Published in Navy Polo on 03 Dec 2010

After a successful season in 2009, the declared aim for 2010 was to retain the focus on the next generation of RN players. This was to be achieved 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 three inexperienced RN players, captained by a professional, is entered in 8 club and military tournaments. As ever, the number of RN players available for the season was limited by the operational programme and injury but 12 players, namely Richard Mason, Adrian Aplin, Al Wilson, Mike Bowen, Nick Phillips, Steve Spiller, Peter Meigh, Andrew Heavyside, Giles Hadland, Tom Burrows, Mike Ball and new RN recruit Hiro Suzuki were available for some, if not all of the season.

The RN season began in March when six players (Mason, Bowen, Spiller, Meigh, Burrows and Bell) travelled to Argentina over two different periods to spend two weeks at the Esperanza Estancia under the tutelage of Martin ffrench-Blake in Coronel Suarez province. Aimed solely at getting pre season practice, the trip proved a great success and all players greatly benefitted from Martin’s guidance. Back in the UK, the season began on Friday 16th April with the first of the squad training events. Continuing with the last two years’ programme of excellent instruction from Jason Dixon, a former 6 goal England Captain, the squad met at Tidworth to start the year’s training programme. As in 2009, the initial focus was on individual skills, before moving on to the discipline of marking, positioning, set-piece and reactive plays.

The first fixture of the season on Sat 24th April was the Kumar Cup against Eton. Captained by the newest gain to RN polo, SLt Hiro Suzuki, a 2 goal player just joining BRNC from Edinburgh University, the Navy -2 Goal team of Wilson, Phillips and Ball faced a handy -2 goal Eton team who were, as usual, competitively handicapped and very well mounted. Eton started strongly and dominated the first chukka to score after a couple of minutes. They could have scored more but Suzuki worked hard to keep the back door shut and in turn scored towards the end of the chukka to even the tally at 1 – 1. In the second chukka the RN started to come together. Eton scored but the RN quickly got one back before Eton found the posts again just before half time to put the score at 3 – 2. The second half was largely dominated by the RN; in the third chukka both sides scored (4 – 3) and in the last only the RN scored (4 – 4). We decided to settle on a draw as neither side had ponies for a 5th chukka.

During the subsequent weekends RN JDS fixtures were programmed against Tidworth Polo Club teams but on a gloriously sunny afternoon on Sun 23rd May an RN team of Mason, Wilson, Spiller and Hadland travelled to the Royal Artillery at Thorney Island to play an Army development team as the final event of a junior military tournament.

The -3 goal Navy team were the weaker on handicap and indeed it was the Army who scored first after only 2 minutes.  However the RN quickly pulled together and steadily dominated the match to score 6 times without conceding a further goal.  This was a particularly promising display by a junior team.  All players acquitted themselves extremely well, playing with discipline and cohesion.

The next event was the RN weekend, commencing on Saturday 29th May with the Sacher Cup against Millfield.  The -1 goal RN team of Suzuki, Wilson, Meigh and Phillips faced a -4 goal Millfield side who were typically well drilled and well mounted.  As the visitors started with 2 goals on handicap, the RN knew they would have to work hard to overcome the deficit; consequently they were quick off the mark to score in the early minutes of the 1st chukka when a determined team attack culminated in a good goal by Meigh.  However, Millfield pulled together to find their stride and were unlucky not to score on 2 occasions, prevented by Suzuki’s excellent defence.  The 2nd chukka was evenly matched, the RN found the posts again with a good goal from Wilson but Millfield quickly counter-attacked and also scored to maintain a lead of 3-2 in their favour at half time.  In the second half the Navy started to dominate.  A very strong attack from the first throw in allowed Suzuki to find the posts and this was followed by a further field goal and a penalty.  But Millfield also scored and the 4th chukka began with the RN leading 5 – 4.  This was a particularly good chukka with end-to-end play but the RN maintained their edge scoring twice with only one in reply from Millfield.  At the final bell the score of 7 – 5 reflected an excellent performance by this young Navy team against a very handy Millfield side.

