21 games down. 17 wins. 92 points. 1 game left. 1 win more. 5 points the target, and then the 2022/23 season – only the club’s second at Level 6, the league-formerly-known-as-London 1- would be done. And if the stars aligned, if they played like they knew they could, (and even if they didn’t, as long as their defence held Belsize Park to less than 60 tries), they would be champions, and on their way to Level 5.
Time is a funny thing. How it can seem to both drag its feet yet fly-by at the same time. As the boys took the field that clear Thursday night under lights at Chiswick, they felt that dichotomy. Because in that moment, they were standing at the end of a journey that had started the previous July – an age in one sense, but the blink of an eye in another…
Had it really been 8 months ago that they had been sweating and swearing their way to The Swings and back? Were those memories of rucking and retching around the Red Tree just a dream? Head Coach Mark Jackson’s road to victory built on a bedrock of Ian Burbidge’s fitness had helped bring them to this moment, but it had been a brutal pre-season. Time had certainly slowed down during those dark times, especially for the front rows of Rogan, Ed Wynne, Scotty B, Jacob Poulton (when not quail hunting) and Ricky D (when not on dates). Welcome later arrivals Zac Underwood and Will Donegan had missed out on that summer agony and beefed up the front row stocks, but all had scrummed, lifted and tackled their way through the intervening months to this final kick-off. Zac, Scotty B and Rogan backed up by Ed were in the forward trenches today, but what awaited them?
A Belsize Park side that didn’t give a damn for sentiment, or quaint notions of “champions”. They were here to play, and they went at it from the off.
The whistle pierces the night air. Talisman Dr Steve John takes the kick off, only to be swallowed up by the aggressive Belsize Park forwards like an emergency room doctor swallowing caffeine. Ben Dugdale executes a well-placed box-kick to get the boys out of the 22 only to find an energetic Belsize back three who immediately run back down the 15 channel. What follows is a period of direct, varied running by the sizeable Belsize Pack creating opportunities. It doesn’t take long before an overlap down the blind side opens a clear path to the Hammers try line, only for their winger to fall desperately short. Pick-and-goes follow, before Belsize finally crosses to open their account. 7-0.
The boys were in a fight. Had it really been 4 months since their 10-game winning streak had been brought to an agonising end against Amersham and Chiltern? They had lost some of their aura that day but none of their heart. And tonight, there weren’t here to win it on for-and-against – this was about showing they were champions. This wasn’t about panicking, it was about intent.
And intent they showed. An aggressive restart chase put the game in Belsize’s half. Phases followed and a few set pieces where the boys didn’t allow Belsize a way out. Playing edge to edge the Hammers fought their way into the Belsize 22. Penalty, Hammers. A kick to the corner, but the opportunity is missed thanks to a wayward throw-in to the tailgunner and Master-of-Clocks Alex Hart. A messy Belsize scrum saw their 9 knock it on the Belsize 5 meter – Hammers feed. The Hammers scrum? Rock steady, all 8 pushing as-one, and giving Dugdale a training-ground like platform. His pass found the willing hands of Tim “Le Snack” Russell, who breezed through a gap between the Belsize defenders. That’s more like it boys – 7-7.
Now, it is well known that as well as the Temperance Pub and The Fez’s foggy dance floor, a Hammers natural home is the sacred and holy fortress of Hurlingham Park. What is less well-known though is that Hammers have a holiday home made of 4G, and when the Hammers visit there, it means one thing – pace.
Had it really been only 3 months since their turgid 7-5 victory over Fullerians on a narrow soggy pitch? Those memories were far away, with the Hammers putting the foot down, going edge-to-edge and showing why they are top of the league. From the centre line, Marshall McCloud’s silky hands in the 10 channel found the speed merchant that is Matt Killeen. Fixing the defenders with his fancy feet, Killeen’s pass found Bryce “Bruce” Morgan, who drew in his man and offloaded into the tackle to Le Snack, dancing his way up the 15 channel before being brought down inside the 22. A quick ruck and change-of-direction followed, with a double jack-hit up making its way to Scotty B in front of the posts. The 1-second ruck allowed Dugdale scoop up the ball and pass to McCloud, who then threw a 3 man cut-out pass to Bryce – now-opposite side of the pitch – who scored in the corner! The entre passage of play took less than 20 seconds! The conversion through the posts: 7-12.
