Polo fans seek chain reaction: Matthew Brace discovers a nearly forgotten contact sport gearing up for a comeback

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Armed with a wooden mallet, a bamboo-root ball and the thickest pair of shin-pads he can find, Garry Beckett is striving to resurrect a rare and dangerous sport in a quiet suburb of south London.

He is a devotee of bicycle polo, a game first played on the fields of County Wicklow south of Dublin, but which crossed to Britain a century ago this year, and he is attempting to set up a national league to encourage new players.

From his childhood in the Sixties, Mr Beckett remembers the demise of the sport which once boasted 500 teams throughout Britain and regular international matches.

Time was when almost every London football club had a team who would perform on the pitch before Saturday matches.

Veterans older than Mr Beckett can recall when there was hardly a large company in London whose sports and social club did not have a bicycle polo team which met weekly for league games.

Now there are just two - the Chelsea Pedlars and the Herne Hill Aces - who are fighting for recognition for the sport.

The game has rules, but not many and their lax nature allows a fair amount of robust play, so matches often get violent.

Players are allowed to shoulder-charge, tackle and ride each other

off the ball and while they can hook an opponent's mallet, they must not hook the opponent in the process.

Mr Beckett, who is also the general secretary of the Bicycle Polo Association of Great Britain, said while it is rare to get an injury more serious than a bruise or two, he never ventures on to the field without ample sturdy protection.

'It gets pretty heated most of the time so you won't catch me out there without my shinpads. A lot of the lads wear these helmets now, but I find they just get in the way when you're turning round.'

His team has just returned from playing four exhibition games at a country show in Guernsey which 'got a bit nasty', fuelled by an almost unplayable pitch.

In two weeks, the Channel Islanders will travel to Herne Hill for a grudge match which is likely to herald a no-holds-barred contest. 'I've said to the lads that there's no point bringing anybody down to the game who is not prepared to get knocked about,' said Mr Beckett.

'But you have to make sure you do the dirty stuff on the blind side of the referee and behave yourself when he's looking.' No mean feat considering the referee in many of the matches in which Mr Beckett competes is his 64-year-old father, Ron.

'There's not a lot that gets past me. I've seen it all before so I know when someone's playing dirty,' said Mr Beckett senior. Although he has given up playing because of his age, Ron Beckett is still the national team coach.

He has played before the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh in Windsor as well as battling with the 'mighty Irish boys' in finals at Selhurst Park which used to draw keen crowds.

'We've always been good friends with the leagues in Birmingham and we used to drive up there in a van every other weekend and sometimes in the middle of winter to keep the sport going - and that was before they built the M1]

'I've played football and cricket in my time, but nothing beats this. If you like riding bikes and you like playing ball games this is two in one.'

A team consists of six players, male and female. Five are on the pitch at any one time while a substitute warms up on the touchline. A match begins when the referee places the ball (made traditionally from bamboo root, but nowadays usually of plastic) at the centre of the pitch and one player from each side sprints forward to gain possession.

To add to the dangers of opponents wielding mallets and sending balls hurtling through the air, the bicycles have no brakes, which makes them easier to steer over the grass pitch but for the beginner extremely hard to stop.

The game is divided into six 15-minute chukkas which assures each player gets regular rest and a half-time break.

International matches have become rare in the past few decades, which enthusiasts believe could change with the introduction of a national league. 'There used to be lots of them,' said Mr Beckett.

'England playing Scotland, matches in Dublin playing the Irish. But the chief arse-kicker over there injured himself recently. He fell off his penny farthing while he was riding it in the Isle of Man, lost his memory and everything.'

Simon Goodman, chairman of Chelsea Pedlars, has been a regular club and international player for five years. 'It puts the fear of God into people when they first see it being played, but it really is great fun.

''I think when every man and his dog was cycling

to work it was very easy to find

bicycle sports to play, but as soon as people stopped cycling it stopped with it. Unfortunately no one has got in touch to say they are interested after a newspaper article yet, so I hope this will be the first.'

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