The 2017 FINA World Championships have come to a close and so does the international season for the Aussie Stingers and Aussie Sharks. It is year one of a new cycle, one that will end in a little over 1000 days in Tokyo, so time to reflect on 2017 to date in a special edition of the #1 Post.
Lets start with the Aussie Stingers and what a year of change and challenge it has been, however with plenty to like despite an 8th place finish at the World Championships. Sakis Kechagias took the reins as Head Coach arriving in April in what has been a whirlwind three months preparing three different looking teams for the three international tours. 23 players have played for the Aussie Stingers in 2017 across 28 matches with only six returning from the Rio campaign. The final 13 in Budapest played their first game together in the opening fixture vs Kazakhstan (16-4). In comparison all other teams that placed in the top 10 included at least seven and in most cases eight or more players from 2016. Greece the most with 12.
What this has allowed Kechagias to do is see many players gain experience at the highest level and determine what this young and new look team is capable of. He has brought a new playing style to the Stingers, one that slightly changed again on the eve of the World Championships due to final roster make up and positional deficiencies and desire to be competitive in each game. The team had a lot of learning to do, both in and out of the pool, about each other and their new coach and staff. Much the same for coach Kechagias and staff learning about the players and Australia’s unique sporting culture and environment.
The results of the games played in Budapest will tell you that the Stingers have adapted quickly, yet with more to learn and develop in the coming years. The result of minimal preparation and experience playing tough international water polo as individuals and as a team. Victory over Bronze medalists Russia (8-5) and close defeats to Gold medalists USA (5-7) and Rio Silver medalists Italy (17-18 in penalties) demonstrates that there is quality within the squad. No other team challenged the USA, but that is nothing new as they are a level above at present. The losses to Greece (8-11 and 6-8) were an interesting mix of Greek influence and motivation, but not totally unexpected. One thing that hasn’t changed though is the Stingers resiliency, fighting spirit and never give in attitude. A top eight finish was the pass mark for this year and achieved with a good dose of positives including a revived team culture in response to last year’s review which has built a solid foundation for the final three years of the cycle.
The Stingers of 2017 may appear on the outside to have made a slow start and not the results we are accustomed to, but don’t let that dishearten you as they are busily creating a new look, style and team, forming all the parts required to one day soon fly at the top of the world.
That brings me to the Aussie Sharks. Similar to their female counterparts, Australia’s men’s team also had its fair share of change and challenge. While the spread of 17 players across the 26 matches played was not as great, the turnover from 2016 to 2017 was much larger. The Aussie Sharks had only four players returning from Rio for the World Championships at an average age of 24. In comparison the six teams that finished higher in Budapest than the Sharks had seven or more but most in double figures averaging 27-28 years old. The discrepancy in experience was evident at times but the most encouraging sign was that the Sharks got better as the tournament went on finishing with their best result at a World Championships since 2003, where the team also came 7th.
It is easy to look at the losses to Hungary (3-13), Italy (5-13) and Serbia (5-15) and be critical, but its the games that were on the line to ensure a top eight finish against France (11-10), Brazil (8-3), Italy (4-8) and Russia (10-7) that showed the true character of the group under Head Coach Elvis Fatovic. In what has arguably been his best year coaching the Aussie Sharks, Fatovic has pulled together a mixture of experienced, rookie, international and domestic players into a culturally tight knit team that rightly sits as one of the best of the rest.
Not shying away from the fact there is a gap to close to reach the top teams, the improvement with limited preparation from a low base in 2017 is encouraging and evident that the more time spent as a team under Fatovic the quicker the development will be. The intensity of international matches was a new experience for many players and needs replicating as often as possible.
The Aussie Sharks are exactly as their name sake suggests, hunters who have now risen from the bottom of the ocean in search of their next meal with a big fish on the menu.
So where to from here? Well firstly a well earned break, back to work for some players, university exams for others and plenty of analysis identifying where the improvements need to come. Kechagias and Fatovic will be keen onlookers for the upcoming World University Games (18-30 August) and B97 Junior World Championships (men 5-13 August and women 3-10 September) with players getting their chance to represent Australia, gain valuable experience and an opportunity to impress.
Those that took a break post Rio to consider retirement, take on new challenges or just refresh, their experience will be welcome as will their willingness to dip a toe back in the water and continue the journey to Tokyo within these new look teams.
To support the Aussie Stingers and Aussie Sharks on the trek to Tokyo, Water Polo Australia has established through the Australian Sports Foundation various ways to contribute much needed funds to the players and teams. In addition to the broader Trek to Tokyo project (click here for more), in the coming month individual player project pages will be created. All funding from individual player project pages will go directly to support the player dedicate their time and energies towards preparing for Tokyo without the significant financial stress the majority of players currently endure.
The communities support for our teams and players to achieve their potential is vital. From inside the tent there is a lot to like about how the year has progressed and rate of improvement achieved. Galvanising our strengths and collectively working on solutions to our performance barriers is a priority and I look forward to seeing how far we can go in the year ahead.
Until next time…be your best.
Tom Hill, WPA High Performance Manager