The Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) while the oldest regiment in the British Army is relatively new to playing polo having only formed a polo squad just under ten years ago. As such its keen to promote and grow its crop of players, progress those that have developed a taste for it and sharpen up pre-season players who are a little rusty. For these reasons, Lt O’Connor as Chair HAC Polo has been industrialising the production of players for a few seasons now. Starting with Polo Taster Days at Ash Farm to avail of its proximity to London progressing through to use the support of the Combined Services Polo Club at Tidworth to run Novice Courses. We’ve just completed the second of our annual novice courses at Tidworth with enthusiastic feedback. With eight aspiring polo addicts in the bag, we decided to up our game this year and head out to South Africa as part of Exercise Cockney Veld – the first ever overseas polo trip by an Army Reserves unit - with a mixed ability tour of three complete novices, three confident riders and two -2 players from the regimental polo squad.
There are a few polo academies in South Africa accommodating service teams for a number of years now. Each comes with their pro’s and con’s, but they all come with the same advantages to training anywhere else in the world; cheap land, horses, manpower and weather that practically guarantees great play and a firm field. There is of course another advantage to playing Polo in South Africa; it’s just simply more accessible, more inclusive and offers an environment where farmers, soldiers, princes and grooms can play alongside and teach each other a thing or two. It’s been called variously ‘Redneck Polo’, ‘Hillbilly Polo’ or perhaps more kindly just ‘Farm Polo’. It’s a world away from the Guard’s Polo Club. Louboutins, Dom Perignon and pre-packed Fortnum’s hampers more pickup trucks, tins of light beer, wood smoke from a South African Braai. And so it was that the HAC (like a number of Services Squads) found itself at the Selby Williams Polo Academy in the heart of Kwa-Zulu Natal in the shadow of the stunning Drakensburg mountains.
The training package was progressive and delivered a two-stream approach as the group was mixed in more than one way consisting mainly of Other Ranks but also of varying degrees of exposure to riding. It included one officer and seven other ranks from each of the main sub units so a healthy cross section of the regiment. This streamed approach meant that complete novices were brought on quickly, so that by the afternoon of the second day, they were able to re-join the group and play some consciously sedate instructional chukkas. Surprisingly, enforcing a slower pace also helped the more advanced group. These slower chukkas forced everyone to think about playing their men, rather than rushing around chasing the ball. These slower set plays also help to breed unselfish players (much sought after in every country). A mixed ability group didn’t necessarily hamper those more experienced players, in the author’s humble opinion it produces more thoughtful team players across the spectrum.
After five days in the saddle and despite the tender ministrations of a deep tissue massage specialist, the whole tour squad was beginning to suffer and stiffen. There was still a small hardcore of enthusiasts that would set out each morning for a run up the mountains that loomed above the polo field but for every lithe fell runner, there was at least one creaky old man. The GWK Polo Tournament at Underberg couldn’t have come at a better time to give the tour a chance to recover and watch some high goal polo.
During the second half of training, some interesting players were starting to emerge. One of the players had previously evented to a high standard up until the age of about 16. This precise horsemanship, combined with the hand-eye co-ordination of a lifelong cricketer was showing all the early signs of a very interesting future Number 4. Meanwhile a stalwart of the HAC rugby team was migrating his aggression from one field to another and showing early promise in attack and riding off with enthusiasm. The rest of us were spending less time chasing our riderless ponies across the field and connecting with the ball more frequently than we had been. There was opportunities for a bonfire and sundowners when unsurprisingly a former HACer who was “in the neighbourhood” - LSgt Lillywhite (now OCdt) popped by and visited for a day to say hello with Lt O’Connor who flew into South Africa to “work” from the polo academy for a week and cast an eye on progress.
The measure of our success will be on show on 21 July when the HAC fields two of its players from the “Cockney Veld” Academy for the Captain’s & Subaltern’s tournament at Tidworth on 21 July. So two of these players will have earned their colours already this season. The future is bright for HAC Polo and there is a generation of hungry new players nipping at the heels of the first team.
With the polo appetite truly sated after 10 days of training the trip pivoted to 2 days of Battlefield Study tours taking in the infamous battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift as well as Spion Kop under the boundless knowledge and hospitality of Lt.Col(ret’d) Reggie Purbrick.
HAC Polo would like to thank a number of organisations in helping make Cockney Veld Possible including the Commanding Officer – Lt.Col Mark Wood MBE who agreed to fund one third from the Commanding Officers fund, The Army Polo Association, The Combines Services Polo Association and the HAC Saddle Club who all contributed funding to help ensure the trip was afford able to Troopers and Captains alike. It is this support which makes such valuable trips possible.
By Capt Graham Brady