POLO: ‘It’s a lifestyle thing’

2013-08-23 00:00

“POLO is a disease cured by extreme poverty or death,” opined match commentator Angus Williamson during the first of the two Test matches between South Africa and Chile in this year’s BMW Polo International Series played at Shongweni last Sunday, which ended in a four-all draw.

Unlike the Durban July, where the horse race is all but peripheral to the bling, glitz and general razzmatazz, a BMW polo Test match is a more sober, and dare one say, classier affair, although undoubtedly one that draws passionate and committed support.

“We’ve both followed the game since we were children,” said Hilary McKernan, at Shongweni on Sunday with her husband, Don. “The appeal is in seeing man and animal working so close together. It’s a fast game and it’s exciting; it’s not long and drawn out all day like cricket.”

For the uninitiated, the game of polo is played by two teams of four players plus two referees, on an area about the size of nine soccer fields. They are all mounted on horses, referred to as ponies in polo parlance. The duration of the game varies, played in six seven-minute periods or “chukkas” (although that can increase depending on the rating of the players), plus a short half-time. The clock stops whenever the ball goes out of play or due to rule infringements; also when damage to the field, potentially dangerous to ponies and players, needs fixing. Sunday’s game lasted just over an hour-and-a-half.

This year’s South African side consisted of Guy Watson (captain), Byron Watson, Leroux Hendricks and Lance Watson, with Cody Ellis and Duncan Watson in reserve. As the surnames suggest, polo is something of a family affair; it’s also pretty much dominated by KwaZulu-Natal at the moment.

Byron Watson, at 17, is the youngest player on the South African team, and is a pupil at Maritzburg College. “Getting the practice in can be a bit of a struggle,” he said. “But after school rugby on Saturdays, and on Sundays, I play at the Underberg Club.”

Byron’s uncle, Guy Watson (26), plays at the same club, and according to commentator Williamson, is “and I stand to be corrected — the 59th College boy to become captain of a national side”. The other Watsons are also his nephews.

Saturday was Guy’s first outing as captain. “Polo requires skills involving horsemanship, speed and good hand-and-eye co-ordination,” he said, explaining the appeal of the sport for a participant as opposed to a spectator. “And, of course, there’s the adrenalin rush.”

But the real challenge is horsemanship. “There are six chukkas, so you have to have a string of at least six ponies. Each pony is different, with a different temperament — you have to be able to manage them and ride them all.”

Given the requirements of the sport — all those trained ponies, their stabling and transport, plus the ancillary equipment —  there’s no escaping the fact that polo is an expensive sport. This may explain why it’s a very minor one in South Africa, played by about 400 people. Despite this, the SA Polo Association (Sapa) is not exempt from conforming to the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee’s transformation charter for sport.

“The polo association relies on such matches and events to generate funds, which are then put back into the sport for development, transformation and coaching,” said Sapa executive director Clive Peddle, also a Maritzburg College old boy. Sapa had pinned much of its transformation hopes on young Sbu Duma from Lions River. His skill at the game saw him receive coaching and bursaries from the age of 11. He received a three-year Maybach Foundation Award and played internationally, including in the SA team. Duma’s inspiring story and his many accomplishments were featured several times in The Witness, as was his murder in May 2012.

Sapa acknowledges that Duma’s tragic death spotlighted the flaw in its development programme: too much concentration on one player. It has since broadened its approach. “We are aiming to fast-track players of colour into the international team,” said Peddle. “We want to take them to the highest levels of the game. We are also encouraging polo at school level and encouraging schools to adopt polo as a sport.”

Sunday’s Test was preceded by a Development Trophy curtain raiser, featuring the BMW X5 team (James Crowe, Pah Moekwena, Tysen O’Sullivan and Zandise Gushu) versus the BMW X6 side (Ayanda Mbutyana, Jack Spengane, Ben Crowe and Jabulane Khanyile).

