And so it happened. Somehow, I ended up competing at a national level, representing the University of London, after just under four months back in the saddle (on a mostly weekly basis). Hundreds of teams from across the country, spread across several different divisions (based on skill level) competed in a (mostly) knock out tournament, though there were some teams/divisions that had to win a certain number of games in order for them to progress.
I was in the B2 division, which consisted of twelve different universities at what you’d call an upper beginner level. The Beginner divisions run from B1 to B4, and B2 is where most beginners to polo with average to experienced riding experience seem to end up playing in their first year at SUPA Universities Winter National Championships; next year, we will no longer be able to compete in any of these divisions and will need to enter into either the ‘Median’ division or above (including ‘Novice’ and ‘Intermediate’).
Winter Nationals are held at Rugby Polo Club in the Onley Equestrian Centre, which consists of an indoor and outdoor arena. Our next national tournament will be the Universities Summer National Championships in June, to be held at Offchurch Bury Polo Club (near Leamington Spa) on grass.
7 London – Bournemouth 0
The first chukka we played against Bournemouth, winning 7-0. Our No. 3, Louis Ronksley (Queen Mary), managed to put away 5 goals fairly easily as he quick off the mark with the throw in and Bournemouth lacked the defence; Louis was mounted on Dusty (apparently a pony that belonged to Prince Harry) and there was this slight amusement and expectation then for both of them to do well as it’s so important to score the first few goals quickly as the chukka is only 6.5 minutes and that’s it. I managed to tap one in at some point halfway through the game, as did our No. 2, Yong Choi (UoL Alumni, Imperial, Birkbeck).
3 London – Stirling 0
This was the first chukka we played where the other team understood the basics of riding off and marking, and as a result, it meant that the goals did not come as easily as in our first match. Still, it was great to actually be able to ride off, as I do love the controlled aggressive play that comes with it, never mind the fact that it feels completely and utterly dangerous, and therefore fun!
The picture below shows a great example of us forming a train, where we’re all marking another player and trying to ride each other off, whilst following the line of the ball.
Despite all the riding off, we were able to get the win we needed to progress to the Semi-Final. Louis and Yong managed to get a goal each; if I remember rightly, the third goal came from a penalty awarded to us when Stirling fouled across the line of the ball.
A very exciting day. Afterwards, the team and I decided to celebrate at The Dun Cow in Dunchurch, close to the Travelodge that we were staying at.
Rest Day: Team Bonding in Warwick, Followed by Club Dinner
My teammates and I decided to head towards Warwick to visit the castle and have a spot of lunch in the town centre. It was heaving it down with rain for most of the day, sadly, and some of the castle had been closed off, however we still managed to have an enriching time at the castle. Yong managed to acquire a pistol from the gift shop for his pirate costume (more about that later) and I managed to acquire a sword for absolutely no reason.
We also learnt about the Dun Cow…
A University of London Polo Club dinner followed later that evening at one of the local Indian restaurants and then some of the group split afterwards to have a night out in the town.
1 London – Warwick 4 (Semi-Final)
Utterly savage game. Enough said. They were just way better riders and even Louis, the most experienced rider in our team, couldn’t keep up.
I was riding Wren, a superb pony that needed little encouragement from the whip and had me chasing Warwick for a good three minutes or so. Unfortunately, our defensive play was pretty poor once they turned the ball towards the goal. And then there was the issue of my arms being too short, ha.
Dinner at The Dun Cow, followed by the Players’ Party
The club returned to The Dun Cow for a final meal, before heading back to Rugby Polo Club for the Players’ Party, which was supposed to be fancy dress themed. I refused to go in fancy dress, hence my reason for purchasing a wooden sword at Warwick Castle, only to be told that I wouldn’t be allowed into the venue with it (and Yong was refused entry with his pistol, ha).
2 London – Cambridge 3 (Runner-Up Final)
With some people still nursing their hangovers (including myself), we limbered up for the final chukka of our tournament, and our battle for 3rd Place in our division. Probably not the best time to change mounts, but at the same time I was kind of glad that Phil had us all changing ponies for our final chukka as it meant that we would have to rise up to the challenge of new ponies. Yong now ended up on Dusty, I was on Netita, and Louis ended up on Sucra(?).
We were slow to get in those first two goals. I managed one by tapping it along the boards after a few false moves from Yong. Cambridge had a strong No. 3, Erik Rudicky, who was keen to ride off and hook from the start, however he did risk certain plays and meant hooking under the neck and a few fouls of our Right of Way.
We were awarded two 15 yard penalties. Yong was the designated penalty hitter, but his first shot rolled short, meaning Erik picked it up straight away, and the second shot veered off stick side, missing the goal mouth by mere inches.
A couple of tough ride offs!
Time was running out at the chase was now on.
In the final minutes or so, the game moves rather quickly. We’re still at 2-2 by this point, but now the ball is in play by Cambridge. After Yong’s attempt to turn the ball in our favour, the line changes yet again and I’m able to pick it up, but Cambridge’s No. 1 hooks me stick side and I lose the ball under the pony.
Naturally, again, Erik comes out of nowhere to play the shot as we have no defensive play and neither Louis or Yong are behind me as I think there was a breakaway.
We’re all moving so fast by this point trying to chase Erik down, that he either misses the ball or loses the line, but Cambridge’s No. 2 goes to play the shot towards goal. The ball ends up turning or she misses (I can’t remember which, it was all so fast), and you can see Erik is poised to turn, whilst I’m already beginning to turn around as I can see Louis is attempting a hook.
And this is where it gets messy. Louis manages the hook, but then Erik is straight onto the ball and plays the shot. I’ve already turned my pony by this point in anticipation for the ball coming my way, but it’s technically Erik’s line and his right of way. Although he seemed miles off at the time, I went to play the shot and as soon as I hit the ball, I knew I’d hear the umpire call it and I could hear Phil screaming, “No!” in my left ear (as he’d perched in the ground floor viewing area). Bloody hell. And it was awfully nice of the event photographer to capture what wasn’t my finest moment:
15 yard penalty was awarded to Cambridge. Of course, Erik took the shot and didn’t miss. No sooner did the ball smack the arena boards and the chukka bell went off. 3-2 to Cambridge. Game over. I felt like a right prick for conceding the penalty because it was such a dumb foul and I don’t even know why I played the ball even though Erik had right of way.
That said, it was one of the best chukkas we played in the entire tournament. It was stupidly quick, possibly the most dangerous of all our plays (because of the speed we were playing at), but it was the most enjoyable time.
Getting back into polo has given me a chance to unwind and de-stress. It’s always fun to imagine the ball to be the head of some creep you don’t like and smash it up the arena, ha! It has a privilege also to represent my university and London in general and the diversity of the club from all backgrounds reflects this.
There can be no doubt that polo is a dangerous sport and I fully respect this and the risk(s) I take in order to learn and play. Life’s too short to worry, and we all support each other as team mates to provide the most enjoyable chukka, as well as looking out for each other’s safety and welfare whilst mounted.
The entire university polo experience has really added to my overall university experience and given me plenty to treasure and be thankful for. I can’t wait for Summer Nationals.
All chukka coverage photos are courtesy of the amazing Emmpix Photography: emmpix.co.uk