On the second day of the RN weekend a stronger (1 Goal) Navy team of Mason, Suzuki, Wilson and Bowen met Taunton for the Kemble Salver, which, as in recent years, was preceded by an excellent lunch organised by Colin MacGregor and Robert Guy. The RN faced an equally handicapped Taunton side, captained by professional 3 Goaler Roddy Stanning, and knew this would be a hard match. The Navy team went in hard from the outset and a field goal followed by a penalty from Suzuki gave them a 2 – 0 lead at the end of the first chukka. A second successful penalty from Suzuki and an unlucky miss by Stanning from a 30-yard penalty kept the RN 3 goals ahead at half time. Taunton came out in the third chukka determined to get on the scoreboard but were unlucky not to convert the 2 penalties that the RN gave away through some basic fouling. Despite this, strong teamwork and close marking by the Navy kept Taunton at bay and, after a missed RN penalty, the score remained 3 – 0 at the end of the third chukka. Taunton finally got on the scoreboard early into chukka 4 with a converted penalty; however, this was immediately answered by a good field goal by Suzuki who after a neat pass from Wilson had a clear run to goal to extend the Navy lead. Taunton, determined to close the gap, kept the pressure up right to the end but extremely tight defence by Mason saw the RN triumphant with a credible 4 – 1 win at the final whistle. This was a good performance by the Navy against a traditionally strong Taunton team; the RN victory was ultimately secured by strong teamwork and marked a pleasing end to a very successful weekend of polo.

The next fixture was the first round (and semi final) of the Inter Regimental Tournament. Drawn, as last year, against the Royal Wessex Yeomanry, the RN team of Mason, Aplin, Wilson and Suzuki met at West Wycombe on Saturday 19 Jun to face an equally handicapped +2 goal Army team. Keen to avoid history repeating itself after last season’s defeat to the same team, the Navy played attacking, aggressive polo from the outset and opened the scoring early. A field goal from Mason was followed by a second from Aplin who funnelled a 60-yard penalty from Suzuki to put the score at 2 – 0 at the end of the 1st chukka. With the pace quickening in the 2nd chukka, the RWxY came back fighting to secure a goal but the Navy responded with a field goal followed by a penalty from Suzuki, leaving the score at 4 – 1 at half time. The RN continued strongly in the 3rd chukka, scoring another two goals (Suzuki penalty and Mason field goal), whilst the TA scored a 40 yard penalty. In the fourth chukka, with the score at 6 – 2, the RWxY stepped up a gear but were unable to make much of an impression and their one field goal was met with another two from the Navy. The final score of 8 – 3 reflected a well-disciplined and consistent RN performance, earning them a place in the finals for the first time in many years.

The following day found the RN participating in an unusual fixture in the New Forest. Held to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the New Forest Polo Club and to raise funds for the Heaton Ellis Trust, the Navy were invited to field a team in a 6 Goal match to play for the Blue Jackets Cup. The team of Mason, Aplin and Suzuki were joined by Johnny Wade, a 4 goal professional from Cowdray and were evenly handicapped against a 6 goal team from the New Forest. It proved to be an excellent game of nip and tuck polo. The RN were first to score (Wade) and Aplin was unlucky not to get a second before the end of the opening chukka. The play was fast and flowing, the home team matching the RN goal for goal and the score stood at 3 – 3 at the start of the last chukka. Unfortunately the New Forest team out horsed the Navy in the final chukka and scored 5 very good goals for no reply.  The cup was presented by Lady Brabourne.

Six days later, on Saturday 3rd July, the Cornwell Affiliates (CA) tournament took place at Ascot Park Polo club. This annual tournament between teams from the Royal Navy, Army, Air Force and a home team sponsored by Keith Cornwell, is played over a series of 2 chukka matches. In the first round the Navy team of Mason, Aplin, Phillips and Hadland were drawn against Phoenix, the CA

team, leaving the Army to play the Air Force. As expected the game with Phoenix was fast from the outset with the home team putting up a good attack but the RN, mounted on their own ponies, worked well as a team enabling them to consistently harass Phoenix through good marking. The Navy managed to keep the play within the Phoenix half and Mason capitalised on this to score two goals.  Phoenix managed to break through once to score a goal but at game end the score was 2 ½ to 1 to the Navy, to place them in the final. The result of the RAF/Army game was now greatly anticipated and, with a strong handicap advantage, the Army was expected to win.  But it wasn’t to be their day and a surprising performance by the Crabs had them victorious.

The subsequent final between the Navy and RAF was a hard fight with both sides evenly matched. The RAF played well as a team and took advantage of some basic Navy fouls to score the first goal.  The pressure was now on and the RN had to improve their game. Mason’s legendary backhand came to the fore allowing him to even the tally and this was quickly followed by a second goal from Aplin.  Unfortunately there were no further goals although Phillips was just beaten by the whistle after some exceptional play. The final score was 2 – 1½ to the Navy, thus winning the tournament for the sixth time in its 16 year history.

The next weekend, on a gloriously sunny afternoon on Saturday 10th July, the Navy and Army met at Tidworth for the Rundle Cup, the highlight of the Services’ Polo season. This year the senior RN team of Mason, Aplin, Wilson and Suzuki faced a 3 goal Army side of Col Justin Stanhope-White, Maj Nick Cowley, Maj Guy Simpson and Capt Mat Eyre-Brook.  Over the last nine years the tally for this keenly contested tournament has been 4 Navy wins to 5 for the Army and the RN were extremely keen to even the score.

