The #1 Post – Call time on the test rules

(22.09.2015) – With the international season now done and dusted, it’s time to review and reflect on what transpired for our Australian teams. Our results across the board were not what we had aimed for but there were some good performances despite the final results, highlighted by our Women’s World University Games team winning gold.

While we will go through the regular review processes on each team and the program as a whole to identify areas of improvement, one thing I would like to do is assess the effectiveness of the new FINA ‘test’ rules from a high performance perspective.

The test rules, or experimental rules, were introduced by FINA around 12 months ago for junior and youth competitions to trial a version of rules that attempted to make the beautiful game of water polo more attractive to a wider variety of spectators and commercial stakeholders alike. Under these rules there were five field players as opposed to six, 11 players per team rather than13. Both genders played in a 25-meter pool and played with a women’s size four ball, at first glance the changes were extreme.

Despite my early reservations, I recently took the time to speak with coaching staff and referees who experienced these new rules in competition at the respective men’s and women’s FINA Junior World Championships to allow a fair assessment of the rules, and from those talks it appears that there remains uncertainty around if these rules are better or worse for the game.

The consensus from the Australian referees (Nick Hodgers and Daniel Bartels) is without doubt that the ‘test’ rules make for a faster and more dynamic game. The opportunity to structure a game plan around a dominant centre forward was replaced with a constantly moving attack, which created more scoring opportunities outside of five meters, three on two attacking scenarios and driving players receiving a quick feed of the ball as they charged towards the goals.

While this resulted in a faster game, which was the intention of the rules, it also promoted high exclusion counts, and teams capable of defending at one end and turning around to execute a counter attack at the other were the most successful.

The reduction to five field players was more of a concern at the men’s world championships than the women’s, with numerous goalkeepers slotting into field player positions. In the majority of games, especially ones featuring Australia and other strong nations, the conversation centred on earning extra man opportunities. Various methods of extra man defence were employed, however the best teams moved dynamically between post, wing and perimeter players to create uncertainty and threaten attack.

From a coach’s perspective the positive comments probably weren’t as free flowing as they were with referees, with the perception of more predictable game play. While recognising the increased speed of play and ability for individual players to create scoring opportunities through movement, many coach’s believed that games with more goals and high rates of conversion in extra man was not a great spectacle.

At the women’s tournament in Volos, Greece, the Junior Stingers had arguably the best defence in the tournament, especially when assessing goals for and against, proving it is possible to keep goals scored at ‘normal’ levels. Despite the efforts of our women’s team, their games were not the norm and there were plenty of blowouts on the scoreboard.

What the test rules promoted was the heightened importance of having good shooters, high conversion rates in extra man and explosive players that have the endurance to see out a full game. While these are all good ingredients for the traditional form of the game, this experimental game runs the risk of generating a greater divide between the strong and weaker teams, leaving me to question whether this will bridge the gap between established and developing nations.

It would be right to call me a fence sitter if I didn’t have my say on what I think of this format of the game. In short, I don’t think they are the answer to FINA’s problem nor does it create consistently good water polo.

Reflecting on what I witnessed this year at our junior national championships and taking in the feedback I’ve received, I would suggest that these rules change too many facets of the game at once, which produces erratic spectacles of play and according results. I believe the balance of goals scored in a game is important, as is the method that they are scored.

It is normal for a game to be described as a ‘shootout’ when there are more than 25 goals scored between two teams, but at the junior world championships there were more than 40 games where this was the case, half of those seeing upwards of 30 goals. What this tells me is that the new rules completely take the defensive element out of the game.

I concede that the test rules create better, more dynamic individual players, but these skills can be adapted to the traditional game. The test rules could have long-term benefits for the game if adopted by younger age groups learning the sport, allowing players to become more skilled individuals earlier on in their career.

If I were to keep any of the changes from the test rules it would be the 25 meter field and 11 team players, however retaining the traditional six on six field playing structure. As a spectator I want to see a game played by the best players, for longer periods and reward both attack and defence equally and I believe the two aforementioned new rules the only ones that promote that. Leave the rest alone.

Let’s not lose sight of what the game is about; we had an outstanding example of how good the traditional rules are at as senior level at this year’s FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia. Good teams played in the right spirit and played tactically to overcome an opponent, they didn’t need the radical intervention of these test rules. But now is not the time to get bitter about the changes, it’s an opportunity to learn and make the game better…and that’s exactly what we intend to do!

So until next time…be your best,

Tom Hill

Manager, High Performance

Water Polo Australia

About our contributors

Tom Hill

Tom Hill as High Performance Manager has led the WPA High Performance Program since the beginning of 2012. From playing AFL football and coaching junior talent programs to sports administration at state associations, state institutes, universities and national level.  Hill’s experience extends to a variety of stakeholders.  He also has an academic background in Business, Sport Management and Sport Law.

Greg McFadden

Greg McFadden is the National Head Coach of the women’s water polo team, the Aussie Stingers. McFadden has been in charge of the Stingers since 2005 leading the team to Bronze medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, Gold at the 2006 World Cup and Silver at the 2010, 2014 World Cups adding to Silver at the 2013 World Championships. McFadden represented Australia at the 1992 Olympic Games as part of our most successful men’s team which finished fifth.

Elvis Fatovic

Elvis Fatovic is the National Head Coach of the men’s water polo team, The Aussie Sharks. Hailing from Croatia, Fatovic has been in charge of the Sharks since the beginning of 2013 and thus far led the Sharks to their top performances in a decade at the 2013 World Championships and 2014 World Cup. Fatovic is regarded as one of the best left headers in Croatian water polo history, and competed at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games. Fatovic won the 2012 Olympic Games Gold medal with Croatia as an assistant coach to Ratko Rudic.