Elwood Park, Hastings
HE IS the country's best polo player and, befittingly, the New Zealander finds himself swinging his mallet alongside British royalty each season to raise funds for charities.
John Paul Clarkin, of Cambridge, has been an eight-goal player for seven years but has yet to achieve the maximum handicap of 10.
Clarkin will be the first to tell you it requires a concoction of skills, dedication and opportunity to attain a 10 ranking, akin to amateur golfers reaching scratchie status before yearning for a plus handicap one.
Oh, and yes, the horse is a big part of it, too.
So what exactly has Clarkin been lacking in the past seven years to attain utopia in polo parlance?
The 34-year-old, whose prowess will be on display when the annual Savile Cup begins at Elwood Park, Hastings, from Tuesday, laughs before replying: "A little bit of each, actually".
It's only when the interview meanders into the realms of his polo-savvy family background that you realise the courage and passion Clarkin must have drawn on to carry on in the sport when, in fact, he had one good reason to question his faith.
Eight years ago, he watched his father, Paul Clarkin, 54, die on the field while playing a polo match in Civencester, about a 90-minute drive southwest of London.
"It was very tough then and still is and I was a bit unsure of myself for a while," he reveals.
Like a polo player deftly finding poise and perch after his mount wobbles as he leans over to caress the chukka in full flight, Clarkin recovers to say his bigger love of the sport took him out of the doldrums of uncertainty.
"If you're going to go away somewhere then why not go while doing something you really enjoy, and my dad certainly did," he reconciles, savouring the times travelling the world with his father and mother Chele after leaving Cambridge High School.
"We were just part of the luggage and got carted around."
A member of the Mystery Creek team, which includes Missy Browne (scratchie), Englishman Jack Richardson (5 hcp) and Alan Browne (3), Clarkin says with the balmy weather there's no excuse for fans, armed with their wine chillers, not to turn out in droves to watch some world-class performers at the national club championship in Hastings for the first time since a treble 1994-96 to commemorate the Hawke's Bay Polo Club's centenary.
All teams' handicaps total 16 or under, and there are eight teams in the cup grade this year - Mystery Creek Morningstar, Taupiri, Auckland A, Kihikihi A, Waimai Piquet Hill, Wanstead A and Rangitikei A.
Clarkin umms and aahs when asked who is most likely to give Mystery Creek a run, but isolates Taupiri (Tom Morley 6 hcp, Kit Brooks 4, Ross Ainsley 5 and Ross George 1) will be the litmus test first up at ground 1 from 3.30pm on Tuesday in pool A.
In the play-offs, cousin Simon Keyte's Mystery Creek Morningstar (Arther Morgenstern 1, Paco O'Dwyer 4, Thomas Hunt 5, Simon Keyte 6) will be an obstacle.
Captain Robert Savile, of the British Royal Navy, gifted the Savile Cup to the New Zealand Polo Association in 1890 to mark the opening of the Calliope dock at Devonport, Auckland.
It is believed to be the oldest sports silverware in New Zealand and the club champs has been played for every year bar the two World Wars early last century and the Great Depression of 1931-34.
Clarkin reckons up to 60-80 per cent of the credit goes to horses.
With 45 horses in his stable, he emphasises the importance of building a special bond with the very best mounts.
He's bringing about 15 of them to Hastings because Richardson, who he plays with during the English summer season, will be using them, too.
"We have four games in six days and that'll be quite tough, so we don't want to be pushing the horses too hard too early in the week."
For the record, his wife, Carina "Nina" Vesty, an Englishwoman, is the highest ranked female polo player in the world playing off a four handicap. The couple have a 17-month-old daughter, Elizabeth.
"Unfortunately for Nina I've stolen her horses, so she'll be just supporting next week," says Clarkin of his wife, who attended Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding last year.
Princes William and Harry, he says, are great ambassadors of raising funds for charities up to a dozen times in a season despite having hectic schedules.
But what are they like as polo players?
"For me they are like any other polo players except there are more photographers at the ground when they are at the grounds. They are always polite and happy to give their time and always a joy to be around."
Clarkin relishes playing professionally in exotic locations in countries such as England, South Africa, India, St Moritz and Australia.
"I'll be away in China with the New Zealand team in a fortnight," says the man who has won the Savile Cup four times, but accepts he isn't around here because of his overseas commitments to make a bigger impact.
Joining Clarkin to China from January 23 for the snow polo championship and playing here next week in the national team are Glenn Sherriff, Kit Brooks and James Wood (Christchurch, Kihikihi).