As the slightly weaker team on handicap, the Navy started with ½ goal lead and immediately made themselves felt. Attacking from the start, a very fast run by Suzuki culminated in a beautiful pass towards the Tedworth House goal where Wilson was perfectly positioned to elegantly run the ball between the posts and open the scoring.  The Army were quick to respond but excellent defensive play by Mason and Aplin prevented them from finding the posts, leaving the RN in the lead 1½ – 0 at the end of the chukka.

In the second chukka the Army stepped up the pressure and Eyre-Brook had a terrific run, scoring an extremely good goal, but the Navy were not to be bullied and Suzuki quickly replied with a scorching goal from close to the boards at the 40 yard line.  However, shortly before the whistle for half time, the Army won a penalty which they successfully converted to leave them just trailing 2½ – 2.

In the second half both sides played hard, aggressive polo but the Navy’s cohesion and discipline gave them the edge against the very talented but occasionally muddled Army side.  The Army were not short of attacks but the RN defence was up to the mark and 3 good attempts at goal were pushed wide.  In response the Navy pressured the Army’s goal and scored twice; a well co-ordinated attack had Mason neatly running the ball home before the end of the third chukka and, half way through the fourth, Aplin overcame very robust defence by Cowley to score a clean nearside goal, thus putting the Navy in the lead 4½ – 2 at the final bell.  This was a truly impressive win for the RN, where teamwork together with individual ability, not least from Suzuki, proved to be too much for an arguably stronger Army team.

The following day the Navy team met at Guards Polo Club at Windsor for the final of the Inter Regimental tournament where they faced a very strong 3 goal Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment (HCMR) side of Lt Col Crispin Lockhart, Lt Harry Wales, Capt Jack Mann and Maj Rupert Lewis.  Although starting as the underdogs, the Navy knew that if they played as they did on the previous day they could upset the Cavalry’s plans to carry away the silver.  Supported by a large contingent of retired Navy players, including the team that won the Inter-Regimental in 1989, the RN were under no illusions that this would be a hard match but were determined to cause a surprise.

Starting with a half-goal lead, the Navy began well but it was the Cavalry that opened the scoring.  Refusing to be daunted, the RN immediately counter-attacked and Suzuki successfully converted a penalty.  The first half continued with excellent, closely fought end to end play with 2 further goals from the Army and another 30 yard penalty by Suzuki leaving the half time score at 3 – 2½ to the HCMR.

In the third chukka the play remained evenly matched; an aggressive Navy attack culminated in an excellent backhand by Aplin to keep the ball in play which was then neatly tapped round by Wilson to score a fine goal, putting the RN ahead 3 ½ – 3.  However the Army also scored before the end of the chukka when Lewis had an excellent shot from a very narrow angle which Mason backed as it was crossing the line.  Neither the umpires or goal judge had seen the ball cross the line but the RN gallantly insisted that it had and a goal should be awarded.  The fourth chukka started 4 – 3 ½ to the Cavalry and was undoubtedly the most exciting of the match.  Both teams came out hard, however the Army conceded a 40 yard penalty which Suzuki converted allowing the RN to take the lead.  The HCMR were determined to go down fighting and, 2 minutes from the end, Mann picked up the ball from the halfway line to run towards goal.  In the defensive melee that followed the RN was unlucky to give away a penalty 2 metres off their goal line, which put the Cavalry into the lead with 30 seconds remaining on the clock.  Refusing to give up, the Navy immediately re-attacked and won a foul for a spot hit deep in their own half.  Suzuki set off at full pace for the Army goal and helped by excellent marking by the rest of the Navy team, together with an unfortunate misunderstanding amongst the Army, ran for goal as the clock ticked down to zero.  With just 5 seconds left on the clock he calmly put the ball through the posts and, to a huge cheer from the naval supporters, the final bell sounded with the Navy leading 5½ – 5.
This completed an excellent weekend of Services’ polo, with the RN winning the Rundle Cup and the Inter Regimental double for the first time since 1996.  Although the underdog in both encounters with the Army, the Navy victories were testament to the training, discipline and great rapport between the players.  SLt Hiro Suzuki most deservedly won Most Valuable Player for his truly outstanding performance throughout.

