GB and Australia's water polo girls to renew old rivalry in… the Bashes!
18:21 GMT, 31 July 2012
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‘We get loads of scratches, bruising, marks from grabbing. It is very physical,’ says British Olympian Fran Leighton. ‘It’s bad when you go on a night out and you’ve got a low top on and everybody looks at you like, “Beaten wife”.’
‘I’ve broken somebody’s nose. I was young,’ confesses Frankie Snell, while Ciara Gibson-/07/31/article-2181692-13E4B190000005DC-802_634x433.jpg” width=”634″ height=”433″ alt=”The wrestler: British water polo player Frankie Snell (bottom) in training for the Olympics” class=”blkBorder” />
The wrestler: British water polo player Frankie Snell (bottom) in training for the Olympics
Not only are players required to tread water for more or less 60 minutes, swim up and down the pool at sprint speed, and find the athleticism to push out of the water to shoot, but they also have to be mentally and physically prepared for rough-house tactics you would associate more with, say, rugby, martial arts, or Leeds United under Don Revie.
‘In the rule book it’s down as non-contact, which is the biggest joke I’ve heard,’ team captain Leighton laughs.
There are seven players on each team, including a goalkeeper, and the aim is simply to score more goals than the opposition. Referees patrol the side of the pool looking for infringements, but the action under water is difficult to police, meaning players use every advantage possible no matter how violent. What lies beneath, indeed.
No holds barred: The British women's water polo team build their strength up by grappling
That is why, as these exclusive pictures show, land training is equally important as pool work. Every week the GB squad, centralised in Manchester, practice grappling and wrestling moves at the city’s Aquatics Centre.
Centre-back Snell explains: ‘We look like ninjas as we wear these skin-tight black leotards to reduce the risk of bruising. The moves are called things like mount and thrust. The mount is someone lying on the ground and you’re literally straddling them, and the person underneath has to try to flip them over and get on top. So you’re really going for it, no boundaries.
‘We do it for about 30 seconds then after you’re exhausted because your whole body’s tense. We have managed to transfer it into the pool a little bit. Sometimes you have to when you’re playing someone twice the size. The knee in the back is a little trick I do if someone’s holding me and I can’t get away.’
Meet the team: The British water polo team face old rivals Australia on Wednesday night
Leighton, the team’s captain since 2004, adds: ‘The wrestling is more to work all the muscles in our arms and get strength in our shoulders, but some of the grabs we now use in the water.’
The 30-year-old says they have even had lessons from an ultimate fighter. ‘He’s come and shown us how to defend ourselves.’
Leighton’s boyfriend is former swimmer Alex Scotcher, who won Commonwealth gold in Melbourne, and she concedes her idea of aquatic sport was initially a shock to him. But she has won him over and he now plays too, for London Penguins.
She says: ‘If we go out as a group of girls we must look like a women’s refuge or something. There’s all these scratches, a black eye, a few bandages. The worst I’ve had is an elbow to the face which split my eye. The blood just went everywhere. I looked like that guy in Batman, Two-Face!’
What lies beneath: Water polo is a brutal sport under the water as players bend the rules
Snell, 25, adds: ‘Usually you do shake hands afterwards, but if someone’s given me a deliberate punch or something like that it’s hard to be friendly.’
Winger Gibson-/07/31/article-2181692-144FD0C4000005DC-948_634x463.jpg” width=”634″ height=”463″ alt=”Hot ticket: The Water Polo Arena on the Olympic Park will be packed to the rafters on Wednesday” class=”blkBorder” />
Hot ticket: The Water Polo Arena on the Olympic Park will be packed to the rafters on Wednesday
The Olympic tournament structure encourages the women to dream. There are two groups of four and all progress to the quarter-finals, with finishing positions deciding the draw. Win the fourth match and they are into the semi-finals. In Beijing, Holland finished third in their group with two losses, but narrowly won their next three to take gold. They have not qualified this time.
The British squad are aware just how important that fourth game is. ‘It’s all or nothing,’ Leighton says. Indeed, ask Fekete what the aim is and he will reply: ‘To win.’
Britain narrowly lost their opener to Russia 7-6 on Monday and next up is Australia, on Wednesday at 7.40pm. The rivalry between these nations will be even fiercer because of a nasty incident Down Under at the start of the year. Alex Rutlidge had her ribs broken when an Australian player kicked her hard in the midriff.
‘That was deliberate,’ Snell says, mood darkened. ‘We’ve got the video. She grabbed hold of Alex and booted off her. Then we see Alex going under water. That was the first time I’d ever seen broken ribs.’
Rutlidge does not know the name of the player, but remembers her face. ‘It was quite vicious and she meant to hurt me but not to break anything. It put me out of action for a while. If I saw her again I wouldn’t say anything to her. What happens in the pool stays in the pool.’
Wednesday’s match promises to be hard-hitting. The Bashes, you might call it.