It’s fair to say that polo, the sport of kings, is perceived to be one of the most elite sports in the world. However, is this image of polo truly accurate, or is it an outdated view that needs to be altered? To find out the answer to this I interviewed a second year Classics student, and member of the Oxford University Polo Club, Noel Newman.
As college sports go, rowing requires more time and commitment than any other. However, it does not compare to the demands put on rowers trialling for the university boats. To really find out just how much pressure it puts on an Oxford student, and what drives them to do it, I interviewed Rufus Stirling, a second year English student currently trialling for next year’s race.
Described as ‘a mixed season’ by Football Blues captain Jack Fletcher, the Blues have been strong at home all year – losing just one league fixture at Iffley through a last minute goal by a capable Nottingham side who head the BUCS division. With veterans Ezra Rubenstein and Peder Beck-Friis firing on all cylinders, the team have played attacking football and improved significantly throughout the course of the campaign. Though having lost three times on their travels so far, many by unfortunate errors and narrow margins, the Blues have chalked up vital positive results in a 3-1 victory over Worcester and a creditable 0-0 draw against Coventry in games that Fletcher said would ‘define our season’. Having secured 4 out of a possible 6 points against opponents in similar and precarious positions in the table the Blues were able to secure Midalnds 1A league survival for another season, finishing 3rd behind dominant Nottingham and Birmingham sides. Facing a large turnover of players and transition in personnel last summer, Fletcher has confronted similar challenges to that of David Moyes, though with arguably greater success – a 1-0 victory over UCD and a 3-1 triumph over Trinity College Dublin in the unbeaten Tour of Ireland showing the force and potential of the current crop. New boys Brook Tozer and Mike Essman have added bite and flair to the midfield, while healthy competition has kept all players on their toes.
The Blues now begin to look to Varsity on the 6th of April at Craven Cottage. In a game to be played immediately before the boat race, the team are excited to play at such a prestigious venue and in-front of a large crowd, who will experience great views of both the football and the river following the match, witnessing both of Oxford’s latest high-profile sporting endeavours. Fletcher summarised the Blues’ chances and feelings by saying, ‘The Varsity matches are always one-off occasions – we unfortunately don’t play at Craven Cottage every week – and form tends to go out of the window, so there is no doubt that it will be a very tight contest. The team and I are incredibly excited to play at a Premier League ground in the heart of London and we hope we can make amends for Varsity defeats last year’. With Cambridge having faced a similar mixed season, this season’s Varsity seems too close to call and promises to be an incredibly tense and exciting affair. Following last season’s close 3-2 defeat at Selhurst Park, Oxford have added incentive to go one step better and once again hang dark blue ribbons from the Varsity trophy.
The Blues will continue to train throughout Easter, with the much anticipated final squad announcement coming in the week leading up to the match. Defender Ben May and the Captain himself will hope to be fit for this year’s squad, having missed out through illness and injury respectively last time around. With so many new players in the squad, competition is stiff and training has become noticeably more intense, with every player raising the bar in their respective positions. This can only strengthen the Blues in their attempt to return the Varsity trophy to it’s spiritual home at Iffley Road. Supporters can buy tickets for the event now on the Fulham FC website or by contacting current University players – at a bargain price for what promises to be a fantastic afternoon of the beautiful game at a historic venue.
If you asked most retired sportsmen to pinpoint a moment in their career which stands out in their mind, you might expect to hear about their first international cap, a glorious cup win, or a flash of personal brilliance. But for Jeremy Snape, a man who has won no less than nine domestic trophies over a career spanning 16 years, it was one innocuous sweep shot back in 2002 that he looks back on as his defining moment.
It was Snape’s first overseas tour with England, and helped by a Marcus Trescothick century, the tourists were cruising to victory when Snape joined Andrew Flintoff at the crease. Coming back for a second run, Snape gave a late call of “no” to his partner, leaving England’s talisman short of his ground. Just a few balls later, his mind, scrambled, Snape tried to swipe at a full ball from Harbajan Singh and was out lbw.
“I failed in front of 120,000 people in India while batting for England. I chose that moment to play the highest risk shot ever and got out, it was only the pressure getting to me but at the time I didn’t know why I did it.
“Through this, and playing other professional and international cricket I found that the mindset was a key driver of success but there wasn’t such a strong coaching emphasis placed on it. I was keen to understand it and be able to simplify the theory to help people become more successful. This fueled my interest to go on and study for my MSc.”
By his own admission, Snape never had the most glittering career at international level and it seems that only since retirement has he truly flourished within the game.
In 2005, whilst still playing cricket for Leicestershire Foxes, he founded the consultancy Sporting Edge. Since then, Snape’s gaining prominence as a sports psychologist has been helped by well-placed connections. One wouldn’t necessarily expect local contacts to come to the former off-spinner’s aid with the advent of the Indian Premier League, but for the fact that the Chairman of the franchise the Rajasthan Royals, Manoj Badale, was a Leicester-based businessman. Having helped the unfancied Royals to the inaugural IPL title, Snape impressed the franchise’s other big-name import, Graeme Smith, enough to land his next big job as South Africa’s Mental Conditioning Coach.
