Water Polo – struggling to stay afloat

By Peter McKenna

Water Polo is a highly physical and demanding sport and has frequently been cited as one of the toughest sports to play. In a 2016 Irish Times article, about the five toughest sports at the Olympics, Water Polo is cited as the fourth toughest below decathlon, marathon and boxing.

The game is simple in theory, it is made up of four quarters in which the opposing teams try to score goals in the net on the opposite side of the pool. The team with the most goals at the end of the game wins. The teams are made up of six field players and one goalkeeper. 

The field players are involved in both offensive and defensive roles. Water Polo is typically played in a pool of around two metres so that players cannot touch the bottom, however this is not always the case.  The game is thought to have developed as a sort of rugby played in water.  It was played in lakes and rivers in the beginning of the sport, before strict rules and regulations were implemented.

The games’ origins can be traced back to Scotland in the late 19th century through the pioneer William Wilson. However, as the game gained popularity and notoriety with the formation of the London Water Polo League, it has since expanded, becoming particularly popular in parts of Europe.  

Ben Lawlor is a junior Irish Water Polo player and due to his family’s association with the game, became involved in the sport from a very young age. He spoke to TheCity.ie about Water Polo and how sport does not enjoy mainstream status.

He said: “It’s not really a mainstream sport. Swimming would be more popular than it really. Swim Ireland would focus on promoting swimming more so than Water Polo, but they contribute to an extent.

“For our club’s subscriptions, we would have to do our own fundraising, it’s expensive to rent pools for training, and there’s not many in Ireland let alone Dublin.”

When asked about the structure of the Irish Water Polo leagues, it was evident that although not being a mainstream sport it is still very competitive in the country.

Ben explained: “At senior level there’s three different divisions. Division one would be the most competitive, division two is still very competitive. Then division three is sort of for older people that still enjoy playing it, master of the game sort of thing.

“In Dublin, there’s only two fifty metre pools in UCD and the National Aquatic Centre. Getting time there is difficult and obviously expensive so we train twice a week out in the National Aquatic Centre doing a two-hour session. Another night a week we train in Trinity pool which is a smaller pool.”

Funding and facilities seem to be somewhat of an issue when it comes to Irish Water Polo, and Ben said this could be due to the status of the sport in Ireland.

“I’d like to see it being promoted more. I’ve always tried to introduce it to my friends. It’s a good sport, it’s hard and physical. I think if more people know about it, it could be more popular, the thing is not many people know what it is.

“In Ireland, it’s an amateur sport. I’ve played for the Irish junior team and I’ve played varsity. I haven’t played senior yet, but I know those guys don’t get paid and train five days a week.  Ireland aren’t in the European first division, they’re in the second. I would like to see Water Polo grow, but without the funding it’s really hard and were not a big country either.”

Ben explained that it was his family legacy within the Irish Water Polo scene that encouraged him to get involved in the sport.

“A long time ago my Dad and his dad used to go down to the Dun Laoghaire baths and basically his Dad started playing water polo down there. That’s really how my dad got involved so from a very young age I was swimming and from there I was thrown into the sport.

“When I was playing under 16s, there’s a trophy- the Leinster cup trophy. All the teams in Leinster play each other and its knockout so we got to the final.  The trophy is named after my grandad in honour of his contributions to the sport and at the time my dad was coaching the team, so to win that back was huge. It was a big celebration for the family.”

Aside from the fact that the sport doesn’t receive the same funding as other water sports, Ben explained why he continues to compete: “I play for the love of it really. I’m playing competitively for the Junior team and the varsity team at the moment, so my goal is to make the Senior team in the next year or two. 

“The last time our club Sandycove won the Senior Irish cup was maybe 20 years ago and the likes of Vincent’s and Cathal Brugha would be some of the big teams in the game at the moment.”

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