Colonel’s Men Go Fishing In Busted Deep-Fryer Derby (Woodchopper Gets Scaled As Spaniard Spends Chilly Night Feeding Skipper)
Queensland Breakers v Brisbane Barracudas, National Water Polo League, Round 11; Valley Pool; 3/5/2014
“He’s on fire for the rest of the night, to the point of it becoming near impossible to drag your eyes away, and one begins to imagine that it’s infinitely hard to look anything but good dancing in a chicken suit.”
Report by Scott Gittoes
It’s just after 8pm and the good burghers of Brisbane hardly know what’s hit them. A premature winter has descended without so much as an introduction; one can almost taste southern Australia’s virgin snowfalls in the carnivorous sou’westerly wind. On an evening when most are dusting off their heaters and fireplaces and otherwise doing everything humanly possible to keep warm and bone dry, we’re at the Valley Pool with four hundred or so other spectators for a bit of water-sport, namely, the National Water Polo League’s final round game between the Queensland Breakers and the Brisbane Barracudas. For the Breakers it’s a must-win, their finals prospects teetering on the outcome of this and other fixtures. The Barracudas, on the other hand, have barely dropped a game all year. Tonight though, in the context of a local derby, such mathematical calculations are merely academic; territorial bragging rights are the real bounty.
The pool itself is obscured from street-view behind a near century-old three story red brick façade signed in large lettering “Municipal Swimming Bath”. From outside one imagines moustachioed men in striped cotton one-piece bathing costumes frolicking in the shallows and springing from the high-board. In reality, a modern, Olympic-sized swimming pool lies beyond, shadowed along its southern length by a grandstand that meets the façade for height and has the effect of reducing the pool’s size and forming, in a word, a ‘cauldron’. (The KFC sponsored Breakers, who are at pains to give their fast-food benefactor utmost coverage – even going as far as to remodel their logo this season from a breaking wave to a rooster – colloquially refer to this, their home venue, as “the Deep Fryer”, rather apt were the mercury not falling toward single digits this evening). Ten or so metres from each end, the pool is bisected crossways by lane-ropes connected to a netted goal, ensuring the ‘playing field’ is centred for ideal viewing.
On the palm tree lined grassy verge opposite the stand a couple of preppy-dressed ‘disc-jockeys’ are reeling off samples from near every infectious, atmospheric chart-topping track released since charts first started to be topped. The Breakers’ rooster-suited mascot is pacing the pool and at first appears somewhat uncomfortable, even shy, in his new skin, but as the contagious music and perhaps a few cans’ of Bundaberg’s finest kick in, the crowd is treated to a dance routine right out of the vintage Travolta textbook. He’s on fire for the rest of the night, to the point of it becoming near impossible to drag your eyes away, and one begins to imagine that it’s infinitely hard to look anything but good dancing in a chicken suit. The jiving cock is shadowed at all times by a younger, fresher version of Colonel Sanders replete with pony-tail and sneakers, whose crowd-pleasing go-to is to cast a fishing rod into the pool at the breaks and stamp on cardboard cut outs of Barracuda fish. Three or four small, colourful onesie-wearing Barracudas’ supporters are full of beans, perhaps ‘magic’ beans judging by their relentless hyperactivity and proclivity to mob their players before and after the game (it must be said that none of their outfits in any way resemble the predatory fish).
Nearby, players have commenced a land-based warm up with an almost single-minded focus on their throwing arms. Some yank on elastic bands tied to trees or posts or else stretch against fences, others toss polo balls between themselves; at all times the emphasis remains on the operative muscles of just one upper limb. Once in the water, they move with that graceful effortlessness universal among proficient swimmers; you know the ones – all but born with gills and fins who’ve thus spent a great deal of time immersed. But unlike elite, competitive swimmers, who challenge calliper-wielding sports scientists to find but an ounce of body fat on their lean, shaven bodies, water polo players are not all clean-cut frames and corrugated abdominals; some are just plain big, burly, barrel-chested, fur-coated men carrying a little extra weight around the middle, recalling images of diesel-fitters and lumberjacks. Most of them, invariably well over six feet in height, are not so much fast but strong in the water and for good reason; the rulebook is filled with minutiae on fouls of brutality and the match oft-cited as the most famous in history is simply known as “Blood in the Water”. Water polo is quite obviously a physical contest, equal parts physical endurance and sheer physicality. To describe it as ‘water rugby’ is doubtless a crude comparison, but there’s some truth in it, not least reflected in the fashions and dispositions of this evening’s crowd.
The best example of the classic diesel-fitter look tonight is the Barracudas’ number five, their centre-forward. He contrasts sharply with their captain, a golden locked, pin-up with beady, ref-imploring eyes. In the opening exchanges, they appear to form an ominous partnership, complemented by an ever reliable veteran who’s played at least a couple of hundred league games. Evidently, the Breakers have done their homework and make a habit of frustrating these key playmakers. Their centre-forward captain and wily, uncharacteristically short number ten are chief among the protagonists, engaging in what becomes a match-long and increasingly embittered battle with the diesel-fitter. Their encounters often culminate in a boil-up of white-water, one of the combatants hooked like a big-game fish, body almost entirely out of the water, flailing and thrashing.
To an uninitiated correspondent, knowing what is and isn’t legal is pure guesswork, but with a rulebook that lists over forty types of fouls split into three sub-categories, I’m almost certain many sins go unpunished. In fact, it’s an obvious but almost entirely unique aspect of this sport that spectators, and referees for that matter, simply cannot see the crimes that are being committed under the water. Consequently, the following seems both inevitable and true: (a) a player is nothing without a good measure of rat-cunning to go with his requisite endurance and strength; (b) referees need to regularly make judgment calls; (c) further to (b), referee satisfaction rates – be it among players, coaches or spectators – must rank as the lowest of any sport, period; and (d) further again to (b), out-and-out dissent towards referees (and tolerance by referees thereof) – be it by players, coaches or spectators – must rank among the highest of any sport, period. Tonight, as the contest becomes increasingly hostile, at the sound of the whistle not one, not two but most players look to the referee with guilty eyes, some with palms up in a vain attempt to protest their underwater innocence. Which is frankly almost always doubtful.
A couple of exclusion fouls called on the Barracudas’ captain in the first quarter prompt both he and his coach to share their disagreement with the referee; the coach receives a yellow card and it seems their understanding of human behaviour is either poor or, more likely, clouded by the emotional heat of the contest. Between these early verbal stoushes and some vocal Barracudas’ supporters who aren’t afraid to call the officials out by name, to an impartial viewer it appears unlikely that this referee will give any favours to the Barracudas on the frequent fifty-fifty judgment calls that inherently form part of this sport.
The Breakers are too busy netting goals to get on the wrong side of the officials, their captain in centre-forward and their star Spanish import putting on a deft display of skill, the Spaniard repeatedly setting-up the former, whose own speed, aggression and vision opens space for multiple scores. But perhaps the difference tonight is the Breakers’ goalkeeper, who leaves this correspondent with no doubt as to why he’s a triple Olympian. Despite somewhat of a second half comeback by the visitors, the Breakers’ continue with enough niggle and drive to close it out, the Barracudas seemingly the victims of their own frustrations.
Match Day Burger Rating: 6/10
MDB Service Atmosphere: 7/10
MDB Cost: $6
Match Result: Queensland Breakers 11 def. Brisbane Barracudas 7
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