With the league schedule throwing up a 5 week gap in the fixture list, a friendly against Old Cooperians was arranged to keep the Gargoyles sharp for the back end of the season. Captain Luke Hearn was unavailable for the game, leaving the team – and, unfortunately, the travel arrangements – in the hands of Matt Hanton. With the team meeting at Liverpool Street it soon became clear that the trek out to Upminster, via 2 very slow tube trains, was going to test the stand-in captain’s nerves to the limit.

Miraculously no team members or kit bags were lost on the way, although by the time the Gargoyles were changed and ready to go, only 15 minutes remained before kick-off. As it was a friendly, agreement was reached with the Old Cooperians captain to allow rolling subs, although the fact that OCs had 13 subs to Hackney’s 3 was oddly not mentioned before the game!

Although the pre-match plan was to take advantage of a rare sunny day and play as expansively as possible, early exchanges were dominated by the boot, with an early touch-finder from Matt Hanton and excellent pressure from the back row pinning Old Cooperians in their 22 for the first 10 minutes. Unfortunately during this period the rushed warm up took its toll, with Dave Huxley having to leave the field with a pulled hamstring, to be replaced by Gavin du Preez. Having achieved field position and parity in the scrum (despite the opposition front row taking a breather every 15 minutes thanks to their huge bench) it was only a matter of time before the Hackney backs did some damage. Fine interplay from Jack Silverthorn, Arif Saad and Tim Cox down the right led to Hanton running in a converted try under the posts.

Despite the OCs back row disrupting a lot of Hackney ball at the breakdown, the backs continued to see more of the ball than they have done at any time since October. The back 3 were in excellent form, running penetrating lines and threatening with ball in hand and some precise kicking from Cox. Hackney pressure was not converted in to points however, and they were punished following a bizarre incident where neither the ref nor touch judge spotted that a kick from the OCs fly half should not have resulted in an attacking lineout 5m from the Hackney line. Nonetheless, it was defended poorly and after a couple of phases the OCs pack rumbled over to make it 7-5 to Hackney. The half closed out with a long-range Hanton penalty to make it 10-5 at the interval.

The second half saw a change in the back row with the introduction of Blair Gray and a return to the sensible game that served Hackney well in the early stages of the match. Barrelling runs up the middle from the pack and centre Guy Halfhead allowed scrum-half Owain Hughes and Hanton to kick for territory and keep the pressure on OCs. This paid off when good hands put Silverthorn in space and he rounded the OCs winger and full back with ease to run in under the posts - or so we all thought. Jack’s generosity allowed Kim Fitzgerald to be the beneficiary of a rare execution of a 2 on 1 in the in-goal area, with Kim doing well not to drop the ball in his surprise and happily claiming the try.

OCs brought the scoreline back to 17-12 with 20 minutes to go after their scrum-half spotted that the referee considered a ball at the base of the scrum to be out when all others thought otherwise – quick hands allowing a score out wide past the surprised Hackney defence. The highlight of the final quarter for Hackney was the return to action of Ulrik Westen-Jensen for the first time since a serious injury in the first league game of the season. Another Hanton penalty put the game out of OCs reach, and even their army of subs could not breach the Hackney defence. All in all a good away performance in a potentially tricky match, and the team moves onto another friendly against Belsize Park next week before the cup opener with Tring in 3 weeks’ time.

Special mentions go to Chris Sykes (another long-term absentee), Matthieu Arneguy and Ben Jones in the front row who more than matched up to the opposition props who significantly outweighed them. Guy Halfhead was a force of nature in the centres, putting a string of opposition tacklers on their backsides and giving the backs real momentum. Arif Saad was the happiest member of the team to see a sunny day and an expansive gameplan and didn’t waste the opportunity, only being denied a deserved try by a debatable forward pass ruling.

Man of the match was Kim Fitzgerald, for some excellent lines of running and precise interplay with the rest of the back line throughout the match, coupled with stout defence helping to keep the OCs’ back line quiet all game. Unlucky not to score on a number of occasions in the first half, he thoroughly deserved his try even if it was the easiest one he will probably ever score!