The next fixture, the Captains’ and Subalterns’ tournament, took place at Tidworth on 17/18 Jul.  As in previous years, the tournament was divided into Divisions and this year consisted of 14 teams arranged into 4 Divisions.  Despite struggling to put a team together due to a rather disappointing lack of player availability, the Navy eventually fielded a -1 Goal side of Heavyside, Bowen, Wilson and Suzuki and were placed in Division 1.  On the first day they were drawn against a -2 Goal Infantry side, who started the match with a ½ goal advantage.  Dominating from the throw-in, the Navy scored almost immediately and maintained the pressure throughout the match; the final result being 9 – ½ , achieved through 4 field goals and 5 penalties.  Buoyed by their performance, the Navy hoped they could effect a surprise on the second day when they faced the tournament favourites, a strong 2 goal Royal Wessex Yeomanry team, in the finals.  With a 2 goal lead on handicap, the RN knew that the key to success was maintaining that gap and started well when an attack by Wilson allowed Suzuki to find the posts.  But the Yeomanry were quick to retaliate and scored twice in the first chukka and again before half time to level the score at 3 – 3.  In the second half the TA increased the pressure and the Navy’s discipline faltered, giving away some basic fouls, to leave the score at 7 – 3 at the final bell.  Nevertheless, it was a good performance by a Navy side that played better than the final score suggests.

The final tournament of the month took place the following weekend when the RN met the RAF to contest the Duke of York cup.  Aplin, Suzuki and Wilson were joined on this occasion by Marine Mike Ball to face an RAF team of Wing Commanders Martin Adcock and Mark Smith and Flight Lieutenants Vicky Woodhead and Dave Black.  Starting with 1½ goals on handicap, the RAF were first to score when, from the very first throw in, Woodhead neatly collected the ball and ran it effortlessly to the Navy goal.  The RN were slow to respond but eventually started to find their form and Aplin scored a good goal to open the Navy tally.  Almost immediately afterwards Adcock added a further goal to the RAF score and, just before the end of the chukka, Suzuki converted a penalty to leave the Navy trailing 3½ – 2.  The second chukka was fast and furious but although both sides had an equal share of attacking runs, neither team could find theposts, thereby allowing the RAF to maintain their lead at half time.  But in the second half the Navy moved up a gear and dominated the 3rd chukka.  A really excellent goal by Ball was followed by a good run by Suzuki resulting in another RN goal and then a further penalty lengthened the Navy’s lead.  In the final chukka Ball scored once again to give the RN a convincing win 6 – 3½ at the final whistle.

On Monday 30 Aug the RN competed in the recently initiated Adjutant General’s Cup, now in its second year and aimed at the more junior level of proficiency.  Consisting of 8 teams, the tournament was divided into 2 divisions and the – 4 goal Navy team found themselves in the 1st division.  Led by Mason, the RN side of Phillips, Heavyside and Hadland were drawn against a -5 goal team from the HAC and played well to win 1 – ½.  This put the RN in the finals against a -5 goal Infantry side which they comfortably dominated to win 2 – ½.   This was a very satisfying afternoon for the Navy and the team’s victory for the second year is a reflection of the success of the Junior Development Scheme; but whilst plaudits must go to Phillips and Heavyside for scoring 1 and 2 goals respectively, special praise should be reserved for Ruth (Giles Hadland’s girlfriend) who won the trophy for best picnic lunch of the day! 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 5 September.  A 1 goal Navy team of Mason, Aplin, Suzuki and Ball faced a 3 goal Taunton side so started with a 1½ goal lead.    Taunton got off to a flying start and scored two goals in the first chukka with no reply from the RN.  Things improved slightly in the second chukka when Suzuki scored 2 penalties but Taunton also scored twice to maintain their lead.  This continued in the second half; Mason scored a good field goal in the third chukka and Suzuki converted another penalty in the fourth but chances were squandered and Taunton ran out the worthy winners 7 – 5½ at the final bell.  As is usual at this match, Emma Roe kindly awarded the Neville Trophy for the Most Improved Young Player, this year to Mike Ball who, having made such progress in this, his first full season, is set to be a future stalwart of RN polo.  It should be noted however that Ball played in the Faulkner Cup for Taunton last year and lost, and for the RN this year and lost – his selection is looking extremely unlikely for next year’s match!

Joking aside, this has been a superbly successful season for the Navy, winning 7 of our 9 principle fixtures.  Most importantly we won the Rundle Cup, the Inter Regimental Cup, the Duke of York Trophy and were Runners Up in the Captains’ and Subalterns’ tournament.  Congratulations to Mike Ball and Giles Hadland whose handicaps were raised to -1  and to Al Wilson who went up to 0.  We have had 10 players representing the RN in official fixtures during the season and horse ownership among the players is rising, a very encouraging indication of individual commitment.  More importantly, we have continued to bring on the next generation of Navy players in the JDS scheme and 7 RN and RM personnel have completed the Novice course at Tidworth.  As ever, we are hugely grateful to Temeraire for their very generous support from the Sports Lottery and RNRM Charity, and to Brigadier John Wright for all that he does to maintain Tidworth as such an excellent home to Armed Forces polo.

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