Published in Navy Polo on 03 Dec 2009

After a very successful season in 2008, the declared aim for 2009 was to retain the focus on the next generation of RN players by maintaining the structured programme of team training to bring on both the experienced and the novice players together, whilst continuing the ‘Junior Development scheme’, where a team of 3 inexperienced RN players, captained by a professional, is entered in 8 club and military tournaments throughout the season. As ever, the number of RN players available for the season was limited by the operational programme but 12 players, namely Richard Mason, Adrian Aplin, Arnie Lustman, Al Wilson, Mike Bowen, Nick Phillips, Steve Spiller, Giles Hadland, Dean Bassett, Bob Santrian Tom Burrows and Mike Ball were available for some, if not all of the season.

The RN season began in March when a squad of six players (Mason, Aplin, Lustman, Bowen, Phillips and Santrian) travelled to Argentina to spend two weeks at Dr Marcos Llambias’s El Retiro Estancia just outside Buenos Aires.  Although the intention was to mirror the very successful tour in 2004 with matches against the Argentine Navy and Army, the poor state of government relations between Argentina and the UK resulted in the Argentine military being forbidden any contact with us. Consequently the programme was restricted to civilian tournaments but the training gained was welcome; Nick Phillips, in particular, made great progress.

The tour was enhanced by the presence at El Retiro of 10 Gap Year girls, in Argentina for 10 weeks to learn how to play polo.  In this respect, however, Phillips’s performance was somewhat disappointing.

Back in the UK, the season began on Friday 17th April with the first of the squad training events.  Continuing with the 2008 programme of excellent tutelage by Jason Dixon, a former 6 goal England Captain, the squad met at Tidworth to start the year’s training programme. Last year, Jason concentrated exclusively on team play but for the first two sessions in 2009 much of the time was spent improving individual skills, before moving on to the discipline of marking, positioning, set-piece and reactive plays.

The first fixture of the season on Saturday 25th April was the Kumar Cup against Eton. As usual, Eton produced a very competent and competitive young side, and the -2 Goal Navy team of Mason, Lustman, Bowen and Meigh struggled to make any impact against a very handy 0 Goal Eton side.  The Navy started well and dominated the first chukka, although neither side scored but, as the match progressed, Eton pulled away,  scoring two goals in each chukka to leave the score at an embarrassing 6 – 1½ at the final whistle.

The next event was the RN weekend, commencing on Saturday 30th May with the Sacher Cup against Millfield. The -3 goal RN team of Mason, Lustman, Bowen and Phillips faced a 0 goal Millfield side who, due to short notice player unavailability, were fielding their school assistant Polo coach, a 2 goal player. Starting with 2 goals on handicap, the RN were slow off the mark and Millfield scored twice in the early minutes of the first chukka. However, the Navy pulled together to find their stride and Lustman and Bowen were unlucky not to score on two occasions. The second chukka was evenly matched but Millfield maintained the edge and, despite Mason’s excellent defence, managed to score just before half time to give them the lead. The second half continued in the same vein. The Navy had their share of attacks but only found the posts once (Mason) but Millfield scored twice, once in each chukka to leave the score at 5 – 3 at the final bell. Nevertheless, it was a good performance by a less experienced RN side against a well mounted and professionally led Millfield team.

The same Navy team met Taunton on the second day of the RN weekend for the Kemble Salver which was preceded once again by the excellent lunch organised by Colin MacGregor and Robert Guy. The RN faced a 0 Goal Taunton side and knew this would be a hard match. Once again it was the opposition who opened the scoring but the Navy were quick to retaliate. A good run by Lustman, capitalising on an excellent defensive backhand from Mason, resulted in a goal just before the chukka ended. The second chukka was fairly evenly matched, although Taunton had the only goal, but the third chukka was disastrous. Taunton moved up a gear and the Navy were slow to follow, allowing the visitors to chalk up three goals for no response. The final chukka was better; the RN scored twice (Lustman and Mason) but Taunton also had a goal and the tally was 6 – 5 when the match ended. Once again it was a spirited showing from a weaker side and Nick Phillips, the junior player on the team, did particularly well.

