Any doubts that water polo is a sustainable sport at school should be dispelled by a visit to Port Elizabeth early in December* when 110 teams and about 2 000 players, coaches and officials converge to compete in the annual inter-provincial (IPT) schools championship.
To place this in perspective: in comparison, only 18 teams and just over 400 players participate in the annual Craven Week rugby tournament.
The South African schools IPT is currently one of the biggest of its kind in the world, with eight regions, plus an invitational side from Zimbabwe, competing each year.
The biggest water polo teams will come from the Western Province (WP) and Central Gauteng, who usually send 260 players each — 130 boys and 130 girls. “KwaZulu Natal also has a significant number of players, they play quite a bit in the Eastern Cape schools and in the George areas … it is played in schools all over the country, although the Free State is a bit quiet,” says Cullum Johnston, responsible for athlete development for Schools Water Polo South Africa (SWPSA).
WP has very much dominated the IPT medals tables over the past two years, with a WP team in the finals of all ten age groups — 5 boys and 5 girls. They had also won 7 gold medals, 2 to 3 silvers and bronze each year.
“In 2016 a WP A team played against a WP B team in the final of one age group,” says Johnston, who is also chairman of WP Schools Water Polo (WPSWP).
Central Gauteng schools also send a strong team that last year also won medals in all ten age groups: 2 gold, 7 silver and a bronze.
There are 52 schools that participate in the WP schools league, says Johnston, and they represent an estimated 2 500 to 3 000 active water polo players.
“In some schools water polo is one of the major sporting codes for summer,” says Johnston. The number of players will vary from school to school, with the traditional sport schools like Bishops, Rondebosch and SACS as many as 3-5 teams in the senior age groups, while other schools may only have 1 or 2 teams.
“What is unique to the WP is that we start at prep school level, and there is therefore a wider spread of U13 players in the WP than, for example, in Gauteng,” says Johnston.
Another reason why water polo is so popular at some schools is that it is the one team sport where boys and girls can compete in equal numbers. While cricket, rugby and soccer are usually dominated by boys, and mainly girls play netball, both genders are equally well represented in water polo.
Parents like the sport because matches are short and exciting to watch. They can go and watch their child playing and be in and out within an hour.
In addition, it is a healthy activity that develops muscles and teaches children a very important life skill, namely swimming.
Equipment and clothing needed
Schools can choose the water polo ball they wish to play with from the many balls on offer like Conti (from Opal Sport), Molten, Spalding, which is the ITP sponsor, Mikasa (the official international ball) and many others.
Contrary to what many people believe water polo is not a cheap sport for participants. The specialist water polo caps and two swimming costumes, which are worn on top of each other, cost considerably more than the swimming counterparts, because they require very specific features. Two costumes are essential, because the top one is often used as a weapon to restrain an opponent, explains Johnston. Each team member will also need the school’s tracksuit and any other prescribed gear.
The most popular local water polo apparel brand is currently being sold directly to schools and other teams — which could present an opportunity for a local distributor who wants to import a brand for the retail market.
Apart from the inter-provincials, there are various other tournaments throughout the year where schools compete against each other.
Some of the key events are the Edwardian Cup inter-schools tournament organised by King Edward High (KES) in March, the St Stithians event in September-October, but there are various others. Next year there will be a Super 6 Tournament planned in Gauteng as well as a Junior Warriors Aquatic Festival organised by Reddam to open their new indoor aquatic centre in February 2019.
Not all schools will, however, compete in all these tournaments. Some schools would be the champions in a specific age group — for example, Rondebosch has the best U19 boys team and Reddam and Pearson will top the girls rankings in this age group based on tournament performances, says Johnston.
A website publishes the weekly rankings of the top 40 boys and 30 girls schools based on a weighted average ranking system. At the end of October they calculated that Clifton, Rondebosch, St John’s College, St Stithians and SACS were the top 5 boys’ water polo schools. The top 5 girls’ schools were Pearson, St Stithians, Reddam, Durban GC and Herschel.
It is noticeable that there are plenty of saints names in the list of top water polo playing schools — which would pretty much represent the top schools in any other sport. There is a very obvious reason why water polo is concentrated in the more affluent former Model C or private schools: you need a pool that is deep enough so that the players have to tread water and cannot simply stand and throw a ball at each other in the shallow end.
“It will cost a school about R2-m to build a suitable pool and then the headaches only start, because maintenance and cleaning is also expensive,” Johnston points out.
Schools in disadvantaged communities with a dire need for learning essentials and other facilities, cannot justify spending so much on a pool used exclusively for water polo. “If the school had the money, it would rather put in an astro turf that can be used for soccer and hockey and requires less upkeep.”
Gauteng spends a lot of time and effort on a development initiative whereby players from disadvantaged communities are transported to more affluent schools with the proper facilities. They have also selected a specific development team.
In the Western Cape the drought scuppered a program whereby municipal pools were used for water polo training … until the water crisis resulted in the closure of these pools.
“Development is an ongoing challenge,” says Johnston. “When you look at the logistics and costs to transport kids from one area to another, it becomes a huge challenge with the costs completely out of kilter. The kids also get home very late and then still have to do their homework. But, it is a challenge we are working on.”
History of schools water polo
Many people may find it strange that a team sport played with an inflatable ball is run by Swimming South Africa.
But, interestingly, the first unofficial water polo matches were played as an add-on after inter-schools swimming galas around the middle of the previous century. It was not encouraged, because the swimming coaches believed it would affect their swim strokes.
Early in the 1970s more formal water polo leagues were proposed, inter alia in the Western Province — and Zimbabwe suggested an inter-provincial tournament.
But, it was only in 1974 that the first inter-provincial tournament for U19 boys was held, albeit with only five regions plus (then) Rhodesia participating.
In the beginning Rhodesia white-washed the tournament, but around the 1980’s Natal usually won the tournament — occassionally dethroned by Transvaal.
Gradual changes occurred in the competition as more regions joined and others dropped out, until the inter-provincial tournament in the current format with five age groups (from U13 to U19) for boys and girls was born in the late 1990’s and early 2000s.
A national schools team is also selected after the inter-provincials, which has done us proud in some international competitions, notably against Australian and New Zealand teams.
* This year’s SA Schools Water Polo Tournament takes place 13-17 December.