Dato’ Harald Link’s Thai Polo won the Royal Malaysian Polo Association’s 14-goal International League in dramatic fashion in Kuala Lumpur in June. Their third place finish in the RMPA International League Final was enough to give them the league win after great performances in the Thai Polo Open, Royal Pahang Classic and Royal Pahang International.
Thai Polo were left rueing a semi-final loss to KotaSAS in the RMPA International League Final that left their fate in their victors of the two finalists, KotaSAS and Royal Pahang.
If KotaSAS won, Thai Polo would win the 2012 league. If KotaSAS lost, Royal Pahang would be league winners instead.
First, Thai Polo had to overcome Jogo Polo to pick up the five points in their match for 3rd place in the tournament. They struggled against Jogo Polo, which featured the “Two Pablo’s” – Jauretche and Dorignac. Perhaps it was thinking that their league fate was sealed that made for a dour last match. They eventually triumphed with a goal by Raul Laplacette in the final seconds of the match.
Still, there were few celebrations – their league fate was in Royal Pahang’s hands.
KotaSAS, being a Royal Pahang Polo Club team led by HRH Tengku Abdullah’s son Tengku Amir, the cynics assumed Royal orders would be issued and Royal Pahang would win the match, and with it, the 2012 league title.
To his great credit, HRH Crown Prince Abdullah Shah refused to give that order. Instead, Crown Prince was adamant that KotaSAS should be given a fair chance to win the final, knowing full well that Thai Polo would then win the league if that happened.
It was an act of sportsmanship that will be remembered by all who witnessed it, and in the history of the polo in Malaysia. It allowed Thai Polo a chance of winning the league.
Royal Pahang, with Gaston Moore and Tomas Gandara, led early in the match. HRH Prince Abdullah played a leading role while he was on the field. It was a full blooded match with plenty of fierce contact, such that the Prince went out with a cracked rib after two chukkas. He was replaced by Dato’ Mohamed Moiz, who had played most of the season with Royal Pahang.
Royal Pahang were the crowd favourites, always an exciting team with a lot of popular support. Thai Polo led the cheering for KotaSAS, hoping, but not knowing the orders. It was a very good match that had the large crowd on the edge of their seats.
It was not till the final chukka that Manuel Crespo and KotaSAS (pictured in white) clawed back Royal Pahang’s lead, to win the league final 8-7, and with it, handing the league title to Dato’ Harald Link’s Thai Polo.
Dato’ Harald (pictured riding the gray) was ecstatic in winning the RMPA International League for the first time. “I said earlier in the week that the leadership of Tengku Mahkota was extraordinary. He showed it again today in his sportsmanship. It is a great day for Thai Polo, but also for Malaysian polo, which he has shown to be extraordinarily fair.”
After six months of play, in four tournaments in two countries, Royal Pahang finished just half a point behind Thai Polo in the RMPA International League.
The RMPA International League takes the results of four tournaments, awarding points according to each team’s finish at those tournaments.
Seven 14-goal teams played in the RMPA International League in 2012. The league comprised of four tournaments, starting in January at the Thai Polo Open at the Thai Polo & Equestrian Club in Pattaya, Thailand. Teams then trekked back for the Malaysian tournaments were the Royal Pahang Classic in April, the Royal Pahang International in May and the RMPA International at the end of May to early June.
As a league, it was very closely fought, not just in terms of tournament results, which decided the league, but also in every game. Every game had to be played to a win, with no draws allowed. Most games were decided by a solitary goal, with many games decided in the final 30 seconds after the first bell, or going to sudden death overtime. On more than one occasion we had the bottom team beat the league leaders.
Looking at all the games played over the season, Thai Polo still proved to be the best team, winning 9 of their 15 competitive matches, the best record of any team.
In fact, Thai Polo won the 2012 RMPA International League without actually winning a tournament outright. They made it to three finals, losing the Thai Polo Open in January to La Sarita in amazing circumstances, sharing the Royal Pahang Classic in April when the final was rained off, and becoming runner-up in the Royal Pahang International to Royal Pahang in May. It was a consistent season – the only time they did not make the final of a tournament this season was the RMPA International League Final.
Royal Pahang got off to a slow start, taking third place points at the Thai Polo Open. Moving back to Malaysia in April, they shared 3rd place with KotaSAS in the Royal Pahang Classic. Royal Pahang finished the season strongly, winning the Royal Pahang International and finishing second in the League Final.
It was a very good season that saw different winners in each of the league tournaments.
Asad Jumabhoy and Quzier Ambak joined forces with Benjamin Araya and Pablo Dorignac to win the Thai Polo Open in dramatic fashion.
In that match Thai Polo were awarded an undefended 30 yarder with 9 seconds left on the clock. If Lucas Labat scored it would be all over for La Sarita – Jogo. In a finish that defied belief, Labat hit his 30 yarder along the ground. It was heading in but the ball deflected off a divot and onto the goalpost, refusing to go in. The umpires called it dead and there was only time for a restart by La Sarita – Jogo before the final bell went. It was a more imaginative finish than anything ever scripted for TV.
Thai Polo made it two finals in the row when they qualified to play Jogo Polo in the final of the Royal Pahang Classic. The final was rained off and points were shared. Had Jogo Polo won, or had Royal Pahang been able to play and beat KotaSAS, we might have had Royal Pahang take the league honours.
The next tournament, the Royal Pahang International, was moved to Putrajaya Equestrian Park because of the bad weather in Pahang. Thai Polo again qualified for the final, comprehensively beating Tan Sri Hamdan’s Ranhill Polo 10 – 5 in the semi-finals.
They met a resurgent Royal Pahang in the final. Tomas Gandara and Gaston Moore combined to defeat Thai Polo 4-2 in a low scoring final at Putrajaya Equestrian Park. The victory set the stage for the dramatic league final.
Watching the League Final from the side-lines, with his fate in Royal Pahang’s hands, Dato’ Harald must have thought he would never win the league. Twice before, Thai Polo had been the best team but had not won the RMPA International League. In 2007 when it was called the Malaysian Triple Crown, and in 2011 when the league was not held as the season had been shortened to accommodate Malaysia’s hosting of the FIP World Cup Zone D qualifier.
HRH Crown Prince Abdullah Shah, also the President of the Royal Malaysian Polo Association, was gracious in defeat, “Congratulations to Dato’ Harald Link and Thai Polo. They were the most consistent team over the whole season. They deserved to win the league.
The RMPA International League has been the closest fought in this 8th season. No team has dominated and every team has shown they are capable of beating even the best on their day. It is a reflection of the strength of the teams and how seriously patrons are taking their polo in Malaysia.
The investment in horses for the last season’s FIP Polo World Cup Zone D Play-Offs has improved the quality of play on the pitch. Teams are better mounted than ever before. Consequently, the quality of polo is the best in the region.”
All Images by Armand Ali