Snape’s role from team to team has varied greatly, as has the character and personality of the players he has worked with. Switching from job to job requires little adjustment for a coach or a manager, but a psychologist needs to develop close personal bonds in order to fully understand the mindset of those who he is trying to help. So how has Snape coped with his ever-changing specifications?
“Every team you work with is different and you have to build trust with them rather than coming in with some pre-conceived ideas of what might work. The South African team was fantastic to work with because despite being one of the best sides around, they are very humble and always looking to learn. I was lucky that I could work closely with the players in the nets too, so I was working on the psychology in a very applied way.”
With the effects of an overly-congested international schedule beginning to take its toll, following several high-profile withdrawals from the international scene, the latest being Jonathan Trott from the most recent Ashes tour, the importance of the team psychologist in maintaining a calm and focused collective mindset has become increasingly important. Snape is aware more than most of the challenges facing the current generation of international cricketers.
“The modern era is overloaded with data and analysis, video replays and scrutiny in the moment of performance and then viral social media of blogs and opinions after it. Athletes need to feel that their coping skills are in line with they challenges they face. Taking ownership and breaking things down into chunks is they key.
“The PCA has some great support mechanisms in place for cricketers, I just think that given the congested fixture list, there is no down time anymore. We have to strike the balance between quality and volume.”
The rise of the sports psychologist has been a meteoric one. On Tuesday, Roy Hodgson announced that England will be working with psychiatrist Dr Steven Peters as they prepare for the World Cup in Brazil. But all of this has taken off from such unpromising beginnings.
“Twenty years ago there was little more than a few anecdotes and jokes about people’s mental failings in sport,” says Snape. “Many of the American sports have been pioneers in sports science and they have embraced psychology now as a part of the high-performance system, it’s on the rise in the UK and globally too.”
Snape has said in the past that whilst the 90s were the fitness revolution and the 00s were the sports science revolution, the next frontier will be the mental one. Perhaps now the sporting world is beginning to cotton on to the next revolution.
The British public were spoiled for sporting heroes in the wake of London 2012. However, Sir Ben Ainslie stands out amongst them as a sportsman who had come to dominate his discipline for over a decade.
Ben retired from Olympic sailing after the 2012 Games. He couldn’t have planned his Olympic swansong better: “Racing that final race with tens of thousands of people 100 metres away screaming and cheering you on, it was amazing, for the first time in my life I had some idea of what it must be like to be a professional footballer.”
His most recent success came in the form of Americas Cup glory as part of Team Oracle in San Francisco. Sharing that success with a team was particularly satisfying: “To go through that comeback and that victory with that group of guys was the most rewarding sporting experience I think I’ve ever had. When you do something on your own you live and die by your own actions, but to do it with a group of people was amazing. You often hear about rugby teams sharing a moment that they’ll talk about together 20 years down the line. I think that’s similar to what we achieved, we’ll always have that shared knowledge.”
Despite retiring from the Olympic arena, the prospect of stopping competitive sailing altogether is a long way off: “The Americas cup is really the focus now. I think I really have 10 years at that level, because the role I do there isn’t normally as physical as some of the other roles so I can get away with it. After that who knows?”
He also isn’t ruling out the possibility of competing in longer distance racing: “I love ocean racing, my father sailed in the first Whitbread round the world race. I’ve done a bit of offshore racing in the past and have a few friends that did the Volvo ocean race, that’s something I might be interested in doing in the future. The one offshore challenge that really stands out for me is the Jules Verne record, which is a non-stop around the world race, the record currently stands at 45 days. That’s something that has caught my imagination recently.”
Once the day finally comes where Ben does stop competing he can see himself remaining in the sport in some capacity: “I would like to put something back in once I stop competing, whether that’s coaching or mentoring or in an administrative role. I don’t know. I have a huge amount of respect for Steve Redgrave, what he achieved is still the most outstanding Olympic achievement, even with Chris Hoy and others. I also really admire what Seb Coe has done and the career that he has set up for himself. That’s something that is quite appealing. It’s hard to plan for when you’re still competing though.”
It strikes me the extent to which Ben is tuned into the positive effect that prominent role models can have within the world of sport “I’m naturally quite a private person, but at the same time it’s important to be a good ambassador. It’s good in terms of trying to build up a brand and teams and sponsors and that type of thing, it’s important to try and perform my public role well. One of the biggest thrills about this Americas Cup is the fact that people are excited about watching sailing. Sometimes it’s been hard being a sailor, doing past Olympics when people don’t really understand the sport; that can be a little frustrating at times. I think for our sport it’s fantastic.”
Posterity may eventually gloss over the finer details of Ben’s successes, however it’s important to remember how hard he was made to fight for past victories. On the path to Americas Cup victory Team Oracle won eight races in a row to overhaul an 8-1 deficit. Similarly, to secure Olympic Gold in 2012 he had to usurp the Dane Hogh-Christensen who he trailed for much of the competition: “I’d be lying if I said I never once doubted myself. You go through moments where you’re like ‘this isn’t looking very good’ and you really need to pull something out of the bag here. But it’s good to have that conversation with yourself and. You realise that you have to keep going, and ultimately, to get back into the event you have to work hard.”
