Tuesday, 5 July 2011


The South African team has just returned from the FIP Zone D Qualifiers in Malaysia. I was privileged to accompany the team as Manager and am happy to report that generally the tour was a great success albeit we never achieved our goal of qualifying for the finals in Argentina later this year.

The event was hosted and organised (in conjunction with FIP) by the Royal Malaysian Polo Association. Peter Abisheganaden, the RMPA Secretary, was an amazing organizer/facilitator and left no stone unturned. All the team’s costs were paid for by the RMPA and it was left to each country to get their players to Malaysia. Thereafter accommodation, travel, meals etc were taken care of by the RMPA. Interestingly, some of the teams (New Zealand and Australia) had to pay their own way to Malaysia unlike South Africa whose travel costs and uniforms were met by SAPA.
The teams were accommodated at a seaside hotel resort an hour’s drive from the polo fields in Pahang – each team had its own dedicated liaison officer and air conditioned bus for transportation to and from the venue under police escort – a fairly large logistical exercise in itself. This meant no delays and matches always commenced on time.
Accreditation for participants was efficient and well organised as was the hotel reception staff.
Ponies were mostly from local players and patrons including those that were purchased from the Argentine and New Zealand. The RMPA entered into a deal with their patrons whereby the RMPA underwrote the cost of purchasing ponies with a four year interest free loan. Freight charges for the purchased horses were met by the RMPA out of funding received from the Malaysian government. Approximately 120 horses were bought from the Argentine and New Zealand.
All horses were graded into “A”, “B” and “C” categories by the Horse Coordinator and allocated into seven pools. All were number branded on their hooves as well as the number painted on the rump. Each team had 24 horses in total. Teams drew for their pony pool before the commencement of the tournament to ensure transparency – a major improvement on previous FIP tournaments held in India and Pakistan. Each team was provided with a list of their ponies, their age, previous tournament experience and who the owners were. All teams were also given a similar list of the other participating team’s ponies as well as a CD featuring a picture of the horses. Players were strictly prohibited from entering into the stable area at all times meaning one never really knew what preparation the horses were getting.
Because of the hot and humid conditions, it was mandatory for all players to change ponies after three minutes. Umpires were instructed to stop the game at a neutral point as close to the three minute mark in the chukka as possible to allow players to change horses. In effect matches consisted of 10 x half chukkas. Not ideal because players always took longer than the prescribed minute allowed for the change which made for a very stop/start affair. Because most of the horses were used to playing “patron polo” at a lower level, they were not sufficiently conditioned or fit and battled to cope with the hard 14 goal polo. Wind tunnels equipped with fans blowing a fine mist were erected for ponies to be cooled between chukkas. What was disturbing was the fact that very few ponies would have lasted a full seven minute chukka. The veterinary staff were excellent (there were three vets in attendance at all matches) attending to ponies that showed signs of distress as they came off the field. Lame ponies were withdrawn from the pools and replaced with another “C” grade horse so teams tended to look after their “A” and “B” ponies.  
Grounds were generally good but tended to cut up badly due to frequent down pours of rain. The surfaces were planted to a local grass species with a fairly broad leaf and certainly weren’t the quality of our better fields in South Africa.
The RMPA were superb hosts and organised numerous cocktail parties, functions and even a dinner with the Prince of Malaysia HRH Prince Abdullah at his official residence in Kuantan.

FIP have their own set of rules somewhere in between the HPA and AAP which took a bit of getting used to. However teams were well briefed on these prior to the start of the tournament. The umpires were all Argentine nationals chosen by FIP and in my opinion not up to scratch for a tournament of this magnitude. After each match the FIP Tournament Committee would hold a debrief meeting on the day’s play and teams frequently requested that umpires adhere to standard umpiring procedures. The same three officials were used for all matches thereby  achieving a measure of consistency.

The ethos of FIP is to promote polo in younger players and to provide these players the opportunity of playing International polo at 14 goal level.  The average age of the SA team was 26 whilst the other nations were all above 30. Having said that, countries fielding a five goal player in their team seem to fare better than those that didn’t. We lacked the luxury of a “General” to keep the team focussed when things got tough.  When the SA squad was selected the only 5 goal player available was Guy Watson who eventually withdrew due to problems with his back. As per my previous newsletter South Africa selected a team of 6 players – 3 x four goal players and 3 x three goal players. We were under the impression that we would get an opportunity to try combinations and stick and ball during our “off days” but the reality was that no one was allowed to ride their horses in between matches. In South Africa’s case our first match was on Sunday 12 with the next game almost a week later on Saturday 16.  This is a FIP rule that definitely needs addressing.

Our first match against Nigeria followed immediately after the opening ceremony making it difficult for the team to settle the nerves but once play began they played some good polo beating Nigeria 13-5. This win helped us immensely in giving us a strong net goal difference ensuring a place in the semis.
The second match against Pakistan was a lot more difficult and after giving away a goal and a half on handicap we went down 12.5 – 10. Pakistan played well and “finished” their goal scoring opportunities a lot better that we did – something that dogged us the whole tour.
Our third game was the semi final (with New Zealand, Malaysia and Nigeria having been knocked out) against India which was almost the identical team that played in the BMW International at Val de Vie. The only change to their line up was Simran Shergill in place of Ravi Rathore. We knew their 5 goal player Samir Shuhag would be the danger man and the boys marked him closely. As with Pakistan, we missed 21 goal scoring opportunities which eventually cost us dearly and the match. Final score 12 – 8.
This left us in the pressure cooker for the final match for 3rd and 4th playoff. The winner of this would qualify along with finalists, India and Pakistan, to travel to Argentina for the finals in October. So for SA it was a “do or die” match against old rivals Australia. I think the team are still battling to understand how they lost that match after being up 8 -3 at half time and dominating throughout. Australian coach Glen Gilmore cleverly changed their game plan using his team members to shield their 5 goal star, Matt Grimes, who scored all their second half goals. It was very frustrating to watch our lead being whittled away and eventually surpassed with Australia finally winning the game 12-10.
In spite of the losses, our young team played well gaining valuable experience. What did emanate from the tour was that if we are going to be serious about future FIP internationals, we need to prepare the team a lot sooner than we did. We need to ear mark potential players for the next playoffs well in advance and give the selected team a lot more preparation time.
For my own part, I met some really interesting people, gained valuable insight into the hierarchy of FIP and realized how blessed we are in South Africa to have such good polo facilities and horses.
FIP have requested that SAPA consider hosting the next Zone D playoffs in four years time and if agreeable, to present them with a pilot plan at the FIP finals in Argentina during October.
Obviously, my initial reaction was to determine whether such a venture would fit our NRC strategy model formulated last year. A tournament of this stature would certainly promote polo in SA. It would also increase the visibility of the sport. It should attract more spectators and would require some major sponsorship - crucial to the success of the event – plenty of ticks in the right boxes !!!! 

Australia will be competing in this year’s BMW International Series. They will be bringing a 20 goal team of 4 x 5 goal players which should make for a great Series. Their team is as follows:

1. Kelvin Johnson (5)
2. Andrew Williams (5)
3. Matt Grimes (5) Captain
4. Rob Ballard (5)
Reserve: Will Gilmore (4)

Matt Grimes played in the Australian team in Malaysia and is a very good player so we should witness some exciting polo.
The South African team will be announced at the conclusion of SA Champs later this month. Two Blesbok teams will also be selected – a “South” side to play against the Australians in KwaZulu Natal and a “North” team to play against them in Johannesburg. The venues for these matches will be advised.

As many of you will have heard, a very unfortunate incident occurred at a Club tournament recently, where a badly injured pony was badly handled to the disbelief and horror of many non polo playing spectators. One of the most important missives to emanate from the NRC strategy plan was to “promote polo in SA and improve the perception of polo with the general public”. Regrettably, such an incident could only have had a negative impact on polo’s image.
Clubs must ensure they have a horse box attached to a vehicle on standby at every match. A suitable screen must be available (preferably in the horse box) and in the case of an injury the screen must be erected immediately. It’s no good using the horse box and/or ambulance to shield the pony from the public – it doesn’t do the job sufficiently.
Clubs must ensure that a Veterinary Surgeon is on standby and easily contacted. This is a requirement in terms of our Pony Welfare Rules.
In the event of a severe injury every effort should be made to remove the pony from the playing field in a suitable horse box. Generally, the “adrenalin rush” in the injured animal makes this possible but if the injury requires that the pony be put down immediately for humane reasons and it cannot be moved without an unacceptable degree of discomfort, then this must only be by chemical euthanasia administered by a Veterinary Surgeon or suitably qualified person. Under no circumstances should the horse be put down using a firearm in front of the public. It is important to remember that in the absence of a Vet the umpires need to take control and ensure that the animal is correctly handled.

The dates of the children’s coaching clinic has been moved a week later to accommodate children from the Highveld who will still be writing exams during the last week of June. The new dates for the Clinic are 4-7 July which falls between the “Dads & Lads” tournament in Underberg and SAPA Cup at Richmond giving fathers/sons the opportunity to play at either or both.

Entries for SAPA Cup next weekend are encouraging with 6-8 teams in the 8 goal section. The 4 and zero goal divisions are at this stage looking a little “thin” but will hopefully fill up over the course of this weekend. Please enter your name or team to Sarah Jane Carr.

Notices for entry into SA Champs have been emailed to all players – if you haven’t received one please let me know and I can resend the directive. SA Champs will be held at Underberg for the first time and should be a great tournament – their grounds have had very little polo and are in excellent shape.

July/August appear to be busy polo wise so I wish you all well in the tournaments ahead. Please feel free to contact me if you have any suggestions or queries.

Executive Director – South African Polo Association

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