Other professionals in next week's champs include seven-goal Tommy Wilson, of Waimai (Waikato), his six-goal brother, Craig Wilson, who has also played rugby professionally for the Mooloo men, Robert Watson (Christchurch, Kihikihi) and Sam Hopkinson (Auckland, NZ rep).
Veteran Cody Forsyth, the top professional Kiwi for 30 years, who rubbed shoulders with Charles, the Prince of Wales, for several seasons, will also grace Elwood Park.
SAVILE CUP teams (all adding up to no more than 16 handicap):
Mystery Creek Morningstar: Arthur Morgenstern 1, Paco O'Dwyer 4, Thomas Hunt 5, Simon Keyte 6.
Mystery Creek: Missy Browne 0, Jack Richardson 5, John Paul Clarkin 8, Alan Browne 3.
Taupiri: Tom Morley 6, Kit Brooks 4, Ross Ainsley 5, Ross George 1.
Auckland A: James Worker 2, Jasper White 3, Cody Forsyth 5, Sam Hopkinson 6.
Kihikihi A: Ash Reader 2, Robert Watson 5, James Wood 4, Andrew Parrott 5.
Waimai Piquet Hill: Baden Broughton 3, Craig Wilson 6, Tommy Wilson 7, Simon Bennett 0.
Wanstead A: Simon McDonald 2, Aaron Vowles 4, David Miller 5, Lochie Hunter 5.
Rangitikei A: Sam Duncan 1, William Lucas 6, Angus McKelvie 5, Glenn Sherriff 4.
WILSON CUP (no more than 6 hcp):
Cambridge: Michael Ellyett 0, Richard Curran 1, Kevin Gray 3, William Hunt 2.
Mystery Creek: Tanya Lavas 0, Matt Bayley 2, Nick Keyte 2, James Sheppard 2.
Auckland B: Boyd Allen 1, Michael Weston 0, Jonny Wade 3, Matt Evetts 2.
Kihikihi B: Ellen Morgenstern -1, Charlie Wood 3, Barrat Watson 3, Michael Kay 0.
Kihikihi C: Chloe Kay 0, Stephen Kay 2, Paul Kay 2, Edward Kay 2.
Wanstead B: Ben Reisima -1, Nick Coddington 2, Simon Coddington 2, Dryden Power 3.
Waimai Livestock Marketing: Andre Parrott -2, Matt Pitts 3, Alex Parrott 4, Richard Seavill 1.
Rangitikei B: Cam McKelvie 3, Douglas Duncan 1, Mark Duncan 1, Nathan Schimanski 1.
Poverty Bay A: Casey Mullaney 0, Cody Clark 2, Glen Armstrong 3, Andy Moore 1.
RIDDIFORD LEVIN (3-2-3 hcp):
Auckland C: Mark Rushton 0, Alex Richardson 0, Toby Pitts 1, Justin Watson 2.
Hololio Farm: Rae Poole -1, Clyde McLean 0, Henry Jones 2, Nick Jones 1.
Wanstead C: Dani Watson 0, Lucas Simcox 1, Hugo White 1, Daniel Coddington 1.
Rangitikei C: Tom Lammercraft 2, Campbell Davis 1, Adam Hawarth 0, Brad Beatson 0.
MCKENZIE SALVER (0, -1, -5 hcp):
Auckland D: Sam Wyborn -2, Michael McPherson 0, Daniel Worker 2, Tony Van den Brink 0.
Hawke's Bay: Laura Malone -2, Ollie Jones 0, Jared Thompson 1, Phillip Thompson 0.
Birchleigh: Emma Hinton -2, Anna Wood -2, Graeme Thompson -1, Richard Kettle 0.
(-1, -4, 0 hcp)
Wanstead D: Andy Waldron -1, Robbie Hunter 0, Steyn Welkers 0, Tim Simcox 0.
Wanstead E: Edwina Askew -2, Ollie Wood -2, Ulganbayr Bold 0, Myagmarjav Adiya 0.
Taupiri B: Brian Mooney -1, Fiona Alexander -1, Dom Mckenzie 1, Wayne Hundley 1.
(0, 0, -6 hcp)
Rangitikei D: David Bird 0, Ben McKelvie 1, Jess Andrews 0, Harriet James -1.
Poverty Bay B: Laura Clark -2, Jo Kirkpatrick -1, Neville Clark 2, Paul Kirkpatrick 1.
Poverty Bay C: Felicity McNutt -2, Susie Hamilton -1, Robyn Wilkie -2, Campbell Chrisp -1.