Bright sunshine, blue skies, and biting winds awaited the ponies and riders of England, Hong Kong China, South Africa and Argentina today at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club, as the Semi-Finals of the 2017 Fortune Heights Snow Polo World Cup whinnied into life.
England’s trio of Ali Paterson, James Harper and Jack Richardson were up first against Gaston Moore, Matias Vial and John Fisher of Hong Kong China. England were the form side, having won both their opening contests, while Hong Kong had come unstuck against South Africa but triumphed in an all-or-nothing contest against the USA.
Today’s match was a repeat of last year’s Grand Final, when Hong Kong China clinched the trophy by beating England by five goals to four. All three of today’s England team were in action that day, but in a twist of fate, James Harper happened to be wearing the red of Hong Kong China a year ago, picking up Most Valuable Player in the process. Matias Vial was another survivor of 2016’s victorious Hong Kong China side, but John Fisher missed that tournament through injury, his brother Henry filling his stirrups.
And as fate would have it, it was Harper who had the biggest impact on the first chukka, firing England ahead after just twenty seconds, and then his backhand pass setting up teammate Ali Paterson to bundle the ball over the goal line to make it 2 – 0. With less than twenty seconds left, it was Harper again, his backhand hit sneaking in off the post to put England three goals to the good.
If the first chukka belonged to England’s Harper, the second was all about Gaston Moore for Hong Kong China, the Argentinian spurring his side on by scoring three superb goals and seeming to be everywhere at once. England, however, clung on to a narrow lead thanks to the ever dependable Jack Richardson, whose fine goal at the start of the chukka made the scores 4 – 3 in favour of England at half time.
England eased ahead early in the third with two more goals from Jack Richardson to make it 6 -3, but Hong Kong China quickly pulled one back, Gaston Moore guiding in a lovely neck shot. A penalty from Matias Vial then put the local side within touching distance of England, trailing by a single score going into the final chukka.
Jack Richardson thumped in his fourth of the match after two minutes to put the pressure on Hong Kong China, but he was unable to keep out a fired-up Gaston Moore who galloped in a goal at the other end. Hong Kong China’s Fisher and Vial then somehow linked up amid a melee of ponies to level the scores for the first time in the match. With the seconds ticking away, England marshalled themselves for a final sortie with a penalty hit from the halfway line, but Gaston Moore had other ideas, mounting a heroic counterattack for Hong Kong China and smashing home the winning goal as a roar erupted from the grandstand. The score at the final bell: Hong Kong 8, England 7.
In the second Semi-Final, the unbeaten South African side faced off against polo colossi Argentina. Jannie Steenkamp, Chris MacKenzie and Tom de Bruin held the reins for South Africa, up against the Argentina threesome of Dylan Rossiter, Francisco Menendez and Santiago Cernadas.
There was little to choose between the teams in a breakneck opening chukka, Tom de Bruin’s brace of goals for South Africa matched by scores from Argentina’s Dylan Rossiter and the irrepressible Santiago Cernadas, one of the most explosive attacking forces of the tournament so far.
South Africa put their noses ahead just before half time thanks to a penalty from Chris MacKenzie in the second, but the third chukka belong to Argentina, the boys in pale grey smashing in three scores without reply. South Africa rallied valiantly in the final period, but two scores from Chris Mackenzie weren’t enough to overcome the deficit, and a second Cernadas goal sealed the deal, the final score 6 – 5 to Argentina.
All eyes now turn to Sunday and a mouth-watering Grand Final match-up between Hong Kong China and Argentina at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club, with South Africa and England slugging it out for third place.