WINDSOR, England — A trio of Yale polo players, sheathed in unsullied white uniforms, chatted anxiously on the sideline of a Guards Polo Club field, not far from equally garrulous Harvard opponents.
But the two teams were having very different conversations.
The Crimson discussed strategy.
The Bulldogs wondered whether they would have enough players to take the field.
A rib injury to former Yale standout Robert Burk ’05 left the Elis scrambling to fill the team’s fourth slot before a June 9 outdoor exhibition hosted by Jack Wills University Outfitters in England.
“We were all getting more and more nervous with each passing minute,” said Adam Nelson ’08, the team’s captain. “It isn’t a pleasant feeling to look out on a crowd of people and be short a team member.”
The arrival of David Ashby, a professional hired as an honorary Yalie, came just over an hour before the ball was set to drop on the sun-kissed Saturday afternoon, relieving women’s captain Yasmine Moezinia ’09 from unexpectedly needing to ride with the men. Michael Losak ’09 and Graham Radman ’09 completed the Eli lineup.
“Polo only takes one really good player to be able to organize and maneuver the team,” said Losak. “It was helpful to have David out there. He was constantly talking to us.”
But Ashby, the only Eli with outdoor experience on a squad accustomed to playing at Yale’s indoor arena, could not help his teammates overcome the deftness of Harvard’s Nick Snow — arguably America’s best collegiate player — who led his team to a narrow 6-5 victory.
Snow and Ashby appeared on the field first, dribbling balls in warm-up exercises on opposite sides of a pitch three times the size of an American football field, becoming comfortable with the rental horses provided by a local owner. The teams were introduced to a sizable crowd just as the afternoon sun was beginning to wane.
“Before you go out, you see the crowd of six or seven thousand,” Losak remarked. “Having never played outdoors, it was pretty intimidating.”
The opening applause was largely muted, and most on hand seemed more interested in the Eton vs. Harrow and Oxford vs. Cambridge games of earlier in the afternoon.
But many stuck around, sipping Pimm’s and Hagner Irish Cider on the far sideline and watching the overmatched Elis, unable to gel immediately with Ashby, fall behind 5-0 at halftime.
Yale worked to contain Snow, transferring attention away from lesser-skilled Cantabs Pablo Botero and Roy Willey, but almost seemed to forget about Alex Levin, who became Snow’s favorite target on his way to three goals before the halftime whistle.
Snow added the other two Crimson goals.
Yale’s first decent chance to open their account came in the middle of the second chukka — a polo term for the four quarters or periods — when Ashby unloaded a 100-yard shot that looked far better when it left his mallet than when it neared the goal posts.
“It took a while to figure out the difference in dynamics between indoor and outdoor polo,” Losak said. “Outdoor is far more about protecting the center because the field is so big. We had to really maneuver to take the inside.”
With a significant margin to overcome, the Bulldogs began to make a small comeback in the third and early fourth chukkas.
Ashby, Nelson and Losak put Yale on the board, and even as Levin collected his fourth score of the afternoon, the Elis trailed by only two with three minutes left.
“As the game went on, I could sense the team becoming more and more comfortable,” Nelson said. “We started hitting our shots more consistently and did a much better job with our defensive assignments.”
But an improved Eli attack proved fruitless in the fleeting minutes of the final chukka.
Losak and Radman had trouble collecting the ball on an attack before Snow came in to defend with just over two minutes on the clock, dashing hopes of a miraculous Bulldog comeback.
A last-second Nelson goal with the bell sounding brought the final score to 6-5, a narrower defeat for Yale than most would have expected at halftime.
“We got a chance to come to England, which was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Levin, who was named the game’s most valuable player. “I think we showed that we were better than Yale this year, and hopefully we can do it again next year.”
The invitation to travel to the United Kingdom came from an unexpected host.
Jack Wills, a burgeoning British clothing company mixing elements of America’s Ralph Lauren, J.Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch, flew both teams across the Atlantic as part of a three-day corporate bazaar.
“We want to promote a game associated with our lifestyle,” Finding said. “It’s a great reflection of the brand.”
The idea for the overseas Ivy match was originally proposed in December 2007, but was only finalized when Finding traveled to New Haven to watch Yale hold the Atlantic Cup with Oxford and Cambridge.
The ultra-preppy Jack Wills, which adorned almost everything during the weekend in its navy blue and pink wallpaper pattern, kicked off festivities with a Thursday night social event in a trendy London bar and a city tour on Friday for the athletes before taxiing them out to the English countryside and lodging near the famed Guards Polo Club.
The British royal family owns Guards and hosts the Queen’s Cup every summer, bringing together the world’s most skilled players. All the participants they felt honored to play on the historic fields.
“We would love to have Harvard and Yale back,” said Finding, whose company hopes to open its first U.S. store in Boston in the fall of next year. “This is hopefully the start of a lifetime partnership with Jack Wills.”