Rugby star turns polo star!

Matt Clarkin has realised a childhood dream, helping his team to win the NZ Polo Open at Clevedon

Muddy conditions didn’t stop the Tiger Building team winning the NZ Polo Open (Image: Eye Witness Images)

Matt Clarkin hadn’t played polo for about 20 years – or even sat on a horse for about 16 years – but that didn’t stop him playing a major role in his team’s win in the Land Rover New Zealand Polo Open at Clevedon yesterday.

His team, Tiger Building, took out the hotly-contested final, winning 7-6 over Semco PDL. The game was a cliff-hanger, and in the closing moments when a Semco player hoisted the ball high towards their goal, it looked like the scores were going to be even – meaning the game would have to go to extra time. Matt came to the rescue though, doing the most sensational save, intercepting the ball with his mallet high above his head to save the day for Tiger Building. The game finished shortly after, with the one-goal lead protected.

Matt Clarkin, from rugby to polo fields (Image: Eye Witness Images)

Nursing a very mild hangover and tight and sore muscles, Matt tried to downplay his efforts this morning when talking about the game. “The number one’s job is to park himself between the hitter and the goal and anything that comes within your range. I didn’t want it to go to extra time, so threw everything at it. It was at the end of my reach – so just as well he didn’t hit it five centimetres higher. Don’t tell anyone I had my eyes shut, I just threw it up there and hoped for the best. It was a good one!”

It was polo at its best, despite the state of the field after a week of wet weather leading up to Sunday’s finals. Matt loved every minute of it.

“It was a bit closer than we would have liked. I said at half time that if we can get ahead by a few that would be great, as I am not really looking for much more excitement in my life. I would rather just win comfortably and get it done. But no, they [Semco] are a very, very good team and everything we threw at them, they threw back.  It made for a very dramatic finish for the spectators, but it was a little stressful out there on the field!”

An exciting finish for the polo on and off the field! (Image: Eye Witness Images)

Matt is part of the New Zealand’s polo royal family, being the son of Chele and the late Paul Clarkin. He made the choice between polo and rugby as a young man, playing professional rugby in France for many years. He announced his retirement at the end of the last season.

“We came home [to New Zealand] in the middle of December, and I had my first ride just after New Year. It was quite difficult after so long out of the saddle. They say it is just like riding a bike, but I don’t know about that. I also had surgery on my knee at the end of September, so my legs were not in that great a shape to start with. It has got a lot better over the last six weeks, thank goodness; it wasn’t easy to begin with.”

The Auckland Polo Club had to go all-out to get the field ready for competition after heavy rain leading up to the event. Even helicopters were bought in to hover over the field in an attempt to dry the grounds out. There were reports of club members out on the pitch with mops and buckets to help soak up the excess water. The ground conditions also affected the fashionistas, accessorising their day wear with gumboots!

It was all glamour at the polo – sundresses, parasols and gumboots!

For the players, however, the state of the ground was no handicap. “Obviously we would have liked a drier, faster pitch, but we were just happy to be out there and playing,” said Matt. “It was still special, despite the fact it was a bit sloppy. It didn’t take much of the shine off for us.”

“The horses were going as fast as they could, but they had to work a little bit harder and you are always wary a little bit on the wetter fields about stopping and turning. You don’t want the horses going down or doing any damage. It certainly took a bit of the edge or the speed off it but apart from that, once you are in the game, everyone is flat out.”

Happy winners: JP Clarkin, Kit Brooks, Craig Wilson, Matt Clarkin (Eye Witness Images)

The Tiger Building team has tried to take out the Open for four years, and so the victory this weekend was very sweet, coming after an unbeaten season. The team was made up of Kit Brooks, John-Paul Clarkin, Craig Wilson and Matt.

The team is owned by Laurence Boucher of Tiger Building Group. Diane Cunningham, his partner, is as besotted with polo as Laurence is.

“We are not particularly horsey; we just have a sheer love for the game and some very strong family and friend connections. It was phenomenal to win the NZ Open, but on a deeper level than just the satisfaction of winning. It is our connection to the people involved, it is almost like a family… no, it is a family.”

Diane Cunningham, passionate about polo and happy to see her team win! (Images: Eye Witness Images)

Diane was also in awe of what the people involved in the Auckland Polo Club did to get the event to even happen. “To have pulled off that tournament in those conditions is a massive credit to the club. It was incredibly wet; it wasn’t looking good but we just said, ‘it had to happen’ as we had Sky TV there for the first time. Laurence pulled 20 of his staff off sites and put them out here. Because we couldn’t take vehicles out in the field, they carried everything in. The show went on. Everyone turned up and they put on an amazing, amazing day.”

As for Matt, will polo now be a big part of his life now his rugby playing days are over?

No, I think I might just retire after yesterday’s effort. I just had to fulfil a childhood dream. I grew up watching the Open and grew up watching the old man play, and it was just one of those things – a box that had to be ticked.”

Matt and his wife Larissa are now taking a year out and have been back in New Zealand for summer. “This is just a bit of an extended holiday for us; Bordeaux in France is still home so we will head back there soon and start getting on with the next chapter.”

And that new chapter will again focus on rugby. Matt is planning on doing a university degree in sports management, starting in September and then hopes to get a position within a club in France.

Of course if he ever wanted to play some more polo, there is bound to be plenty of opportunities too!

Winning team:

Tiger Building

  • Kit Brooks, handicap 5 (Cambridge)
  • John-Paul Clarkin – handicap 7 (Cambridge)
  • Craig Wilson, Handicap 6 (Hamilton)
  • Matthew Clarkin, handicap 0 (France/Cambridge)

Semco PDL

  • Harry Semenoff Jnr, Handicap 0 (Clevedon)
  • Glenn Sherrif, Handicap 5 (Gisborne)
  • Juan Britos, Handicap 7 (Argentina)
  • Thomas Hunt, handicap 6 (Cambridge)

Best pony of the tournament went to Princess, a NZ-bred horse ridden by John Paul Clarkin, and owned by Matt and Bridget O’Sullivan.

Most Valuable Player: Craig Wilson