New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS) Head Water Polo coach, Bec Rippon, described the experiences the Institute’s emerging players gained during their trip to Hungary and Greece – including matches against male teams – as ‘invaluable insights’ into the level of expectations and demands they’d face on the road as an international.
Rippon, who was a member of the Australian team that won the bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, described the trip to Budapest and Athens provided the squad – which included one player from the Western Australia Institute of Sport and four from the Queensland Academy of Sport – as a success for several reasons.
“There were a few areas we targeted,” said Rippon. “We went away last year and one of the main things was around getting the players some international exposure to see how they handled that. We wanted them to see the difference between stepping up from club to the national.”
“This year we wanted to play different teams that are bigger names in water polo. Last year we played in Serbia and Croatia, who, in women’s water polo, aren’t in the top echelon but they’re still quite strong.
“This time we went to Hungary and Greece because going there provided us with a chance to play different styles of water polo to what the players are familiar with. For instance, Hungary, is a really attacking nation – they’re aggressive in attack through their shooters – something different to what our players are use to.
“Greece is renowned for having excellent shooters. They also have a different style of defence and very strong centre forwards. That meant we got to play against differing tactics, and the different strengths they’d come across, especially internationally should they go on to make the Australian team.
“It was a matter of exposing them to international water polo and different tactics to what they’re used to at home. One purpose of the trip was to help develop their vision of the game: how to attack, how to defend against different teams. And for we coaches that meant it was up to us to work out how to combat what the squad was up against.”
The squad of 15 included NSWIS athletes Olivia Mitchell, Sienna Hearn, Alexie Lambert, Claire Durston, Isobelle Pamp, Lilli Harris, Madissyn Powells, Danijela Jackovich (Training Agreement), with Rippon being joined by Jacki Northam as her Assistant Coach, Daniel Vukovic as physiotherapist, while NSWIS Coordinator, Sports Programs, Jocelyn Burnett was the Team Manager.
The trip, which was Rippon’s initiative, also allowed her and Northam to spend time with such esteemed coaches as Mercedesz Stieber, who mentors BVSC Budapest Vasutas Sports Club, to discuss tactics and swap thoughts on the game.
“Mercedesz was the best player in the world for a number of years,” said Rippon of the former Hungarian international. “The trip was the result of utilising contacts when I was at the world championships in Budapest.
“She came over to say ‘hi’ and said she’d just moved back to Hungary. When we started talking about opportunities Mercedesz told me she was coaching at a club, and I took that as my opportunity to ask – if ever there is a chance – I could take players over. When she said yes, I took that as my opportunity to reach out to players who I played alongside and against; a coach who coached me – everybody!
“That’s how it works when you aren’t necessarily a national team and not looking to play a national team. Nevertheless, I realised this was an opportunity to play against a well-coached team – BVSC- and our squad handled that really well.
“It was really fast and aggressive, so it was a learning curve in the first quarter or two. But I appreciated the girls handled it well because they started to play at the level they needed to. They adapted physically to the game, and tactically, to what they were doing by implementing things that went against what [BVSC] were doing. They developed along the way.
“[BVSC] isn’t the top club in Hungary, but it has a few junior nationals who just won the junior world championships. There are senior national squad members, who, while not necessarily in the Hungarian team, are in the squad. It was a good mix of strong juniors, strong seniors without being the world’s best. It allowed us the chance to play against quality players.
“We wanted a level that helped us, as well as help them. If you play against the best team and get flogged by 20 goals, it’s very hard to learn because you’re just trying to keep the ball. But play in a game that’s competitive and you have a chance to win . . . or, even if you lose . . . it’s a chance to win those battles and play against good opposition and learn from those battles.
“It was still a lot faster to what the players are used to here, but it’s in-between which is good. I was happy with what was a good quality opposition where the games were a two goals difference either way.
“That provided us with the opportunity to implement some things and go against what they were doing, and they picked it up. In the four games we played – and also the set training games with referees – they developed along the way.
“We had a few players step up, and I was impressed by the level they went up to. There were a few players – Alexie Lambert, Sienna Hearn, and Olvia Mitchell (NSWIS), Kasey Dalziel (QAS) and Pippa Peldey (WAIS) – who showed that they’re capable of taking the next step.”
Rippon said Greece presented the players with even more opportunities to learn.
“We played two of their clubs, but instead of playing one team multiple time we played a number of clubs one time,” said Rippon. “It was a different learning . . . we played a couple of boys under 19s and 17s teams – they’re a bit faster, agile, move differently, and you can’t hold – because the game is played differently.
“We adapted to what they were doing, and all in all they played a similar style of game. It meant we needed to be more aware of the passes and what they do differently. It was still learning.
“The advantage of playing multiple clubs one time was it meant we had to adapt in the moment. If we were playing the same opposition in a few games, we’d be able to analyse video but the way it was structured meant we had to adapt within the game. It was all about quickly finding solutions and how to adapt.”
Team manager Jocelyn Burnett said it was pleasing to see how the players ensured they made the most of the experience.
“The trip was so valuable for this group, and they all took great advantage of the opportunity that was given to them,” said Burnett. “Each day and each game came with different challenges for the group, but the athletes stood up to the occasion every day, not letting it slip by.”
Daniel Lane, NSWIS