The first round of the Inter Regimental Tournament took place on Friday 19th June. Drawn against the RAF, the RN Rundle Cup team of Mason, Aplin, Lustman and Wilson knew they should win but, against an equally handicapped RAF team, there was no room for error. The RN attacked aggressively from the start but, despite two good runs by Mason and Aplin, were unable to find the posts. The RAF were quick to retaliate and had their share of the ball but good defensive play by Mason denied them success. Shortly before the end of the chukka Aplin converted a 30 yard penalty to give the Navy a one goal lead. The second chukka was close fought. Again the RN were unlucky not to score on two occasions but the RAF generally had the run of the play. Nevertheless no goals were scored, leaving the tally at 1 – 0 at half time. In the third chukka the Navy moved up a gear and dominated the field. Aplin scored an excellent 40 yard penalty then created the next attack to pass the ball to Mason, who cleanly ran it up the field and scored the Navy’s thirrd goal. Moments before the chukka bell, another RN attack was backed off the goal line by the RAF but Lustman’s pony kicked the ball through the posts to bring the score to 4 – 0. In the final chukka the RN controlled most of the play and Lustman scored a good goal across his horse’s neck leaving the score at 5 – 0 at the final whistle. Despite the score, this was not a particularly good showing from the RN’s senior team who never really gelled despite some incidences of very promising play. Nonetheless, this was the first occasion the team had played together since Jul 08 and a win against the RAF is always cause for satisfaction.

The next fixture was the semi final of the Inter Regimental tournament where the Rundle Cup team travelled to Cirencester to face a 4 goal team from the Wessex Yeomanry which included a 2 goal professional player. Starting with a 3½ goal lead on handicap, the RN knew this would be a very testing contest and they would have to play a tight game, focussed on marking, if they were to avoid a rout. Sadly the superior skill and pony power of the Yeomanry told from the start. Despite some excellent play from Mason and Aplin, the Navy made little impact on the TA. The Yeomanry scored two 2 goals in each chukka, with no response from the RN, to win the game comfortably 8 – 3½.

As established in 2008, the Rundle Cup team entered a tournament in the New Forest on July 4th and 5th as part of their training programme for the Rundle Cup. So on Saturday 4th July Mason, Aplin, Lustman and Wilson met at New Park in Brockenhurst to play Roger White’s Coombe Place team.  Coombe Place is a very well established and competent 0 goal team and the RN knew they were at a disadvantage. Starting with ½ a goal on handicap, the Navy began well and dominated for much of the chukka, playing a disciplined game with each player tightly marking his man. Unfortunately, just before the whistle, Coombe Place managed to score, giving them the lead 1 – ½. In the second chukka the RN maintained the pressure and Lustman had a good run up the field to score but Coombe Place also found the posts, putting the score at 2 – 1½ at half time. Unfortunately the second half went Coombe Place’s way and they scored three goals for no reply to win 5 – 1½.

On the following day the Navy faced a weaker New Forest side who started with ½ a goal. The RN played well and completely controlled the field. By half time they led 3 – ½, two penalties from Aplin and a very elegant field goal from Wilson. In the second half the Navy added two more goals to their tally (Mason and Aplin) to end the game 5 – ½. This was a polished performance by the Navy who dominated the game throughout the afternoon.

The highlight of the season, the Rundle Cup, took place on Saturday 11th July. This year the match was a more sombre occasion than usual, with both teams wearing black armbands as a mark of respect to the eight soldiers whose deaths in Afghanistan had been announced the previous day. The weather suited the mood; it rained steadily throughout the match. Keen for revenge after the RN win in 2008, the Army fielded a strong and well mounted 3 goal team of Captains Hugh Arbuthnott, Philip Kaye, Quentin Hicks and Lieutenant Colonel Michael O’Dwyer. Starting with 2½ goals on handicap, the RN knew that the odds were against them and sadly this proved to be the case.  The Army had the majority of the play, scoring twice in the first chukka, despite strong defence by Mason and Aplin.

In the second chukka the RN had two good runs but the ball went wide on both occasions, whilst the Army added another two goals to their score.  Just before half time, as Lustman was attempting to ride  Kaye off the Navy’s goal line, both horses slipped and went down. Whilst Kaye was quick to regain his feet, Lustman had snapped a ligament in his left knee and was replaced by Debbie Aplin. In the second half the Armycontinued to draw away and the RN found themselves defending for most of the time. Two further goals were added to the Army’s tally, one in each chukka, to leave the score at 6 – 2½ at the final bell.

The next fixture was the Captains’ and Subalterns’ Tournament on 18/19th July, the principal tournament for the Junior Development Squad. Similar to last year, the tournament consisted of 14 teams split into three leagues but this year the RN’s -6 handicap had the team placed in the second league. Starting on a grey and wet Saturday, Hadland, Philips and Santrian were captained by Aplin for two 2 chukka matches, against the Royal Dragoon Guards and the Adjutant General’s Corps. The RN played extremely well, winning both matches without conceding a goal, and the resultant scores of 9 – ½ and 10 – 1½ put them favourite for the league final on the following day. On the Sunday Burrows, Santrian and Phillips were joined by Mason at back and faced an aggressive Grenadier Guards side for the final of their league. The Guards battled hard but with cool direction from their captain, the RN played a faultless match, with excellent man-marking and good goals from Mason and Santrian. Only conceding one goal in the third chukka, the final score was 9 – 1,  crowning the Navy as B league champions. This tournament proved that the JDS scheme is paying dividends.

On Saturday 25th July the RN faced the RAF for the Duke of York Tournament. On paper the RN were the stronger team by a goal but were very aware of just how easy it would be for the RAF to pull off a surprise victory. The embarrassment would be excruciating! Consequently the Navy team of Phillips, Wilson, Aplin and Mason were somewhat anxious not to let a capable RAF team of Gp Capt Tim Brown, Flt Lt Dave Black, FO Vicky Woodhead and Flt Lt Richard Williams steal the day. The RN started well, playing in a disciplined and well controlled style to entirely dominate the match, and by half time were leading 6 – ½.  Phillips, in particular, was playing well. His tight marking of the RAF captain put him under great pressure and entirely closed down his ability to tap off the back line. In the second half the RN made some errors and gave away rather too many fouls, allowing the RAF to score two penalties. By the fourth chukka the RN recovered their poise and finished with two excellent goals (Aplin and Mason) to lead comfortably 10 – 4½ at the final whistle.

On Monday 31st August the RN competed in a new tournament at Tidworth, established by the Adjutant General’s Corps and aimed at the more junior level of proficiency. Consisting of eight teams, the tournament was divided into two divisions and the -6 goal Navy team found themselves in the 1st division. Led by Mason, the RN side of Basset, Hadland and Santrian were drawn against a -5 goal team from RMA Sandhurst and, despite the handicap difference and a somewhat lacklustre performance, the Navy dominated the two chukka match to comfortably win 4½ – 2. This put the RN in the finals against the tournament favourites, a -4 goal Infantry side.  In the second two chukka match, the Navy began to play well and comfortably found themselves winning 4½ – 2 at the final bell.

The final official fixture of the season, preceded as usual by an excellent lunch given by Debbie Aplin, was the Faulkner Cup at Taunton on Sunday 6th September. With the RN fielding a less experienced -5 goal team of Mason, Spiller, Santrian and Phillips, Taunton decently picked a similarly handicapped side that included Roger Float (ex RN) and Marine Mike Ball, recently returned from Afghanistan and in his first season of polo. Taunton got off to a flying start and scored two goals in the first two minutes. Galvanised by this early setback the RN quickly struck back with two goals of their own from Mason, levelling the match at the end of the first chukka. Continuing where they left off, the RN scored three times in the second chukka, another two from Mason and one from Phillips. Team work and communication were the highlight of the match as the Navy continued to play well, scoring another four goals in the second half to run out eventual winners 9-2. As is usual at this match, Emma Roe kindly awarded the Neville Trophy for the Most Improved Young Player, this year to Nick Phillips who, having just bought his first pony, is set to be a future stalwart of RN polo.

The last event of the 2009 season was an excellent dinner, organised by Mike Bowen (during a gap in his filming schedule for Celebrity Family Fortunes), in Balliol College, Oxford. Attended by 12 players and wives, it was a truly outstanding evening and it was agreed that the frequency of once every six years (the last dinner was in 2003 in Dryad) was probably a little too long.

This completed another successful season for the Royal Navy. Although we only won six of our 12 fixtures and were unable to repeat last year’s victory in the Rundle Cup, we exhaustively beat the RAF on both occasions that we played them and, in the Captains and Subalterns’ Cup, a junior Navy team acquitted themselves extremely well to comprehensively win their league. Fourteen RN and RM players, including Debbie Aplin, represented the RN during the season and under Jason Dixon’s tutelage we continued to improve the standard of polo played in the RN and sustained last year’s progress in bringing on the next generation of players.

Now in its third year, the Junior Development Scheme has made great progress, providing teams for 6 club tournaments and 3 military tournaments (the Capt and Subs, AGC and Ascot Park tournaments) .  Using a number of different + goal players as the anchor, it has allowed the younger players to develop their individual skills whilst working together as a team in structured games.  We must record our especial thanks to DNPTS, the RNRMEA and the CSPA for their generous assistance, allowing us to continue this initiative that will assure the future of polo in the RN.  The focus for next season will be to build on the successes of 09, continue to extend the current Junior Development players so that they progress to play in core-RN matches and attract as many new RN players as possible into the sport.


Be Sociable, Share!