Published in Army Polo on 30 Nov 2011

Under the EFG Private Bank Army Polo Scholarship Captain Alex Eade set out for Witchwood Polo Farm, Waipukurau, Hawkes Bay, North Island, New Zealand. Here is his report:

I hit out for the sixth chukka with only a picture perfect moon for light. Playing two on two in the dark on a full pitch at 9pm was not something I had expected when landing in New Zealand only two hours ago. Thoughts of jet lag were banished and the phrase ‘go hard or go home’ offered as comfort.

Polo in New Zealand is organised slightly differently from the UK: most teams don’t have patrons and are selected by your club on merit at each handicap level. My aim was to play for Wanstead Polo Club in the historic and prestigious Savile Cup at the end of the season.

Consequently I found myself playing in a team with the Club President and Club Secretary the day after flying across the world for a month of intensive polo coaching. The tournament was the Denbeigh Cup and
pitted Wanstead at home against their arch rivals Rangitikei. No pressure then! Somehow the other three members of my team managed to gel and eventually win our division but I spent the first chukka some way off the pace, on several occasions even behind the umpires.

The polo was fast, very fast with barely a shot missed. The players are all talented and extremely skilful riders and utterly committed. At one point I was turned inside out by a man at least 75 years in age.

The celebration of our famous victory lasted longer than the games themselves with Export Gold becoming
a familiar friend. A day off on Monday was very welcome.

Buoyed by the weekend I strode up to the yard early on Tuesday morning to meet my host and coach for the next month, Mr Brett Hamer, a great 2 goal player and superb coach, having spent 18 seasons in the UK teaching mostly at the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club.

He is a typical Kiwi, calm on the outside with a belly of fire on the pitch. He also does not mince his words. The programme he laid out doesn’t do justice to the phrase ‘back to basics’ but it was exactly what I needed to improve my horsemanship and all-round game. Eight ponies were suddenly ‘mine’ with instructions on exactly what I should work on.

So began my immersion into New Zealand polo and Witchwood Farm life. I exercised or schooled my string every day; we rode them on the beach, we herded cattle and sheep on horseback, we stick and balled, played
chukkas on the farm and at the Club; all under the ever watchful eye of Brett. Slowly but surely my riding improved, my hitting became more consistent and some matches didn’t seem quite so fast.

As we supped our electrolyte replacement fluids after Club Chukkas one evening, I was surprised but incredibly proud to hear my name called as part of the 0 goal team to compete in the black and white stripes at the Savile Cup. The Savile Cup is the national club championship and one of the oldest sporting trophies in New Zealand first presented by Capt Savile (ADC to the Governor General) in 1889. Always uttered in the hushed tone reserved for legend it takes place in early March each year and is a fantastic and fiercely competitive event.

In a series of close-fought and tough battles we managed to win our opening games and progress through to the semi-finals. Here we encountered the eventual winners and despite our best efforts succumbed to a well organised and skilful team from Kihikihi, the club hosting the tournament. These amazing memories will live with me forever.

My riding and polo have undoubtedly improved immeasurably and there is a possibility I might catch the handicap committee’s eye during the coming season in the UK. But I have gained much more than that. I have been privileged to experience New Zealand Polo and the way of life it brings at its very finest.

Without exception I was welcomed by friendly and engaging people; all passionate about their sport and keen to promote it at every level. My thoughts are already turning to how I can engineer a return trip next year.

Witchwood Polo Farm and Wanstead Polo Club provide the perfect setting for anyone looking for a polo holiday. It is a joint venture between Brett Hamer (2) and Martin ffrench Blake (4) who both offer lessons along with another resident professional player.

It was run at cost last year with excellent rates from around £500 per week and a range of options for grooming and accommodation. Discounts are available for groups, which they are particularly good at hosting and bringing on collectively as teams. The whole experience is highly recommended by all who have been lucky enough to visit so far.

For further details contact witchwoodpolo@xtra.co.nz or martin_ffrench_blake@hotmail.com

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