The final league game of the season saw a reverse of the first game of the season as the Gargoyles travelled to league leaders Harpenden for a winner takes all crunch match. The prize for the winner: promotion to the prestigious Herts/Middlesex Merit Table 2. For Harpenden, a return to the league they’d played in two seasons prior. For Hackney, dizzy heights indeed – in the 2009/10 season they’d been in Merit 7. Although Hackney had crushed Harpenden at Fortress Spring Hill, the return game would see a very different opposition, who had not been beaten in the league or cup since. A titanic battle, of the like last seen on the Blackwater, was on the cards.

The squad, plus a merry band of supporters comprised of injured players, Gladies and Gareth Ruck’s parents, assembled for the game. As if aware of the tense nature of the match ahead, dark clouds began to mass over this corner of Hertfordshire. “Winter is coming” was the thought of many a Hackney player. Veteran full back James Hardwick calmed the nerves of younger members of the squad with tales of victory from yesteryear. Harpenden’s bar, high up in the stands, provided refuge for supporters from the ill wind now blowing from touchline to touchline. A wind that would prove to play a decisive part in the final outcome.

Hackney’s players and coaches ran through a strong warm up, then retreated to the changing rooms for the final minutes before the match. Calm, controlled aggression was the order of the day. To a man, the 18 knew what was at stake. Ollie Hart, the Hound, led the way, demanding the effort that a match of this magnitude requires.

The kick off saw immediate ball retention for Harpenden who signalled their gameplan from the outset by bashing the ball up through the middle with their large centres (seamlessly interchanging with their hooker at will). The home side came out with aggression and could instantly be identified as both a significantly different side from that faced earlier in the season, and possibly the best side Hackney have faced in this league. Games would have to be upped. Fire and blood would have to be brought in order to bring home the win.

After a cagey first 25 minutes, Harpenden struck. A mix-up in the Hackney back line allowed Harpenden to break the line. Last ditch tackles from James Hardwick and Ulrik Westen-Jensen were not enough to prevent the Harpenden fly-half scoring under the posts. The conversion was successful. Hackney heads dropped slightly. The Chancellor rushed over to motivate the troops. The game was not lost: yes, it was a setback, but Hackney had matched the league leaders thus far and would continue to do so.

The remainder of the first half played out in a blur as midfield warriors crashed into each other, the centre partnership of Jepps and Worth belying their critics to deliver a display ranging from wrecking ball to balletic dexterity as the situation required. The pack, led by the piratical Rolfin Nyhus, a blur of hair and moustache, plundering yards at will, carried with aggression and no little skill, whilst tackling themselves into the ground. Half-time was a welcome respite for players and spectators alike.

The half-time huddle was a place of resolve. 40 minutes ahead would define the season. Some, playing their last league game in a Hackney shirt, knew what was at stake. Others, more raw, feasted on the energy from the gnarled veterans. The team was ready. The kick-off soared high, held in the wind. The chase was true, forcing the error from Harpenden. A maul was set up and as the Hackney forwards piled on the pressure, the darting figure of Mike ‘OD’ O’Donovan scooted down the unguarded blind side to cross the whitewash. One successful conversion later and the scores were level at 7-7. Hackney did not let up, and a second score followed not long after. As the pack forced a series of penalties, the choice was made to turn down the points and go for the second try. At the second attempt, the pack set up a rolling maul in the corner and drove forward. At the back, the ubiquitous Uzo Uyanwune, scoring a genuine number 8’s try rather than the crowd-pleasing efforts of earlier in the season. A second conversion later and the score was 14-7 to Hackney. The (relatively) ultimate prize was within touching distance.

Once more, Harpenden refused to lie down. Injuries began to take their toll on Hackney, with Jepps, the recipient of some over aggressive off the ball play from his opposite number, growing a new knee, whilst Hardwick suffered a hastening onset of old age after a last ditch try-saving tackle. Neither could be prised from the field. The Hound, having not played a full game since longer than he or anyone else can remember, refused to leave the pitch even as the clock ticked over on his usual 55 minute effort. Reinforcements, in the form of the Chancellor and Champagne Bouvier, bolstered the Hackney effort.

As the second half minutes ticked along, something had to give: The Wall was breached. A loose ball out the back of a defensive scrum shot through the legs of OD, was subtly knocked on by the Harpenden 9, who then gathered and ran over the line to score. Crucially, the angle of kick was made harder by the returning Jepps, who flattened the opposition scorer as he touched down, whilst in no way failing to use his arms in the tackle. The kick was duly missed by the Harpenden kicker to leave Hackney with the second slenderest of leads at 14-12.

The last 15 minutes were all Harpenden as they pressed for a victory and promotion. Bodies were put on the line as Mills, Bouvier and Pluis made tackle after tackle from the back row to snuff out the centre route. George Bevan and the Chancellor flattened their opposite wingers as Harpenden tried to go wide. Harpenden were short of ideas and needing a Hackney error. It duly came.

As the game entered the ‘one minute to go’ territory, Harpenden won a scrum in centre field. As the number 8 drove at the Hackney defence he was thwarted by the Hackney half backs. Whilst Hanton got out of the way at the referee’s behest, his half back partner, who shall be henceforth only known as ‘The Tickler’, did not. The referee had little choice but to award the penalty, 25m out, just to the left of the posts. A sitter. Hackney heads fell. Spectators watched through gaps in closed hands. Players watched with desolate anticipation. Jepps sat on the fence surrounding the pitch chatting to some players returning from the game on the next pitch. The game was up.

The Harpenden kicker placed the ball nervously, intimidated by either the situation or The Hound’s steely gaze from 10 metres away.

The ball was struck.

Time stood still.

The kick inexplicably, sweetly, sailed wide.

Time returned to normal as Hackney players embraced, physically and mentally drained, nothing more to give except the three loudest cheers an opposition will ever get at the end of a hard-fought match in which no quarter was given.

The post-match festivities, which began in the changing rooms with cold beers and port, continued long into the night with much the same, barring a brief interlude in which Ben Veyrac, a connoisseur of such things, educated some train passengers in the difference between beer and prosecco.

Hackney, at the second time of asking from Merit 3, and for the fourth time in five seasons, by probably the narrowest margin, had gained promotion.

Man of the match: Laurence Mills.
One of those games where numerous players could have taken home the award. Not for the first time this season, Mills tackled himself into the ground in the team’s cause. Even after moving into the front row Mills carried and harried his opposite man into submission. A real leader’s performance in an excellent team performance.