It was 4.40 pm on Friday afternoon, year end billing had just been satisfactorily concluded, and I was looking forward to a relaxed Saturday playing at Spring Hill in the 21st instalment of Eldon’s Testimonial.

But as many a Hackney player knows, you can never be sure that a chirpy “Heya mate” from PJ isn’t lurking somewhere in the Whatsapp ether. Hemel Hempstead was the new destination and the Griffins’ unbeaten season faced its stiffest test. 

I did not recall my November visit to this particular Hertfordshire dormitory town with much fondness, but the journey proved to be a pleasant surprise. After some ripsnorting yarns from Jonny Crockett about his year making bagpipe documentaries in Scotland, and a lively debate as to the degree of irony in Ali Dunlop’s social media game (conclusion: de minimis), we took the scenic route to the ground, crossing the River Bulbourne a full three times for good measure. 

For the first day of April it was unseasonably warm, prompting some concern in the ranks for Hackney’s Celtic contingent. Moreover, rumours had abounded during the week that a number of Hemel’s rugby league players were looking for a hit out before the start of their own season.  From the pre-match warm-up, this appeared to be the case, and fittingly, the afternoon’s entertainment would go on to have a multi-sports undercurrent throughout.   

Indeed, the match began with a steepling Hemel restart which caused much distress in the waiting Hackney pack.  Fortunately, Laurence Mills was on hand like any good centre-half with a clearing header to touch. 

Amidst a frenetic pace in the opening 10, neither side was able to string many phases together as Hackney sought field position. Notable incidents included some friendly fire to the O’Hara beak from the boot of Matt Strong, and a robust charge from Fraser Tait, in full fly-swatting mode as the Hemel backs enjoyed successive attempts at taking the big man high.

However, Hemel refused to learn their lesson, and after more Tait yardage and some intricate interlinking from both backs and forwards, Ben Chamberlain appeared on an outside shoulder to score an excellent team try under the posts. 

Whilst Hackney had the better of the opening 20, Hemel thereafter came back into the match strongly. There were some searing line breaks from their lively fly half, and for the first time this season, Hackney’s midfield defence was under real pressure. 

However, the Griffin’s try-line appeared to benefit from divine protection, with Hemel twice shelling passes five metres out when it seemed easier to score. No meat for the home side, but an abundance of butchers. The bagel was to reach half-time frayed but intact. 

It was clear that a big third quarter was needed, and that was exactly what the Griffins delivered. Shortly after half-time, Sean Conner hit the now eponymous “Conner Line” off a flat ball from O’Hara, and then bemused the Hemel defence with a clever pass to himself. It was a bit like this, though with less panache and more end-product. The scoring pass was taken by Guy Watmore, and after Joe Askham landed a tough conversion, Hackney were 14 points to the good.

Further strong carrying from the forwards and a sustained period of pressure in the Hemel 22 led to another try in the right hand corner from Quentin Villaret, doing well to hold off two Hemel defenders in the process. This was scored despite the reintroduction of the afternoon’s multisports theme: a no arms league style shot to Bowers’ head was met with some retaliatory UFC action from one of Hackney’s back-row. But the referee let the boys play, and Joe Askham again added the extras, enjoying a fine afternoon off the tee. 

With 15 minutes to go and a three try cushion, the only real danger to the unbeaten season appeared to be the fine Spring weather, Noel’s swede now glowing incandescently like a Chinese lantern, and Ali Dunlop lit up in a manner that even his most potent Instagram filter would struggle to mask.   

Hemel mounted some desperate attacks and finally got their deserved reward in the 76th minute as a break through the middle lead to seven points. However, this was but a foolish kick to the hornets’ nest and the Griffins responded in kind. Some sturdy defence brought clean breaks for Joe Askham, who showed impressive stamina to finish from halfway, and Sean Conner, who ground to a halt but found Matt Strong in willing support to score with the last play. 

After the match, Hackney were awarded the league shield and then welcomed to some generous hospitality in the Hemel clubhouse. The hosts summoned a Man of the Match and Dick of the Day from each team, the latter awarded to Will Bowers for his (alleged) inability to hook the ball in the scrums. As expected, the Hackney Bard took this constructive criticism without a bleat, vowing the improve in the future. Fraser was deservedly nominated for Man of the Match by an awestruck Hemel skipper.   

A final hurdle awaits away to Kilburn next week, one which will require the full effect of the Griffin’s dogged humility if it is to be overcome. It suffices to say, however, that this was a very good day out.