Luke Tomlinson: The challenge of team selection [H&H VIP]

  • Last Sunday’s Gold Cup final together with the Audi International mark the culmination of the high goal season in the UK. They are also showcases for the highest level of polo in Europe.

    The Gold Cup draw was difficult with 15 teams and admittedly, when it was published, there were many who had doubts (myself included) but it turned out to be a great draw produced by Chris Bethell, the Cowdray polo manager.

    On the last day of play of the group stages, only two of the 15 teams were definitely knocked out of the competition and everyone else stood a chance.

    On the following morning no less than five teams battled it out on a penalty shoot-out to go down to one team slot for the quarter finals. UAE came through this and faced Dubai in the quarters.

    The draw meant that the competition was always open, so all the teams fought it out to the end and there was very little difference between some of the teams that went out early and the teams that eventually made it to the semi-finals.

    I think the surprise team and eventually the team that got the closest to the winners was the all-English side of Halcyon Gallery, who narrowly missed out in the semi-finals to Dubai.

    King Power was another revelation as a team that did not make it past the group stages of the Queen’s Cup, then came good in the Gold Cup.

    For a first-season team they have shown that investing in pony power and having the patience to get things right in the first month of the season pays off.

    The final itself was, as always, incredibly well-attended and blessed with the weather. The game was hard-fought and Dubai depended more on blocking for Adolfo Cambiaso and him making a difference against the lowest player on the other team.

    King Power tried to play the more passing game using all four players as players, not blockers. Had they played as well in one other chukka as they did in the fifth — where Gonzalito Pieres was outstanding — the result could have gone the other way.

    The handicappers will have a tough time this year — not only because many of the players from other countries are on a lower handicap here, but also because there were several outstanding performances from players in teams that finished low in the placings.

    The big issue with the handicapping is that it affects the team possibilities and players’ prospects for the following season. Last year the list was published a little later than normal, slowing up the process of team “transfers” and formations.

    This week the England team is in full preparation for the big challenge against Argentina on Saturday in the Coronation Cup. The selection is not an easy process and produced a little bit of query about why England did not go with a six-goal player instead of with a four.

    The main issues with selection are ability, positions on the field, team cohesion, level (and type) of polo being played by a particular player, ability to be well-mounted — and those horses being up to speed — and value off handicap (where the match is played off handicap).

    Then it is simple: the team with the most chance of winning has to be selected.

    This year, as in previous years, the selection committee are very lucky to have the expert advice of Eduardo Heguy to help guide them in their choice. The England squad is very lucky in that there are a lot of extremely talented up-and-coming players.

    This year’s Audi International is the second time that the two best players in the world have played on the same team. Facundo Pieres won the Queen’s Cup and Cambiaso the Gold Cup — so it will be like England playing against Djokovic and Federer.

    As our coach said: “If we play as well — we will win.”

    Luke’s column was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (25 July, 2014)