This was the first match for the Haringey Rhinos u13s for nigh on two seasons and, after 4 weeks of training, numbers had grown sufficiently – mostly due to new recruits from Gladesmore School, plus one or two returnees from last season - to try out their new-found skills against the local opposition of Hackney.
The Hackney Bulls had been together for a number of years and so were likely to be more technically proficient, but the size and physicality of the Rhinos, plus some amazing raw athletic ability, could even up the difference in rugby experience.
A brief joint warm-up and hasty kit distribution enabled the assembled teams to start promptly at 11am, an eager but also anxious band of parents lining the pitch in the bright, warm mid-autumn sun. The plan was to have two 15-minute halves of Rhinos v Bulls, then a mixed game of the same duration, in order to avoid massive disparity in ability between the two teams.
Initial exchanges did not seem to follow the expected pattern, with the home team and the visitors both shy to tackle, allowing strong runners on both sides to easily evade half-hearted attempts to stroke them on the shoulder (as opposed to actually tackling somebody!) Whereas the Bulls were more able to pass the ball out to the wings, where they had a couple of very good, balanced runners capable of outstripping the bunched home herd, the Rhinos were more able to charge up the middle, with powerful and elusive carries by Nathan, Ugur and never-seen-before Sudais changing direction at will like a political party.
To the pleasant surprise of the home support, Haringey raced into a 3 – 1 lead, the power and angles of run of Nathan, the deft hands of Archie to put him away and the mesmeric wizardry of Tyler’s trickery of foot, hand and sheer, blistering speed scoring the home tries. However, after some well-chosen words from their Coach, Hackney started putting their structured game together. Superior organisation in the rucks afforded them the time to look to where the spaces were in the home defence and gore holes in it to put their fast runners through. Rhinos tended to charge back into the contact areas, hoping that sheer physicality and running lines would be enough to weave a path through a bovine maze. The home side trailed by 5 – 3 going into half time.
The Bulls could also maul as well as gore. Sudais, after a great run, was held up over the line by the committed defence. Their team mates, rushing to form the phalanx to keep the ball off the deck and so avoid conceding the try, were able to repel the Rhinos and push them back over the tryline, before winning a penalty (from which they passed it blind and ran up the other end to score). Impressive stuff.
A decision was made by the Powers that Be (the Ref and the Bull’s Coach Gareth) to forego the mixed game and stick to the club v club arrangement, which was enthusiastically met by both teams. Three 15 minute “thirds” would be played instead.
One could almost see the team spirit growing within each band of players, which was evident in a new commitment to the tackle. Haringey tackling was looking impressive, with James, Daniel and Andrew dragging down some of the more fleet-footed Bulls out wide. Ugur, Captain Alfie and WWF Champ Beld’or constantly wrestled the Hackney forwards to the deck and ground to a halt more than one rampaging Bull (if not sometimes illegally...). However, now the big Haringey ball-carriers were also being brought to ground by their counterparts, where they maintained forward momentum and profited from the dry weather conditions by often skilfully offloading to a teammate before hitting the deck.
Which was just as well really as the visitors were so dominant in the the ruck, forcing the Rhinos to give away so many penalties (coming in from the side, off their feet, hands in the ruck, holding on etc), a less lenient referee would have banished virtually the whole herd to the Sin-Bin...
Ball handling in the loose from both sides though was exceptional, which resulted in the first uncontested 3-man scrum for a knock-on only being called deep into the match itself.
Haringey clawed themselves into another 2 try lead, Tyler again beguiling the players, the Coaches, the crowd (plus one or two u17s training on the pitch opposite) with a dummy/ swerve/ side-step or two to not only send them the wrong way, but to make them reach for their GPS’s.
At the end of the 2nd third, Haringey led 7 – 6.
The final third was an exercise in sheer doggedness and determination. For no apparent reason, the ref decided to start from 0 – 0 again (you know, for fun!)
Both teams, exhausted but determined to win, threw everything they could into the final 15 minutes. Moments of note were some of the smallest players (Tom, Andrew) throwing caution to the wind and, ball in hand, hurling themselves into the midst of massive Bull-bodies waiting to tackle them. Last gasp tackles on both sides denied strong ball-carriers - seeking glory as opposed to support runners - from crossing the whitewash (or actually line of cones...).
Tries were traded until, at 4 – 3 up to the visitors, Haringey elected to receive the kick after conceding the penultimate try, just before the final whistle (BIG mistake as a kick to touch would draw the game to conclusion). As opposed to kicking to touch though, Hackney kicked long, where the ball was fielded by Haringey and, finally passing the ball along the line, the move was finished with a home try out wide right.
4 – 4 seemed a fitting end to a really enjoyable game. Many skills were on display and there is still much to learn, but everything was conducted in a great spirit – by both players and spectators alike – that it will be a pleasure to experience more like it.
Thank you to all who made this possible by bringing your young gentlemen down!
Updated 09:33 - 10 Oct 2018 by Helen Rayfield