What a day!
We knew it would be a massive occasion, and striking the balance between enjoying the occasion and not getting overwhelmed by it was always going to be a struggle. In the end, the rugby took over and this Hove team managed to keep their nerve and deliver another home win by the narrowest of margins.
With an official meet time of 1:30pm, most of the squad turned up early to watch the 3rd XV taking on the Sea Serpents, rather than sitting twitching their fingers at home. Watched by a decent sized crowd, the 3rd XV won to keep their title aspirations alive.
By the time we ran out at 3pm, the crowd was a big as I've ever seen it at the Rec, rivalling the crowd from the Guernsey game in 2010 (of which I was one!) The players from the earlier game and the women's touring game stuck around to support us, as well as second team players, former players, former club members, friends, families and a healthy contingent of over 100 that had travelled down the M23 with the visiting team. The North bank by the clubhouse was completely full and there was a layer of supporters at pitch level around the other 3 sides.
Gareth Davies kicked the game off, with Hove playing towards the Shirley Drive end of the pitch. Hove struggled in the early going to get a foothold in the match. Despite looking dangerous with the ball in hand, errors and inaccuracy at the breakdown cost us whenever we got into good positions.
Reigatians settled earliest into their patterns and took a 0-3 lead. Despite an early miss from long range, Gareth Davies levelled up on his second attempt.
Despite Hove giving up some size in the pack, Hove's set piece functioned well and scrum and line-out were a good source of possession all day. Hove did concede one scrum penalty however on the edge of our own 22, which the OR 10 kicked for a 3-6 lead.
Late in the half with Hove attacking, a pass from a lineout went to ground and OR hacked through. A great chase back from Phil Dugard stopped a try, although the ball was recycled and Hove conceded a penalty when Ian Saunders cover tackle was judged high. Hove went in to the break 3-9 down.
With the gap less than a score, Hove were confident that the game was still there to be won. The second half kicked off and shortly after Old Reigatians had a chance to extend their lead with a penalty that was missed.
The visitors did not dwell on this missed opportunity, regaining control of the ball and patiently working through some phases until the opportunity for a try came. The conversion was taken and Old Reigatians had a 13 point lead with around 30 minutes left to play.
Hove have come back from bigger deficits this season, overturning a 15 point deficit at home to Beckenham early in October, and overturning 21 point deficits away to Beckenham and at home to Horsham in the second half of the season. However, in all of those instances Hove had a lot more time.
Hove were still struggling to retain possession, but managed to win a couple of penalties at the breakdown in defence to force a bit of field position. Hove managed to get the ball back and play down in the OR half, and managed to force a penalty. A kick to the corner led to a Hove line-out 6m out with around 15 minutes to go.
The Hove forward pack formed a tight maul and started rumbling forward. The Reigatians hooker collapsed the maul and got a yellow card for his trouble. The referee declined to give a penalty try when it may have been appropriate to do so, but sensing blood Hove opted for the scrum.
The scrum wheeled and disintegrated, and out came the arm for Hove's advantage. The ball was tidied up and recycled however, and was quickly with Rob Biggs - who had moved to scrum half. The ball was moved across the line to Ryan Morlen, who saw half a gap and managed to get outside his man and across the line. 14 Hove players raced back to the halfway line barely celebrating, while Gareth Davies lined up a kick. Despite an early charge from OR which resulted in one player squatting down halfway between the kicker and the goalline and a shout from one of the OR fans, Gareth cut the lead to 6 points and crucially, one score.
To give you an idea of timings, a tweet sent confirming the kick was at 4:29pm. A later tweet confirming the full time score was sent at 4:40pm.
With time running out, Hove had managed to bring the game back within one score. Hove took the restart, but after a few phases turned the ball over. Reigatians tried to run down the clock, but attempted to force a pass which was picked off with an intercept by Ryan Morlen. A few yards were made, but Ryan was swallowed up by the defence. The ruck was quickly cleared though, and Rob Biggs found Carles on the blindside.
With Martin MacDonald and Guy Patton outside him and 3 forwards lined up in front of him, Carles hit Guy with a cut-out pass. Guy got round the outside man for a half break and put the ball back inside to Mac. Mac drew the final man to put Carles in, who fought off a cover tackle to make his way over. The Rec erupted.
Following the jubilation of Carles' try, it was only 15-16, and Hove still needed the kick. Gareth Davies lined the kick up and the whole park fell eerily silent. Gareth has since told us he could hear birds chirping when he was lining up the kick and absolutely hates kicking in silence! After what felt like an age, Gareth stepped up and bisected the posts. A roar went up again.
There was a slight bit of confusion in the Hove ranks, as we thought the referee said there was one and a half minutes left, but as it transpired there were four and a half minutes left. Hove, believing the game was nearly up, tried to grind down the clock and won a penalty around our 22, only to find there was quite a bit of time left.
Hove won the line-out, mauled the ball downfield and then went back to one-out runners to try to grind down the clock some more. The pack were joined by the centres to add bodies to the cause. With time running out, OR won a final turnover but in their haste to get the ball wide threw it forward. Scrum Hove was the call and the referee called last play.
A solid hook from Pat Andrews meant the ball could be removed from the scrum quickly and promptly booted off the park. The full time whistle went, the bench emptied onto the pitch, followed by a large number of the crowd.
Thanks to Old Reigatians for playing their part in such an enthralling fixture and commiserations for the result.
However, as a player in this team since the start of the 2010-11 season, there has not been a better day to be involved in. It has been a fantastic squad effort over the season and it was fantastic to see so many of the squad that weren't involved on the day there supporting and on the pitch after the final whistle.
A huge thank you to everyone who came down to watch and support the team, it was honestly an incredible experience and I still don't think the boys have come down from it. If that game had been played out in front of 3 men and a dog, it wouldn't have been nearly as special.
Finally, a massive thank you to all the volunteers who have given up time to help the team and the club over this season and over past seasons. Since relegation 3 years ago, those volunteers have done a huge amount for the club, resetting the club's direction and ensuring the right people are in place to help achieve its playing aims, as well as managing the commercial side of the club and developing the facilities, which were in desperate need of some investment.
The clubhouse was absolutely rocking on Saturday night, and Saturday saw the club set a new record for the highest bar take in a single day. It was a fantastic day for all involved, and I'm sure one that will live long in the memory of everyone who was there.