It’s been a long and winding road for the threes. When we dispatched the Southwark Lancers 18 months ago, nobody expected it would take this long to get back on the horse and ride out to face an opposition in high spirits and tight shirts.
Then, when humanity decided to drop off a few tackles and give Covid a 31-0 half time lead, not even mystic ‘Mish Macgregor could have predicted the scale (and length) of the comeback. Scotland may have had Finn Russell that sadly-drawn day at Twickenham but – thanks to some solid counter-rucking from our back row of Mo Derna, P. Fizer, and Ash Trazenika (MA Oxon) – Covid now seems at least to be pinned in its own 22.
It’s definitely been a long road, one that we have walked without complaint, merely looking forward to the glistening fields of H-shaped posts on the horizon. Never did we imagine, though, that this metaphor would come so strikingly true as it did on Saturday, when a fresh-faced group of threes – some now fathers, some now employed, some now playing Rugby for the first time – arrived at Waterloo two hours before kick-off, expecting a quick three-stop journey out to the West and the snazzy home ground of Battersea Ironsides. It is a rare thing to travel beyond the confines of Kent Metropolitan League 4 but if the new normal means friendlies in Zone 1 I can get to on an Oyster card, I’m not going to complain.
But it was a long and winding road.
Off at Earlsfield, turn left, walk. Turn right, walk. Ten minutes later, the club appeared in front of us – hallelujah.
Oh no. There’s another left, a hill, cross the road, a quick drop in at a MacMillan fundraiser then turn right at a bouncy castle and, at last, the sweet, sweaty embrace of a muggy changing room.
A quick tally of the team revealed we’d lost a few good men on the walk and, as we sallied out for the 15 minute hike to the pitch, we passed the haggard faces of stragglers trying to find the mysterious clubhouse. At least it was downhill this time.
The long journey did at least mean there was less of a need for a warm-up. Still, some neat run-throughs and a quick game of touch suggested that our skills had not dropped off too much in the Covid hiatus. Despite it all, this was promising. It was exciting, the energy palpable.
The referee then kindly jogged over to inform us on the new laws for this year and how to ‘jangle’ effectively (for those of you who don’t know, it’s basically jackaling).
With our knowledge and our vocabulary topped up, the subs departed to be equipped with flags for running touch. After 18 months, it was finally time for a squeeze, an impassioned speech from the senior players, and the slow jog out to the halfway line. It was time.
The first third – as it turned out to be – was close fought. The lack of practice and experience playing together showed in defence, with dog legs and some soft tackling letting Ironsides win ground too easily. Apparently some had forgotten that with social distancing regulations relaxing, we no longer had to stand 2m away from the inside man. Hiding beneath this rusty exterior, however, was a tenacity waiting to be let loose. When OCs did build into the game, the inherent class the players possessed shone through.
After absorbing repeated Ironside attacks with the steadfastness of a bored anvil, our defence forced Battersea to give up on crashing repeatedly into the line in vain and instead to try to spin the ball out wide.
Our resilience proved worthwhile. James Good (suspiciously far away from the ruck for a front rower) somehow turned the ball over in the middle of the ensuing backs move. He ran and made, quite literally, metres.
That he was tackled mattered not; crucially, we were on the attack. We built slowly, turning to the ‘pick and go’s that allowed us to gain something of an ascendency. Down the hill we charged, man by man, gaining incrementally both ground and confidence. The tenacity was let loose.
Having forced a penalty on the 5m line, we set up shop with some more crash balls before, at last, Jack Stamp produced one of the fizzing passes that set the best nines in Rugby apart. It was flat, it was precise, it was touched down inches from the corner flag. Marcus Brockman, visibly fuming that his prolonged stint in the backs was over, had found a space on the wing with just enough of a gap between the last defender and the touchline to score the first try of the year for the threes. It was a beautiful finish to a truly team effort.
We had proven the concept – our gnarly pack would work – and, with spirits lifted by the try, we could have kicked on. Sadly, our momentum was almost instantly halted by a huge kick in the teeth (or – more aptly – elbow in the eye). Goody, so recently the hero of the try-causing turnover, accidentally copped one in the eye from the world’s veiniest man. He was very nice about it and turned out to be a doctor but the damage had been done. Goody disappeared off to hospital looking like a chipmunk, kindly chaperoned by club president Bill Blythe, who had clearly taken to the pastoral side of his role with aplomb.
The referee saw fit to call the first period to an end with OCs down two forwards. Drinks onboard and words of encouragement panted out, the team returned after a much-needed break. Sadly, the elbow to the face had brought an abrupt end not only to our prop’s match, but our nascent momentum.
The second period could best be summed up by the brief interlude required to remove a rather large pile of dog poo from our 22. I shan’t labour the metaphor about how dog-legged defending had brought us face-to-face with a dog’s output but, to be honest, it wouldn’t not be apt. When we kept the ball in hand, we did look good, the new look backline had good pace out wide and, as in the first half, when the (remaining) forwards went through the phases, the Ironsides defence proved more porous than dodgy PPE. We just couldn’t keep the ball long enough.
And then, inevitably, a lack of conditioning proved our Achilles heel. Christien did something to his knee (I presume bad because he briefly disappeared to the touchline) and Henry Chapman, having proudly donned a club blazer to mark his (almost) triumphant return to competitive Rugby, twanged his arm.
As we kicked off for the final third (because what’s the point of a friendly if you can’t bend the rules?), those left standing had about as much gas left as the average UK petrol station. With half the squad flagging, and one man lost to an eye injury, another to an arm, the threes resembled the great Admiral Nelson. Though sadly, unlike for him, there was no Victory in sight. More like the French navy at Trafalgar, battered at sea by broadsides, the Battersea Ironsides put the game to bed with some incisive line breaks and simple run-ins. The energy and resilience of the first third had tired OC’s legs and bodies and, despite some more positive phases and pressure in the 22, we were unable to add to the score.
And so it ended, many to 5, with bodies strewn around the London mud. Despite the scoreline, the proud faces post-match suggested more than a few positives to take back to Horn Park with us. Lee and Eric did sterling jobs holding up a scrum that made up in passion what it lacked in strength. Hayri carried well and was the short notice lynch pin that our lineout needed but didn’t deserve, and Dave and Keiran made their club bows with poise, pace, and skill. A word also for Deano, whose (admittedly numerous) restarts were uncannily metronomic, giving us a consistently good platform to hit back immediately after conceding.
Thanks too to Ironsides, who, when we were looking for a match to fill the void in our schedule and hearts, stepped up at short notice. The changing rooms may have been in Timbuktu, but the clubhouse served espresso martinis (the London Rugby scene seems far more hipster than Kent).
Most importantly, we’re back, Rugby’s back and, injuries aside, next week the team will be back too. It’s been a long and winding road, but we’ve made it.
Onwards to Park House on Saturday, where we will hopefully return to our status as a big fish in a small pond (piscis magnus in parvo cetario will soon be emblazoned on our shirts).
(3rd XV 2021/22 season top try scorer)