Half-time. The boys felt on top, but there was no taking Belsize for granted. They had been physical, direct and playing like they had nothing to lose, with a 10 not afraid to spread it around an outside backs keen to run it. Hammers had built a reputation as a second half team – would it hold?
Belsize restart, a Belsize penalty, Belsize line-out. Tom Proctor wasn’t having it though – the Belsize throw to the middle was spoiled by our Lambrini dodging 2nd row/back 6. Quick ball followed – Dudgale, to Marshall, Marshall leading points-scorer and captain Joe Carolan; Joe out the back, hands to Bryce – 40 meters up the 15 meter channel finished off with a chip, scooped up by red shirts score to score in the corner! And followed by an unbelievable sideline conversion by captain and RFU leading-points scorer Joe Carolan! 19-7.
The taps were open and the Rugby started flowing, but unlike and IPA this didn’t leave a bad taste in the mouth. The coaches began to bring bench in. Dark horse and lover-of-inside passes Ollie Weaver came on for Marshall, and playing behind a pack powered by the hard running Alex Spicer, Josh Smith and Harty, the boys were unplayable, even when things weren’t working. A Hammers line-out on the Belsize 40 meter line misfires, only to be scooped up by “I-don’t-play-more-than-10 minutes” Zac. Phase. Dugale to forward Harty, Harty out the back to Ollie takes the ball to the line drawing in the defenders….silky inside ball to Tim Russell who runs it from the halfway!! What a try! Joe coverts! 26-7 and the bonus point!
10 minutes of graft followed, Belsize determine to retain the ball no matte what the field position and run it – fair play. Visits to the Hammers half were few and fair between however, aided by Joe’s cannon of a leg and a determined to play the Rugby in all the right places. Eventually, a Belsize maul penalty on their 10 meter led to Tom Proctor electing to take the scrum, aided by the non-inconsiderable mass of Ed “Tiny” Wynne (on for a bruised Rogan). From the scrum Ollie found the hands of Joe Carolan who crossed for a regulation try under the posts and to take it to 33-7.
Had it really it been only 4 weeks since this team had been beaten by an up-for-it Cobham? Unshackled, the boys open up. A scrum from a Belsize handling error on the 40 meter mark say Dr Steve John pick from the base of the ruck and open up the Belsize defence like a surgeon cracking a chest. Tackled, he offloaded to Tom Proctor who barged up the centre of the pack and bounced the Belsize 10 as though a Tsunami sweeping away a sea-side village. Brought down eventually, a Belsize backrow got over the ball and won the turnover penalty, however for reasons that remain unclear, Belsize chose to scrum…inside their own 22…
Some would say reckless.
Tough phases followed, Belsize grinding their way up the pitch and eventually into the Hammers 22. Well played men-in-purple, well-played. Making their way to the Hammers line, the desperate Belsize attack was held up, Joe’s drop kick getting the Hammers out of trouble. Belsize had a sniff of continuity and started to spread the ball…OH MY GOD WHAT IS THIS? IT’S TIM RUSSELL ON THE TRADE MARK INTERCEPT YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME, SCORE UNDER THE POSTS 40-7
Time was ticking down, There was no puffing, no hands-on-knees. Niggles were forgotten and errors forgiven. The boys just wanted to play, running it from everywhere. This is why you play Rugby. The highs beat the lows…highs like seeing Matt Killeen sprint it out from inside the Hammers 22 down the try line…beat one defender, inside step another…over the 50…brush the Belsize fullback…cross the Belsize try line….
…and lows like seeing Matt being pulled back for apparently stepping out of the line, denied the last try of the regular season, as the referee calls the game over.
Had it really been 80 minutes? Had the boys really played 22 games, won 18, and won the league? Had fewer than 40 men taken the field every Saturday, put their bodies on the line for their mates and their club, and taken Hammersmith & Fulham RFC into level 5, their highest position ever in the RFU pyramid? Had they worked together, sweated together, bled together, to achieve what so few will ever do in their Rugby careers, and win promotion?
Yes. Yes we bloody well did.
What a team. What a season. What a club.