Delight in the downpour - Royal Salute Coronation Cup 2017

It was the wettest setting imaginable for this year’s Royal Salute Coronation Cup match. Unrelenting, torrential rain tested the resolve of players and spectators alike, and who knows what the groundsmen thought about having their pitch cut to ribbons under the hooves of the ponies! However, at 3.00pm, as the hardy spectators arranged their umbrellas to best viewing effect, both teams squelched their way onto the Queen’s Ground and paraded in front of the stands, with their game faces on and determined to give the crowds a show to enjoy in the ensuing 6 chukkas. The Flannels England team lined up hungry to avenge last year’s defeat, and GT Bank Commonwealth, carrying a 1 goal handicap advantage, were equally as eager to retain the Coronation Cup, which, having been played for since 1911, ranks as one of the world’s oldest sporting trophies.

The line-up for the final was as follows:

Flannels England

1. James Beim (Captain) (6)

2. Max Charlton (7)

3. James Harper (6)

4. Luke Tomlinson (6)

GT Bank Commonwealth

1. Hissam Ali Hyder (6)

2. Dirk Gould (5)

3. John Paul Clarkin (7)

4. Fred Mannix Jr (Captain) (8)

Umpires: Peter Wright, Jason Dixon

The first chukka began with a bang. Fred Mannix Jr took the bull by the horns from the off, sneaking the ball away from the first throw in and setting up a nice open play for the GT Bank Commonwealth side. Flannels England were not to be caught napping however and proceeded to match every hit of the stick – both teams were very evenly matched and the ensuing back and forth reflected this. In a contrast to several high-goal matches of late, both sides were keen to play open, flowing games which gave us spectators something to enjoy while both sides sized each other up. It was really encouraging to see how many of the ponies had”RoR” (Retraining of Racehorses) stickers on their hindquarters – such a clever way of both advertising the concept of retraining ex-racehorses and showing what they can do in their second careers. JP Clarkin and Max Charlton have both spoken previously about the success they have had ‘making’ their own ponies from ex-racehorses, and the fruits of their labour were very much on display in this first chukka.

Despite the initial minutes of to and fro between the teams, England’s hunger eventually got the better of the Commonwealth team and James Beim stole the ball away to score the first goal after a clean, unopposed run down the field. This was shortly to be followed by Luke Tomlinson taking a second after sneaking the ball out of a scrum of Commonwealth players. Even at this early stage it was clear that the England team were playing more cohesively and in a more active way, setting up the majority of the plays, leaving the Commonwealth team somewhat on the back foot.

In a contrast to most of the first chukka, the Commonwealth team returned to the pitch for the second on the front foot. We were lucky enough to spend the next few minutes watching some fantastic polo. The Commonwealth side, dominated by Mannix at this point, tried every kind of trick to get possession of the ball but were matched at every turn by England, who showed almost telepathic abilities in knowing where not only their players were, but where the Commonwealth side were going to be. The players thundered up and down the sodden pitch fighting for the ball, which lifted the soggy spirits of all the spectators who were determined not to let the rain beat them into a hasty retreat to the bar tent. James' Beim and Harper opened up England’s lead with a pair of beautiful backhanded goals, although these were split by JP Clarkin’s stellar goal for the Commonwealth side, with the chukka ending 3-1 to England.

It was Hissam Ali Hyder’s turn to be the man of the moment in the opening minutes of the third chukka, as he was here, there and everywhere – a terrier at England’s heels. The ground was visibly sapping strength from the ponies by this stage and the play was rather stop/start as frequent pony changes took place and the ball bounced unpredictably on mountainous divots. Although Hyder and then Clarkin were trying to be in several places at once, it was noticeable that the Commonwealth side were more a group of separate individuals than one unit, and this contributed to the somewhat patchy polo in this goalless third chukka.

The half-time break in play allowed both teams to regroup, and the glorious open play we had witnessed in the second chukka returned in this fourth chukka. Beim and Tomlinson worked as something of a double act to create England’s fifth goal, shortly before a ball was mishit into Clarkin’s face. By this time the rain was coming down at such a rate that someone joked a nice spell in the warm dry ambulance being checked over was almost worth being hit in the face for. Clarkin’s accident seemed to put something of a spark under the Commonwealth side, as, once he was cleared to continue, we saw them come up with real responses to Beim and Tomlinson’s close partnership.

The open play continued into the fifth chukka, which was something of a miracle considering the state of the pitch, players and ponies. The ground crew were making sterling efforts in between each chukka to tread in the bigger divots but it was noticeable in this chukka that the ball was not behaving as usual due to the conditions, sometimes spinning on the spot when hit due to the lack of traction between mallet head and ball. Despite this, Harper converted a backhand from Tomlinson into a beautiful sixth goal for England, who were still the more aggressive side as the Commonwealth team continued in their struggle to click as a team. Max Charlton really came alive in the latter stages of the chukka, as he rode one of his beautiful retrained racehorses unopposed down the length of the pitch to a storming seventh goal for England.

The sixth chukka saw the ponies from the first and second chukkas return to the field, a testament to the skill and dedication of the grooms as the ponies appeared fresh and squeaky clean, if a little less than impressed at having to return to the rain and cold. The Commonwealth team came out fighting in this final chukka, chasing goals that would close the gap between their one goal and England’s seven. This was Harper and Clarkin’s chukka however, as both players dominated play for their respective teams. Harper played some wonderful defensive shots, much to the irritation of Clarkin who just couldn’t get the ball between the posts no matter how hard he tried thanks to Harper’s consistent defence. Harper even managed to put in some plays for goal, including one particularly beautiful sequence of shots towards the England goal, though was unluckily wide at the goal’s mouth.

There was a slight sense of relief that the match was over for players and spectators alike once the final bell went. The temperature had dropped enough for breath to be visible and everyone was soaked to the skin. Nevertheless, crowds thronged the prizegiving ceremony to show their heartfelt appreciation of some phenomenal players and ponies. We might all devoutly hope never to experience polo in such conditions again, but it was fantastic to see how class combinations such as those we saw in this year’s Coronation Cup final were still able to give us some great sport and entertainment.

Result: England 7 – 1 Commonwealth

Most Valuable Player: James Harper

Best Playing Pony: Magpie (9 year old bay mare, ex-racehorse owned and played by JP Clarkin)

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