Sunday 15 December 2019

Hooked by 'hurling on horse-back': Irish polocrosse

Combining elements of polo and lacrosse, polocrosse is making big strides in Ireland ahead of the 2015 World Cup in South Africa

Team coach David Young and manager Naomi Crowley with members of the 2015 World Cup team. From left, back: Shane Harris, Conor Doyle, Mark Hall; (front row) Joanne Lavery, Amy Buckley, Dara Mangan and Emily McDonagh. Missing from the photograph is Aidan McDonagh
Team coach David Young and manager Naomi Crowley with members of the 2015 World Cup team. From left, back: Shane Harris, Conor Doyle, Mark Hall; (front row) Joanne Lavery, Amy Buckley, Dara Mangan and Emily McDonagh. Missing from the photograph is Aidan McDonagh

Siobhán English

Polocrosse has often been described as 'hurling on horseback', and it is an apt description considering the skill involved in this high-speed equestrian sport.

The sport is similar to polo in that each team of three must score into the opposition's goal, but the players use lacrosse-style sticks rather than mallets. Polocrosse demands good horsemanship, accuracy and quick-thinking and makes for a fantastic sport which is steadily growing in popularity worldwide.

While the history of polocrosse dates back to the 1930s, when it was developed in Australia, it was not until 1990 that Ireland's first ever polocrosse club was formed.

In January of that year, brothers David and Ivor Young were in the process of developing their holiday business at Horetown in Co Wexford. "I had just read an article on polocrosse in a UK equestrian magazine and was keen to learn more about it," says David. "Ivor had already completed a short course in polo, but I told him that polocrosse was something we should be introducing into the business. So a few weeks later we invited over Australian coach and player Bernie Uechtritz to give us a demonstration."

It only took one afternoon for him to become hooked, and in the months that followed Horetown attracted dozens of riders keen to try their hand at polocrosse in the grass arena.

Within a year, word of this new sport had spread to Limerick, where Brian McMahon developed a team that started the process of bringing it to a national level.

"It really went on from there," says David, "with clubs then starting in Carrickmines and Clonmel. Now we have some 10 clubs countrywide, which also include Waterford, Tyrella and Wicklow Bay, and several hundred members, but there's always room for more."

As a rule, polo requires a string of ponies, but polocrosse only one pony per rider for a match.

As many of the clubs have ponies available to hire, potential enthusiasts are always welcome to try it for themselves without making any form of commitment.

Riders are graded according to experience and skill, from beginners to advanced, and most types of horses adapt to the fun element of the sport.

While David would be among the veterans of polocrosse in Ireland, and is now a respected coach, he agrees that it is a relatively young person's sport.

"Apart from Aidan McDonagh, all other seven members of the squad named for the 2015 World Cup are in their twenties."

Although the national and Tri-Nations tournaments give players the opportunity to test their skills, the World Cup, held every four years, is the ultimate test.

South Africa 2015 will be Ireland's fourth appearance at the World Cup, following on from Australia in 2003 and 2007, and Britain in 2011.

In South Africa they will face eight teams, including the host nation, Britain, Zambia, USA, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, and Australia. "We have a fairly good record in that we've been fifth and sixth in the world, which is not a bad result," says David Young.

"This year we have quite a young team, but they are very dedicated and have been training hard for several months. We will probably take a break now until the new year when they will start again."

As Irish coach, David spent the summer assessing at the various clubs around Ireland, and then drew up his squad of eight, comprising four women and four men.

At 35, and with three World Cups under his belt, Aidan McDonagh is Ireland's highest-ranked player and has enjoyed much success at national level over the years.

A publican by trade, he was a member of the Horetown team that won the national championships earlier this year, when he was also named as best player of the tournament.

The other seven team members are Emily McDonagh (20), Dara Mangan (26), Joanne Lavery (22), Amy Buckley (22), Conor Doyle (23), Mark Hall (21), and Shane Harris (26).

Mangan, who works full-time as a coach and trainer at Carrickmines, also represented Ireland in 2011, as did Lavery, who studies social science in UCD. Meanwhile, McDonagh, a student of equine science in UL and Aidan's niece, is eagerly looking forward to making her debut in Durban.

Buckley and Hall are also full-time students in UCD, in pharmacology and veterinary, while Harris works as an electrician and Doyle as a mechanic.

Commenting on the squad's dedication, in particular the students, fellow player Roz Drew says: "It is some achievement to have three students alone from UCD and it would be great to see the colleges get behind the riders for what will be a fantastic two weeks in South Africa."

The cost for the trip will be in excess of €40,000, and Drew, along with their team manager Naomi Crowley, and international co-ordinator Lorraine Scott, will spend the coming months raising funds to cover travel and accommodation costs for the entire squad.

An active player for many years in Carrickmines, Crowley is looking forward to her role as manager next year, but is well aware of the challenges that lie ahead.

"To get the team to South Africa is a big deal and over the next few months we will be busy seeking sponsors to come on board to support it," she says.

"While the Irish Polocrosse Association has a certain amount of money that they will put forward, each of the riders will also have to raise some cash towards the trip.

"I think the entry fee alone is something like €6,000, but that covers the use of the horses which are loaned out to the teams for the two weeks."

The team's prospects have been boosted by the appointment in recent months of sports psychologist Donnla O'Hagan and fitness coach Seb Chambers, who himself has played polocrosse for many years.

"It is going to be a really busy few weeks out there but we are really looking forward to it and hopefully we can come home with a great result," added. Crowley concluded.

For more information, visit the Irish Polocrosse Association website

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