x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

'Fast and furious' polo with a different spin in Abu Dhabi

Coutts event at Emirates Palace hotel is geared at giving the sport greater accessibility to all.

From left: Tarik Fatheldin of Coutts Team Abu Dhabi, Rodolfo Ducos (Maserati Team Milan), Stuart Wrigley (Team London) and Raja Abuljebain (Team Buenos Aires) take part in the launch of the Coutts Polo at the Palace event in Abu Dhabi yesterday.
From left: Tarik Fatheldin of Coutts Team Abu Dhabi, Rodolfo Ducos (Maserati Team Milan), Stuart Wrigley (Team London) and Raja Abuljebain (Team Buenos Aires) take part in the launch of the Coutts Polo at the Palace event in Abu Dhabi yesterday.

ABU DHABI //If polo is the sport of kings, where does that leave the rest of us mostly non-king types? That seems like a reasonable question to ask ahead of the Coutts Polo at the Palace, starting today at the Emirates Palace hotel.

And the answer to that it seems is that the sport may be moving towards becoming a little less regal and a little more plebeian. Not a lot - for now - and not too swiftly, but a little.

Take this very event. The geography of the teams involved speak of an impossibly well-heeled and jet-set elan: London, Abu Dhabi, Milan and Buenos Aires (add Paris and New York and there's the complete set right there). And it is being held at the Emirates Palace. But this is part of an ambitious process, not to de-glamorise polo, but to give it greater accessibility, a little like the Twenty20-isation of the sport, in fact.

It is a spin-off from the popular "Polo in the Park" London event, which, in the words of Rory Heron, "introduces polo to city-dwellers".

Heron is the chief executive with City Events and the main organising force behind this event who, tellingly, came to the sport from outside of it.

"We want to put it on doorsteps but most importantly, we want to only hold it in really iconic venues. In London we had it at Hurlingham Park, where polo was last played in 1939 but where the modern day rules of polo were invented."

Special rules have been drawn up - Palace rules - for this event, "making it easier to understand for the uninitiated and creating a spectator-driven show," Heron said. "It wasn't originally played with many spectators but now it's all about the spectators."

The size of the playing field has been shrunk by a third, giving spectators a closer, more intimate view. Each team has one player less now (so teams are three-a-side) and perimeter boards have been put in, so that the ball does not go out of play.

"Now it's about being fast and furious, a bit like five-a-side football ... Twenty20 style," according to Heron. Not that this watering down will take from the sport's physicality. (Heron says it is "quite an extreme sport, very aggressive".)

Peter Webb, who is playing for the London side, plays around 90 matches a season in the UK.

"It's a very physical game, most of us wearing eye protectors, helmets, elbow pads," he said.

"The thing about this is that people can come and see how exciting it is, very fast, very skilful. It is a closer game here, so you can see all the action."

And the competition will remain as fierce. Two matches will be played back to back today and tomorrow, the winners facing off in the final and the losers in the third-place play-off. "The teams who have a large amount of horses in their stables will be the toughest," said Webb. "Faris's [Al Yebhouni, the captain of Abu Dhabi] team will be very tough, and [Mohammed] Al Habtoor's Buenos Aires team. Actually all of them will be pretty tough."

 

osamiuddin@thenational.ae