The transformative mix was mirrored by the guests hosted in the BMW VIP marquee, where the old white elite segued into the new black. Panama hats, linen jackets, bespoke tailoring, blazers and cavalry twill, were much in evidence among the men, while many of the women opted for the distinguished but inconspicuous. No Durban July this, although some said the cool weather saw people dressing down for warmth and comfort. Bonga and Nomkhosi Ndaba won the prize for best-dressed couple, unostentatiously echoing, as the invitation suggested, the colours of the venue: “dove grey, white, eggshell and prints with ornate glass and crystal, and washed in a colour of flowers”.

“We don’t know polo as a sport; it’s more a lifestyle thing,” said Bonga. “Not that we own any horses, but it’s something we can aspire to.”

The young couple rubbed shoulders with the likes of Mike Rattray of Mala Mala, host to the Chilean team,and John Platter of Platter’s Wine Guide fame, who said he’d tried mixing wine and polo. “But not very well. I used to play in Kenya. Now I watch, very occasionally.” And Bheki Cele, ex-national police commissioner, in hallmark hat.

Many of the guests sheltering in the warmth of the marquee, where lunch was served amid tasteful flower arrangements, upmarket gifts and flowing Ken Forrester wines, had flown from Cape Town and Johannesburg for the Test match. Now, barring death or the onset of extreme poverty, they are probably heading for Waterfall in Johannesburg, ready to do it all again this Sunday, when the final Test will hopefully have a more decisive outcome.

Come the game last weekend, it was but a few steps from the dining tables to the white-draped stand on the west bank of the field. On the opposite bank, the public were gathered in groups, picnicking against a backdrop of wintry grey plane trees. A few stubborn yellow leaves on a row of poplars at the end of the field fluttered in the cold wind coming from the south. The weather closed in during the course of the match and the final chukka was played under a canopy of grey cloud, but the predicted rain held off.

“We change sides after each goal to give each team the same experience of the playing surface and the weather conditions,” said Williamson during the course of his informative commentary, especially helpful to novice spectators; not least when half-time approached. “After this chukka, you are all welcome to go on to the field and stomp the divots; it’s a tradition in polo — just be careful of the steaming ones.”

• feature1@witness.co.za

1874: The first recorded local game took place in October, at the Parade Ground in Cape Town, between the Gordon Highlanders and the Cape Mounted Rifles.

1885 : A polo club was formed in Cape Town by army officers, and in Natal by the officers stationed at Fort Napier, Pietermaritzburg. A year later, they formed the Garrison Polo Club.

1886: The Dargle Polo Club was the first civilian club in South Africa, a claim disputed by the Mooi River Polo Club. The 1902 edition of the South African Polo Calendar gives the foundation years as 1886 for Dargle and 1889 for Mooi River. The Port Elizabeth Club started in about 1888, but went into recession because of the Rand’s gold rush in the 1890s.

1894: Play in the old Transvaal began when the owner of the Goldfields Hotel founded a polo club. The game was dominated by the military — the Military Ninth Division played during the 1880s at Harrismith — but civilian clubs began to sprout up.

1906: The South African Polo Association was formed at Durban’s Royal Hotel. It is the controlling body, to which five polo regions are affiliated —Highveld, East Griqualand, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and the Cape. Sapa is, in turn, affiliated to the Hurlingham Polo Association and the Federacion Internacionale de Polo, the two world bodies of polo.

1932: The first recorded women’s match was played between South African teams from Connington and Durban, ending in a two-all draw.

1948: The Natal Ladies’ Polo Association was formed. A Natal Ladies’ Polo Championship was instituted a year before; the Lions River team dominated until 1951, but in 1952: the Underberg Rovers won. For some reason, women’s polo in SA was dormant at the end of the fifties.

2012: South Africa faced England at the first Audi International Coronation Cup and were defeated 9-8. The same year, South Africa beat India in the BMW International Series 11-6 and 15-7. — BMW International Polo.

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