As a long season nears its close for the Griffins of Hackney, Hitchin played host to a close, and at times fractious, encounter. The Hitchin pitch was firm and dry, which suited Hackney’s brand of open attacking rugby. A good kick-off receipt by Mike Ward led to a beautiful attack from Alderson, Bowers, and Sullivan that almost had the latter through for a try in the first minute of the game. This was followed by a few effective forays from Matt Strong and Will Burrows, before the home team eventually succumbed to Hackney pressure. Hitchin’s fullback had been down to the local Clinton’s Cards (120 Bancroft Road, Hitchin SG5 1LS) to get some ribbon and a bow for the gift he had in store for Hackney’s backs: the fullback’s lack of interest in fielding a Sprague kick gave the ball to Askham, who found Lloyd, who selflessly put in Rich Yong for a score. Judging by the opening five minutes, and the apparent rotundness of Hitchin’s pack, it felt like the Griffin’s could have got some armchairs at Kenmore Interiors (5 Hermitage Road, Hitchin, SG5 1LT) from which to conduct their victory. As has often been the case, Hackney’s confidence was misplaced.

Hitchin’s ‘combative’ pack began to rumble, and their 12 and 13 ran hard lines. In a series of scrappy carries and rucks the Griffins struggled to exit from their own 22. On one such occasion the Hitchin 12 made a nuisance of himself, counter-rucked effectively, and forced a turn over. With Hackney out of position, a few carries with accompanying offloads led to a converted score under Hackney’s sticks. Hitchin’s score provided a much needed jolt to a lethargic Hackney: big carries by Hart, Ward, and Crockett, saw the Griffin’s encamped in the opposition 22 for the last ten minutes of the first half. But here Hackney were hot-headed: the game plan was not implemented, and too often players made rash decisions at key moments. Joe Askham, returning to the much-coveted fly-half berth after injury, managed to butcher one promising attack with a bullet a 15-yard pass to touch. The half ended with Hackney dominant, but ultimately held up over Hitchin’s line. Half-time was spent dealing with injuries sustained by Askham and Sullivan both of whom did not return for the second half, which led to Tom Bentley’s second waltz on the wing this season, and some game time for Hackney’s player-coach Gareth Hatherley-Hurford (think Gianluca Vialli with more hair).

The second half started in the same manner that the first had ended: sustained Hackney pressure, defended resolutely by Hitchin, and no reward for the Griffins. Hackney's attack was marshalled well by Shaun Rooke but a clearance kick from Hitchin led to a series of events that had surely been contrived in Tikila, the local joke shop (12 London Road, Hitchin, SG4 9ET). The ball ran past Bentley, who then fetched the kick with time on his side. The makeshift winger, the lowest and most dejected thing of fortune, found himself out of position and out of luck. Hitchin pounced on his pass to Burrows, and duly scored a try, which they later converted. Hackney were now 14–5 down in a game in which they had enjoyed 75% of possession. Hackney got back to the coalface and piled the pressure on the home side; this really told in the scrum were Mike Ward stole ball seemingly at will, much to the chagrin of Hitchin’s monstrous pack.

The pressure led to a score when a Hitchin lineout, on their 5-meter line, was hampered by great work from Chamberlain. The ball bobbled over the line and Bowers leapt on it like the proverbial salmon to score is second try in as many games. 10–14 with ten to go. Hackney were now rampant, forcing Hitchin to defend their own line for phase after phase. To stop a score Hitchin gave away a penalty, and an extra 10 yards for rudeness, which gave the Griffins a dilemma: kick for touch in an attempt to score their third try or take a shot at goal and leave the Griffins a point short with 5 minutes on the clock. Sprague got the nod, the tee was brought, the penalty was converted. The score was 13–14. Time’s winged chariot was hurrying near and the Griffins were running out of ideas, forcing passes and dropping easy chances. One particularly barnstorming run from Matt Strong put P J Lloyd through a humungous gap, only for the Irishman’s usually slick hands to fail him. 1 minute remained. A Hitchin scrum was stolen and the Hackney back line had one final go for a try, but were impeded in doing so by an intentional knock-on from an eager Hitchin centre. The referee raised his arm for a penalty, despite strong protests from the home team and some choice abuse from the home crowd. Sprague was called upon to seal a victory with the last kick of the game, and this he did with another sweet strike. A 16–14 last minute win for the Griffins, which will remind diehard fans of a Hackney’s 6–5 win over Kilburn in 2011 (http://tinyurl.com/pxvhxfu). Hackney triumphant, Hitchin despondent, and in the bar the Griffins supped deeply on the spoils, which came in the form of fine Cornish Ales.