Every so often, you find great entertainment in the most unexpected of places. Soaked to the skin from a Lancastrian monsoon on the Saturday afternoon of Roses, I was quite happy to nurse a pint and a bacon roll and attempt to fend off the early symptoms of pneumonia. Covering the canoe polo matches, indeed anything water-related, was not an attractive option. Who’s even heard of canoe polo anyway? How wrong I was.
What I witnessed in the following hour was one of the most frenetic, engrossing sports I will ever see. Whoever dreamt up setting ten canoes and their pumped-up occupants loose on a swimming pool, arming them with paddles and throwing a ball into the ensuing maelström is, apparently, a genius. The end product is a high-adrenaline, no-holds-barred spectacle that would never cease to capture the imagination.
Fast forward three weeks and the pace is much gentler. On the hottest day of the year so far, the River Ouse glistens in the bright sunshine, the banks are lined with people rejoicing. It’s the weekend, smartly-attired racegoers stroll home and tourist pleasure cruises drift by. Suddenly, the arrival of a flotilla of vividly-coloured canoes gliding onto the water seizes the public imagination. Millennium Bridge is lined with interested spectators as a practice game of attack vs. defence unfolds beneath, the hand-made goal net suspended from the Fulford landmark’s futuristic frame.
Further down, I’m learning the fundamentals of kayaking under the expert supervision of Maria Senso, last year’s club President, and Sarah Goss, her successor. I’m clearly not built for kayaking, hence the regular comfort breaks to restore the circulation to my dead legs, but after some initial thrashing about and 360° spins, I’ve mastered the basics in about 15 minutes and merrily paddle up and down the river, exchanging friendly waves with passing cruisers as though a veteran.
It’s not long before I’m thrown into some passing and dribbling drills, gaining a sense of what is required in the heat of the game. The aim is to hurl the ball into a 1m x 1.5m net hung two metres above the water past a goalkeeper – the player nearest to the goal at the time of the attack – who holds up their paddle to block it. For once, my height was an advantage in this part of the game and I managed to prevent a few goals in the practice match I joined later in the afternoon. Otherwise, pretty much anything goes, hence the helmets and numbered yellow life jackets with added side-padding to guard against ramming.
On beautiful days like this, the determination of Senso and her committee to resurrect the sport on campus is vindicated. Of course, it isn’t always 30°C and sometimes finding a suitable venue to accommodate the small band of regular members is often a struggle. The club lead a somewhat nomadic existence, being forced to train at the Abbey Leisure Centre in Selby, a 20 mile drive and, throughout the cold winter months, keeping the momentum of training and match practice can be difficult.
But at least they are still here. In the year of Alex Lacy’s tenure as York Sport President, the club didn’t receive its budget, the playing staff shrunk to just two and polo acquired an unflattering reputation of being somehow inferior to its big brother, the Canoe Club. It meant a year in the wilderness as the survivors re-built and tried to drum up interest among freshers. The strategy of fighting on beneath the York Sport radar seems to have paid off, with as many as 25 people, including an Italian national player, signing up this year.
It enabled the club to recover their budget, plus an apologetic surplus, and return to the cut and thrust of tournaments, both in BUCS regional competition and Roses last month. Although the experience of the Lancaster team shone through in the women’s fixture, the open match was one of the most exciting the club have ever been involved in, finishing two-apiece after Lancaster grabbed a late equaliser.
The day ended, fittingly, with a barbecue beside the Ouse. The perfect end to a day with a friendly club who should continue to rise and rise.
To find out more about the Canoe Polo club, including training times and costs, e-mail [email protected].