Water Polo: the Perennial Underdogs

The Women's Water Polo team breeze past Newcastle to progress in the cup.

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It had been raining non-stop for three days. The clouds were grey and unmoving, seeming unlikely to reveal a blue sky anytime soon. The mood was worsened as the ugly site of Dundee came into view across the Tay. Yet for the Women’s Water Polo Club, this arduous journey is one they have to take all too often.

Twice a week they train at the Olympia swimming pool across the river as there is nowhere in St Andrews that is the proper depth and size. While they do train three times a week at St Leonards, it is hardly ideal when you can stand on the pool floor, which breaks one of the basic rules of the sport. Adding to two sessions of strength and conditioning, being on the water polo team is a huge commitment. But this is a consequence of them being on the university’s performance sports, boasting a full-time coach. In the form of Ian McCallum, they have a former British international who has the experience of coaching at a premier level. Using the website Huddle, which films all their games, they analyse performances and assess the strategies of teams they’ve played before to provide individual feedback and improve tactics. As a result of this, the women’s team are one of the best in the country. With an inexperienced team that had only recently been promoted back to Premier North, they came fourth in the league to qualify for Super 8s, which saw them ranked fourth in the whole country. All this despite not having a proper pool. News that the University was planning an indoor tennis centre was a great disappointment for them, especially given the wider community benefits a new pool would have had. A campaign has been launched by the publicity officer to raise funds to hold a conversation, with the hope that the next major investment by the University will fall in their favour.

Despite this setback, the team have started the season off on a flyer, currently sitting top of the league more than halfway through the season. Last Wednesday they faced off against Newcastle in Dundee, a team they were quite familiar with as they had held their pre-season up in St Andrews. Last year it was Newcastle that beat St Andrews into third spot in the country, and had won a match against them at the start of the year. But the weekend before they had gone down south and beaten them. Regardless of the friendly relations between the two teams, another victory was the only target for the Saints.     

Newcastle started the first quarter on the front foot (or the swimming equivalent), hitting the post within the first minute. But it was St Andrews who took the lead from a penalty shot. They soon got another almost immediately but the keeper saved at the near post. Their opponents continued to have the majority of possession, but were limited to long shots due to some aggressive but fair Saints defence. These desperate efforts did result in them hitting the post again and the crossbar, but they couldn’t convert. Following a timeout, a Newcastle player was fouled out of the play and St Andrews took advantage of the extra man to switch the play and score.

With a 2-0 lead going into the second quarter, St Andrews sought to extend their advantage. With number 10 being the pivot between defence and attack, the Saints attempted to build from the back in a more structured offensive strategy. Two quick goals came straight away. The first was a beautiful lob, then a swift counter attack after more good defence saw the score stretch to 4-0. Newcastle pulled one back soon after however, taking advantage of a free throw from far out to finally score. They then scored another in a similar fashion to restore the two goal deficit. But before the end of the half, St Andrews managed to pull away again with a shot at the near post.

As the third quarter got underway, Newcastle continued to struggle to break down the Saints defence, with their only real danger coming from speculative efforts. St Andrews however were having no such problem, with a cross-shot finish from number 10 taking the score to 6-2. With their opponents desperate to get the ball forward, St Andrews took advantage of some sloppy transition play to feed the ball into their main striker, who then scored a superb back shot. With a five goal margin, the Saints started to play with a new sense of freedom. When their opponents did find space however, they consistently failed to make the most of it. With a timeout called with five seconds left however, the Saints were caught napping as a long pass found a completely open player who couldn’t miss.

With the score standing at 7-3 going into the final quarter, the Saints put any question of a comeback to bed by scoring with their first attack. Newcastle then immediately responded with a stunning lobbed finish akin to the one that St Andrews scored in the second quarter. Number 10 continued to run the show and scored a thunderous long shot to put Newcastle out of sight, whose coach was feeling the heat in the humid pool and received a yellow card for dissent. With their opponents chasing the game, the Saints maintained their composure and saw out the game with another two goals, including a long range effort with five seconds left. At full time, the score stood at 11-4, a comfortable scoreline against a team who had caused them trouble in the past.

 

In a post match interview, some of the players gave their thoughts on the victory. Last year there were only four players who had been playing water polo for more than two years, this year they have over seven. The experience of going to Super 8s and reaching the final four has clearly been of benefit. This has been coupled with a group of highly competitive and dedicated freshers, including a former Division One player from the United States. Their defeat to Newcastle earlier in the season has shown how the team have gelled over the last couple months and the progress they have made since last year. They put their victories down to the hard-working attitude of the players to succeed. With the prospect of BUCS points looming, the club just need to make sure they can keep hold of their players through the hail of deadlines and training sessions to come. On the basis of today’s performance, there is little stopping this group from going all the way later on in the season. If they do win the league, surely the argument for a new pool will only grow stronger, and the trips to Dundee will be both worthwhile, but also numbered.

       

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