For a team who train an astonishing nine times a week – not including their two or even three weekly matches – the light-heartedness of the women’s water polo team is, frankly, startling. As the team travel to face Glasgow at home in BUCS, at a pool based in Dundee due to inadequate facilities back in St Andrews, Club President Eleanor Heywood-Bourne jokes about the players’ tight-knit friendship group. The players train and play so often, that Katie, the team’s star player, is gently ribbed about having no friends beyond the people she is currently occupying a minibus with. Understandably and vociferously, this is something Katie denies. Yet this denial only adds fuel to the flames, prompting more of the gentle ribbing that so evidences the team’s tight-knit friendship in the first place. After all, for a team who (along with the men’s side) train more often than any other sports team in St Andrews, what else could they really be but tight-knit?
On the road to Dundee, Eleanor discusses a multiplicity of topics; the depth of the conversation belying the relative brevity of the commute. Aside from the nine-training-sessions-a-week bombshell – six in water and three on weights, to be precise – several other surprises are dropped into the chat. Not least of these is hearing that the pre-eminent water-polo-playing nation is Hungary, the destination of choice for the Club’s pre-season tour this year. Eleanor mentions that Ian, the team’s indefatigable manager and former British youth coach, actually persuaded Katie to come on the Hungary tour before she was even registered as a St Andrews student; aware of her past with Scotland’s girls’ teams. Indeed, Eleanor even suggests that Ian persuaded Katie to choose St Andrews University where choosing Edinburgh would have been “the done thing” as regards competitive water polo. As the home-game away-day evidences, St Andrews remains a relative water polo backwater in terms of facilities, lacking anywhere to actually play beside the substandard pool on St Leonard’s road (legend states that although the Club’s founding members fashioned water polo goals from washed-up fishing nets on West Sands, such Bear-Grylls-style improvisation didn’t extend to playing home games in the North Sea).
It is heartening, therefore, to hear that there is a supermarket next to the pool in Dundee; a state of affairs that makes any post-defeat return trip that much easier to stomach, both literally and metaphorically. As the minibus pulls in, the towering monolith of M&S looms, dwarfing the entry point of the adjacent pool’s loftiest flume. Eleanor says, simply and smiling, “it helps”. On the subject of beverages, the Club have also recently secured sponsorship from coffee chain Costa Coffee. The Club are, as Ian puts it, “delighted to receive support from their favourite local coffee store”. The Club have strong links to Costa, with former player Victoria Stewart now working at the coffee chain’s St Andrews branch, and will look to put the funds to good use to grow the club and its links with the local community. Spurred on by the prospect of post-match snacks, then, the team heads into the pool complex to get ready. An unorthodox poolside warm-up, featuring long swathes of elastic used to stretch arm muscles, is swiftly followed by passing and shooting practice in the pool itself. The pool seems surprisingly small at first glance, but as proceedings eventually get underway against Glasgow, the game’s sheer intensity quickly explains why.
Where the journey to Dundee had been jovial, the game itself is anything but. In the first quarter, as Glasgow race into a 4-1 lead, it is hard to say whether fouls or successful passes are more frequent. A notoriously violent sport – as Eleanor says, being scratched is par for the course, especially for physically slighter players – water polo, as played here, is nevertheless captivating to watch. The sporting cliché of ‘finding space’ really doesn’t do justice to the sheer effort that the St Andrews players are forced to make to avoid their markers. Territory is slowly eked out yet swiftly conceded; in this respect, water polo is, as Eleanor puts it, “like a mixture of rugby and football”.
In the second quarter, Ian’s constant encouragement and instruction pays off, and St Andrews turn the tables to take a 5-4 lead. Fed by incisive passing and hard swimming into said elusive space, the four goalscoring finishes are strikingly subtle in their execution. Where the rest of the match is a storm, shooting is very much the calm amidst it. The action seems to freeze as the shots are lined up, and the eventual throws are far more often placed or lobbed than hurled.
As the third quarter begins, however, subtlety is emphatically eschewed. As foul stoppages abide, another sporting cliché, ‘fight for every inch’, seems redundant: as far as this game is concerned, if you want even an inch of space, you haven’t a choice but to fight for it anyway. Aided by a truly spectacular finish with the outside of the hand, St Andrews retain their lead, heading into the final quarter 7-5 up.
Extending their lead to 9-5 as endgame looms, St Andrews nevertheless face a comeback, with two quick goals reducing arrears to 9-7. Another Glasgow goal is chalked off, preventing the heart-in-mouth prospect of a protecting a one-goal lead for a whole minute; victory potentially gone in sixty seconds. As St Andrews hold on and hold out, therefore, the pervasive sense is one of relief; there is no cheer on the final whistle. Yet once the players are changed, M&S has been plundered and the minibus boarded, that startlingly light-hearted attitude returns once more, unrelenting training regime notwithstanding. For a team who never quite seem to lose their buzz, it’s fair to say Costa Coffee could hardly be a better sponsor.