It’s this mental toughness that Ben singles out as the one quality that sets the very best apart from the rest: ‘I’ve thought about it a lot. There are many really talented people in this world; I think the difference just comes down to how much you really want it and how hard you are prepared to work for something. You’ve got to be smart about that, there’s no point going and running 20 miles a day and pounding weights in the gym non stop, you’ve got to do it in the right way. Sports psychology is pretty powerful, I remember when I was a kid and they used to bring in sports psychologists and you just used to laugh at it all. Of course, as you get older you realise that it really is the key to everything. You have to be very honest. One of the things I’ve noticed a lot about people who are good but then don’t quite make is that they always have an excuse for something that goes wrong, it’s never really their fault. I think if you’re honest and say ‘Ok well I did make a mistake’, then that goes a long way.”
When Ben isn’t competing he has a particular passion that he likes to indulge…sailing: ‘Oddly enough, I quite enjoy sailing, as a pastime, outside of racing, just having a nice time on the water with friends and family. I’ve been learning to fly for quite a while as well. It’s ridiculous, I’ve been so busy I haven’t been able to take that up in the last year or so, but I got stuck into that for a while which was great fun.”
Understandably perhaps, he finds it difficult to imagine himself living his life in any other way than he currently is: “I honestly don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t a sailor. When I was at school I wanted to be in the Navy, and then when I was at college I wanted to be sailor, as in a racing sailor. Actually, I’d love to be a Formula One racing driver.”
We can also take some comfort in the knowledge that there is something that Ben can’t do particularly well: “I like playing golf. My handicap’s absolutely awful. I was at a charity golf match recently; the guy that won it actually said ‘this is the best day of my life, because I’ve beaten Ben Ainslie’. He was much better than me.”
If one thing is true for the fans of London Welsh, it’s that life is never dull. The last five years has seen the once peerless Exiles turn professional, enter administration, gain promotion to The Premiership and suffer the heartbreak of relegation. They have even swapped their spiritual home Old Deer Park, once graced by such Welsh greats as Mervyn Davies and JPR Williams, for a new, more imposing one: The Kassam Stadium in Oxford. ‘The Exiles’, it seems, are exiles once more.
Speak to club captain Matt Corker however, and he will paint you a slightly different picture. A stalwart of the club, and the longest serving player by some margin Corker speaks of a side that is learning and growing, hungry again for its seat at rugby’s high table. “We’ve put together a really strong environment” he stresses, “everybody here has got a point to prove, regardless of what end of their career they’re at. The work ethic is fantastic, and that lifts everyone.”
When rugby players speak of recruiting people with ‘points to prove’, it is easy to be cynical. Indeed one wonders how exactly these individual ‘points’ translate into getting the ball over the line. Yet watching London Welsh’s opening games, a gritty determination is oddly palpable. The Exiles seem to exude a sense of spirit and ‘fight’ perhaps more akin to the club’s amateur roots than the coldly analytical professional game.
As Corker speaks, it becomes clear that those amateur roots are not so far in the past. “When I first came to the club on loan from Wasps [in 2007] we were training Tuesday and Thursday nights and then playing on a Saturday. At Christmas that season we were at the bottom of the table. Since then the club has gone full time. We’ve made strides year on year with the culmination of that being playing in the premiership”
‘That season’ in The Premiership was one of controversy. Until being docked 5 points for fielding an ineligible player, Welsh had successfully avoided the bottom of the table claiming four wins before Christmas and regular losing bonus points. The deduction played a significant part in the club’s relegation and was enough to give major backer Byron Anthony second thoughts – in a subsequent interview he stated his intention to pull out, as he’d “had enough of the RFU and the PRL”.
Corker however, is more inclined to look at the positives. “The club has benefited hugely from last season. Being so close, and doing so well until the points deduction means we know we have what it takes to be a Premiership club. On top of this moving to the Kassam –playing in front of great crowds in a great stadium has been brilliant for the club”
It’s possible that Corker may be laboring this second point somewhat; asked in a recent interview if his number one wish would be to buy the Kassam Stadium, Chairman Bleddyn Phillips quipped he would much rather “have a ten thousand gate”. On the pitch however, is where it really matters, and it is difficult to fault London Welsh so far this season. The Exiles have brought in a host of new faces including rugby journeyman Tom May and ex-Lion Andy Titterrell, under a new coaching team in Justin Burnell and fly half Gordon Ross. They have three wins from three games, with two of those coming against members of last seasons top four, Nottingham and Bedford. Good cause for confidence then, for the seasoned ‘Welsh fan. And yet, asked about the club’s ambitions for the coming season, Corker is almost brutally pragmatic. “The first and only step for now is getting into the top four. We can talk about semi finals and finals but you have to earn those first”. This perhaps, is a response befitting of a player of his experience. It’s a long season in the Championship, an uncompromising league well known for its twist and turns.
I push my luck, and ask Corker to pick his top four. He just laughs. “It’s far too early for that”.