When I arrived at Hitchin to see bright winter sunshine and the pitch in perfect condition I was expecting a great game of rugby. As soon as I got out the car and felt the biting wind I started to have second thoughts, however. If I hadn't told Denman I was coming I might have turned around and gone home.
It looked like I wasn't the only one considering whether I really wanted to be there, as Mick - here as the 1st team game had been postponed - had to gather the team during the warm up and try and impart a bit of focus.
Unfortunately, when Hitchin kicked off, with the wind at their backs, it became immediately apparent that Mick's stern words had not been heeded, and we knocked on. The tone for the game had been set.
Just two minutes later, and with a defensive lineout for Cantabs on their own 22, the ball was stolen. In a rush to make amends for the error, the backline were adjudged to be up too fast and Sir penalised them for offside. Hitchin opted to kick for the corner, and ended up making only about 5 yards. Cantabs won the ensuing lineout, and tapped the ball down to Josh at scrum half whose clearing kick was well blocked by a Hitchin player who managed to gather his own charge down to score in the corner. The kick from out wide was a difficult one, and the attempt never threatened the posts. Cantabs 5-0 down then after only 4 minutes played.
With possession being spilled all over the place, turnovers were a common occurrence, and Sir felt that Cantabs were too aggressive in rushing up after possession was lost, 2 more penalties for offside, and Denman was called over for a chat. What had been a solid first 10 minutes in the scrums also looked to have vanished, as Hitchin's tight head had the Cantabs front row in all sorts of trouble. It looked like it could be a long afternoon for Cantabs.
The game continued to be very scrappy, with neither side holding onto the ball and taking contact, but Hitchin were at least managing to play in the Cantabs 22, whereas the away side could not get out of their half against the wind. As a result, another knock on from Cantabs followed by some poor tackling allowed a Hitchin player to gather the ball, run past 3 defenders and stretch to dot down over the line. Again the conversion was missed so the score remained 10-0 to Hitchin.
3 minutes later and Cantabs finally came to life, albeit continuing with the scrappy theme of the game. A poor clearing kick was well taken by David Bloxsom making his Cantabs debut at full back, he ran the ball back well and popped to Finlay Wilson to make ground into the Hitchin 22. Darren and Denman provided go forward ball and Cantabs were awarded a penalty. Lovett kicked to the corner. Cantabs won the ball on their throw, one of the only times this happened for either team all day, and hands through the backline were initially good. Keith, filling in at hooker today, dropped the ball, and while Hitchin stopped waiting for Sir to award them the scrum, Lovett picked up the loose ball and with quick hands put Wilson in space outside of the defence. He scampered over and Sir awarded the try, which did not go down well with the home side. Lovett converted well from the left, and Cantabs were back within a score at 10-7.
More strong running from Cantabs front row forwards, set up by a jinking break by Drew moved possession back into the Hitchin half, and things were looking much more promising. Hitchin won ball at a defensive lineout, although the throw was a long way from straight, and they cleared long. Finlay Wilson couldn't gather the kick cleanly, and the Hitchin chaser fly-hacked through perfectly to score under the posts. This time the conversion couldn't be missed, and Hitchin were back in control 17-7.
With the half drawing to a close, Hitchin had yet another scrum from a Cantabs knock on. They won their own ball well, and their fly half kicked out wide. Finlay took this one cleanly, and beat two men as he ran the ball back over halfway. A couple of crash balls from the Cantabs forwards who then released David. The debutant showed great pace to beat 3 men and score from 35 meters out. Another conversion from Cantabs' England Deaf international. 17-14 to Hitchin.
János came on for Darren at half time, with Iain due to come on 10 minutes later (if he could find his gumshield that he'd managed to lose while warming up).
2 minutes into the second half, and Cantabs were already putting the advantage of the wind to good use. Lovett kicked deep, and the return kick from Hitchin was taken in by Jonny Regan. Jonny flew down the wing before being tackled in the Hitchin 22. A penalty for offside gave Cantabs a great attacking platform from 5 meters out. Cantabs attempted to throw to the middle of the line, but the ball was not throw in straight, and Hitchin were let off the hook. Mick was apoplectic on the side line, and I genuinely feared for the safety of whoever made that call at the lineout. They were spared, however, when from the resulting Hitchin scrum, Cantabs scragged the Number 8 and took him back over the try line to earn a 5m scrum, this time on their own ball. The scrum held, and the ball got out to Drew in the centre, with a nice shimmy he beat his man and touched down. Lovett again converted to give Cantabs their first lead at 21-17.
The game really became scrappy for the next 20 minutes or so, with the only difference being that Hitchin's error count had risen too. The wind ensure Cantabs were not threatened, however, as they were able to keep play mostly in the opposition half. Drew capitalised on one of the Hitchin knock ons and offloaded to Finn Morrison outside him for the try. Lovett maintained his 100% record and moved the score on to 28-17.
Neither side posed much of a threat after that, so when Sir blew for full time, Cantabs had come out on top. No great celebrations, as nobody felt particularly happy with the performance, but there were certainly some positives to take away. Strong running and firm defence from Drew and Finn in the centres, good debuts from Matt Taylor and David Bloxsom - the latter earning Man of the Match for his efforts - and ultimately a fairly comfortable victory over a team that had beaten us just before Christmas.