Known as the “sport of kings,” polo has long drawn royalty to its ranks. Anyone who has been to a professional polo match knows that the sudden turns, wild swings, the clash of horses and riders, is enough to quicken the pulse of even the most casual of spectators.
Over the years, Brunei’s polo team has always included members of the ruling family, from the current crop of young royals to His Majesty the Sultan (who at 71, is still a keen polo player).
This year, Brunei fielded its first ever polo team for the 29th SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, with players from the sultanate’s royal family leading the vanguard.
Fresh off their bronze medal win, The Scoop sat down with His Royal Highness Prince ‘Abdul Mateen Bolkiah, Her Royal Highness Princess ‘Azemah Ni’matul Bolkiah and the team captain, Yang Amat Mulia Pengiran Muda Bahar, to talk about their SEA Games experience and how they plan to take their game to new heights.
BRINGING HOME THE BRONZE
Entering the tournament as the underdogs, the young royals said they went into their matches with nothing to lose.
“We were a new team — it’s the first time Brunei sent a polo team and there wasn’t really any pressure on us, it was more like we wanted to perform the best we could,” said HRH Princess ‘Azemah, who was one of only two women competing in the polo tourney.
“The other teams had (a cumulative) five to six handicap, and we had just a three handicap, which is fairly low,” added HRH Prince Mateen. “We entered this competition without any expectation, just trying to get as much experience as we can.”
While most of the team had at least six months’ training prior to the SEA Games, the 26-year-old prince, who is a captain in the Royal Brunei Air Force, said it was a challenge to find time for regular practice while training as a helicopter pilot in the UK.
“While the rest of the team was practicing in Spain, I only had a month to train because I was busy flying. As much as I would like to keep on playing and get more experience, I have to balance it out with my other responsibilities.”
ADDICTED TO POLO
A former show jumper, the 33-year-old princess said the team had trained five to six times a week in Brunei and then Spain to get ready for their first SEA Games outing.
Even though polo is one of the few sports where men and women play alongside each other, being a woman in a male-dominated sport has its unique challenges.
“I’m not saying it’s hard, but it’s different. The men are physically stronger, so you have to read the game in a more tactical way,” she explained. “Being a good rider is the most important skill as a polo player, and most women are good riders. Eighty per cent is the horse and 20 per cent is hitting the ball.”
And the princess is in good company when it comes to accomplished polo players — her coach, Marianela Castagnola, is the only female rider to have won the prestigious Copa de Republica in Argentina.
Both siblings called the rush of being on the field “addictive”.
“Ive always ridden horses since I was young. My dad used to tell me to play polo, since he used to play polo all the time. But I never really got into it until my sister started playing,” said HRH Prince Mateen.
“I didn’t really find out how addictive it can be until I picked it up properly and now I’m just wired to it.”
HRH Princess ‘Azemah, who has been riding since she was four, said while polo has been an education in discipline and commitment, it’s the rush of adrenalin that keeps her coming back for her mallet.
“When you’re on the field, you forget about everything. Getting on a horse, riding stick and ball, you just kind of shut down — you’re in your own world.”
HUNGRY FOR MORE
Leading the pack, the Brunei polo team was in the good hands of a capable captain with an impressive handicap.
YAM Pengiran Muda Bahar, son of HRH Prince Haji Jefri Bolkiah, is considered one of the best players in Southeast Asia and was awarded ‘Most Valuable Player’ for the tournament after racking up eight goals in the bronze medal match against Singapore — besting them 10 to 8.
A shy, modest figure, he humbly downplayed his achievements, putting his MVP award down to a team effort.
“I’m sure it was by luck or by mistake,” he joked. “Polo is quite a limited sport in Brunei, yet we had quite a good team, so I’m quite happy.”
HRH Prince Mateen, however, had ample praise for the captain’s skill and leadership: “He basically controls the game. He wasn’t MVP for no reason, he was amazing in the tournament.”
“He’s amazing to play to. He’ll talk to you on the field and all you have to do is listen and hit your shots,” he added.
All three royals were enthusiastic about their chance to represent Brunei again on the world stage, saying it is likely they will play the All-Asia Cup in Thailand next January, and are even looking towards the next SEA Games in Manila.
“This is only the beginning,” said the princess. “We gelled as a team and did really well for our first tournament. So for sure, we’re going to continue.”
“Up till now, we’ve mostly played exhibition matches, but we have to step it up now. The only way to get better is to compete,” HRH Prince Mateen added.
“Practices will get you a long way but without competing — it’s a different game. We started at a good time because polo is getting big again in Southeast Asia. So if we keep up this momentum, I think we can progress to something bigger.”
Watch our video of HRH Prince ‘Abdul Mateen’s training session at the Royal Brunei Polo & Riding Club: