As the sun beat down upon the playing fields of the south east for the second Saturday in September, the Hackney 1st XV set off for their final pre-season friendly against London 3 side Hitchin.

Logistical problems caused an early headache as events conspired to make selection difficult. A veritable smorgasbord of reasons for non-attendance was presented; from weddings to house moves. The result was a somewhat makeshift starting line-up with several new players being welcomed into the 1st team fold.

Upon arriving at Hitchin, the players donned the new ‘ultra slim-fit’ shirts. With more abdominal muscles than a scene from Magic Mike and bulging biceps to rival an Abercrombie & Fitch male-models party, Hackney 1st XV strode onto the pitch to the adoring glances of small throng of female supporters who had gathered to watch the warm up.

Hitchin started strongly, receiving the kick off and immediately pressuring the Hackney defence. A well-drilled outfit with strong runners across the park, Hitchin were testing Hackney’s organisational and tackling abilities. After holding out for a bruising ten minutes, Hitchin finally powered through with a well worked move utilising the width of their home pitch to go over in the corner.

Hackney quickly realised they needed to up their game. They began with a vigorous attack from the restart, but were soon to learn that Hitchin’s offensive structure was more than matched by their defensive capability. All credit should be given to the Hitchin back row for their speed to the break down and intent to steal the ball. Possession was quickly lost.

Given the heat, the play stopped to allow the players to take on water after twenty minutes. Captain Oli Hart communicated the need to adapt to the opposition, and his team duly responded. What Hackney lacked in sheer bulk, they made up for in fitness and ability to shift their game plan. The forwards sent more men into the breakdown, one to eight working overtime to neutralise the threat posed by the Hitchin flankers. Results were seen. Hackney were soon winning penalties for hands in the ruck; turning what was a major nuisance in the first quarter into a source of territory and secure ball in the second. However, they were unable to covert this pressure into points and Hitchin responded taking a good opportunity out wide score their second of the half in the corner of the park.

The second half continued with the same pattern. Hackney working hard to keep possession in attack whilst Hitchin responded with strong tackles and multitudinous pairs of hands appearing all over the ball as soon as the attacker was grounded. Having been threatening the try line all afternoon, Hackney were disappointed to lose Olayinka Kazeem with an ankle injury. With little substitution options available, Paddy Walsh left his usual duties on the back row to take up position on the wing. A figure of Irish folklore, Walsh tackled hard all game and denied his opposite man a free run over the whitewash on a number of occasions. Also playing out of position was Charlie Davis who appeared at various points in the backline, proving to be an omnipotent defensive force that frustrated the Hitchin attack.

Yet ultimately, Hitchin’s offensive structure and ability to exploit gaps out wide kept the scoreboard steadily ticking over in their favour. Hackney were able to take a number of positives from the game; ball retention improved, defensive structures around the breakdown held firm and Captain Hart is able to quote sections of Al Pacino’s ‘Inches’ speech from Any Given Sunday in a post-match talk without even a hint of irony.