A motley but determined crew of Hackney men assembled at a mist and fog-shrouded Spring Hill on Saturday to wrap up the term’s rugby. The Griffins decamped to Hackney Marshes so the Champagne XV had headquarters to themselves and took to battle on the large pitch. With a team of hardened veterans, rising Bulls, and Gogs gagging for a game, the Champagne XV became a Champagne XIV to even up the numbers. Hackney men Pete Smith, Nima Akbari, and Charlie Killoran all donned Belsize shirts for the first half and, in Smith’s case, for the entire game. Such self-sacrifice has not been seen since the Club Captain let another boy play with his Olaf toy last Christmas. 

 

Uzo Uyanwune’s hard running from No. 8 was nigh-on impossible for Belsize to deal with, not least with fast ball from O’Shea at scrum-half, and one Reay feeding another in an ad hoc backline that was nevertheless full of structure and systems. It seems Santa Claus came early and gifted the backs with the ability to both pass and catch in the same move. Quick tries from Pierre Pierre-Alexandre and Tom “Because I’m Worth It” Moody were the inevitable - and welcome - outcome. 


The pack also got in on the act. A clean line-out take by Franck Cohadon, helped in no small part by a peach of a throw from Nathaniel Mergia, led to a rampaging maul. Captain A.J. took his chance to rip the ball and surge over from five metres for his first try on home soil. Another fine run from Uyanwune saw him too grace the scoresheet - something he would have done many more times were the conditions, or his handling, more favourable. 


Strong attack was built on even stronger defence. A first-half shut-out of Belsize owed much to powerful tackling led by Luigi Comparini and Chris Reay. Important too was dubious ruck work by John “In From The Side” Wood (last legal when tries were worth four points) as well as quick breaks from Rob Baker (“quick” being a relative term in champagne rugby). The Killoran Brothers turned sibling rivalry into an internecine conflict a la Cain and Abel or, at the very least, Itchy and Scratchy. Reece Brown-Riley, referee for the half, had the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon. He needed it. 


Halftime saw A.J. swap his front row jersey for the referee’s and the Killoran brothers, amongst others, swap sides. But the rugby did not resume until two bottles of port made their way around the team huddles to stiffen sinews. This was not the only marker of the festive season. As scrums wore on in the second half the referee’s call became an unorthodox “Crouch” “Bind” “Merry Christmas”. This, along with the comedic nature of the refereeing itself (“I could watch their offsides, I could watch your offsides, I could watch offsides all day long…”), helped the cheer continue. 


The scoreboard kept ticking over. A quick step and run from Adam Reay meant that Father C-Reay-stmas on the sidelines got to see both sons score (don’t snigger, some jokes are too obvious, even for this match report). Later, Cian Murphy hacked a loose ball clear and beat the Belsize full-back with football wizardry to dot down under the posts. “Zebo-esque” said one teammate. “Like a gazelle… with three legs” said an ungrateful No. 10. 


Although the touchline denied Pierre-Alexandre a hat-trick his work-rate never dropped - somehow running and rucking with equal force all match long. Alongside his own two tries he gave Moody an easy finish so both would end with braces. Such is the generosity of this Frenchman under the influence. Indeed, the champagne was flowing on and off the pitch at this stage as the ever-gentrifying spectators popped open a bottle (“Bloody hell. Hackney’s changed.” said Wood). Only the Club Captain’s Pulled Turkey and Cranberry Brioche foodtruck was missing. 


In the face of such a scoreline some teams might let the heads drop or their hackles rise. Not Belize. Full of heart, they went on to dominate parts of the second half, and got their just rewards. Late in the game, hard running from Pete Smith and Franck Cohadon (who swapped sides at half-time), saw both cross for tries. Perhaps in 2017 psychologists will tell us why Hackney players play better against their club than for it. Close to the end another strong run from Smith slipped Belsize’s wiley winger in in the corner. 


The last action was a sharp move by from a turnover to put Nima Akbari, back in Hackney yellow, away in space. He galloped towards the line with the glee of Bambi racing at Cheltenham. And he shanked his conversion so far askew that physicists are studying its flight path. Or at least they will if it ever lands. The final whistle blew and the curtain was brought down on 2016 at Spring Hill. There was victory for the Champagne XIV - and champagne in the dressing-room too - but it was rugby that won the day. The badge says fellowship is life. Quite so.