditions and slippery ball, there had been enough knock ons beforehand for us to know that we had the better of them in the scrum. After one of several repeated infringements at the ruck, Hampstead were penalised again, and we went for the scrum about 10 yards out, and promptly shoved them backwards at a rate of knots before Luke at No 8 grounded the ball. It’s no exaggeration to say that had they not been stopped by the vegetation over the dead ball line, Hampstead would have been shoved onto the Finchley Road as our pack completely dominated theirs.
Conversion missed, and it was 14 – 5.
This gave us some heart though, and after half time we went back at Hampstead again and again. It has to be said, defending as they were in a bog with very little footing, their defence was very good. We were unable to breach their line in open play, but it wasn’t long before they infringed again, and we managed to march them back over their line once more from the resultant scrum, for Luke to control well and dab down for his second. Oli made the conversion, and it was 14 – 12.
Having learned their lesson, Hampstead began moving the ball through their backs to try to stretch us, occasionally kicking over the top where the ball was well fielded at 15 by Lee. We had 2 good centre pairings in each half though, and the oppo found themselves smashed back in the tackle repeatedly.
It was therefore only going to be from a cheeky move that Hampstead were likely to get over our line, and this happened when their scrum half sniped around a ruck and darted through. Was there obstruction at the ruck? I can’t comment as I was trying to clean a fleck of mud from my collar and by the time I looked up he was over the line.
21 – 12, after Jonny did the honours again. Against the run of play as we were starting to get on top of them.
To prove this, about 10 minutes from the end Jack McGrath (fresh from only having played a half owing to our unusually well stocked front row cupboard this week) forced his way over the line near the top right corner. Totally understandably that far out and with dreadful footing, the conversion went wide and we were at 21 – 17.
Having subbed myself off just previously owing to the mud incident, I can tell you that the next 10 minutes or so were seriously nail biting. Hampstead’s 3rds had come down to support, and I could hear them worrying that their lads were tiring as we repeatedly attacked their line. All of our forwards carried hard, and there were several winces on the touchline as the huge impacts continued – with Mike again earning his corn by hitting their lad so hard that we heard him whimper as he went down.
After a very long advantage though (following yet another ruck infringement) the slippery ball eventually got the better of us and it just rolled forward after a pass. Hampstead snaffled it and hoofed the ball off the park. Cue much relieved cheering from them and I was reminded how close our previous match was, when they had the same reaction after they won by 2 points at Marble Hill.
Thanks on behalf of the whole team to Cocksy and Big Steve for organising the new kit, which looks great and actually fits. A real feel-good factor from this and very much appreciated.
Finally, although I’ve mentioned it above, what a fantastic effort to get over 20 lads through the other side of London, via the revolting North Circular traffic, in order to meet this fixture. Having 5 or 6 subs to rely on to replace tired legs or injured team mates really is a great relief, and long may it continue.
Nice one lads.