Australia’s Blood in the Water – Happy Australia Day!

I took young Australians to the world championships in 1993 Egypt (8th place), 1995 France (4th), 1997 Cuba (4th) and 1999 Kuwait where Australia won Silver medals. Those were the nation’s best results for junior or senior men to date.

For me, not only every event but every match is memorable. Each represented a new milestone for Australian Water Polo and for me personally. The Nation’s reputation and standing as a world’s powerhouse was gradually built through quality water polo the teams were displaying and results achieved.

For Australia, it was a tremendous coup to reach the semi-final in Dankerque in 1995. Unfortunately, Ryan Moar’s shot missed a sure goal-scoring opportunity and we missed on the Bronze medals in the match against Slovakia 11:12. Ryan played well at that tournament though as did most other Australians.

The 1995 success was repeated in Havana in 1997 where we again came close to making top two in the semi-final with Croatia 2:4 and to the Bronze medals in the match against Greece 8:9. Personally, I felt that in those games some external influences were at play against us.

I am planning to speak about those world championships in detail, as we would not have had the Kuwait success without those achievements. Today I am sharing my recollection of the 1999 campaign.

“We must make top 8!”

In Kuwait, Romania was powerful and had several future senior team members. Cosmin Radu, who is currently one of the top centre-forwards in the world, Kalman Kadar, Matei Alexandru, Andrei Busila are in their current senior squad.

When we beat them, 11:8, I could breathe easier as that result insured our top 8 position.

Goal scoring does not necessarily give a full picture of a player’s perfromance and contribution but here it is: Christian Hoad-2, Trent Franklin-1, Peter Tresise-3, Adam Richardson-1, Thomas Whalan-3

“Discipline can beat class!”

We had Hungary in our preliminary group. Anyone, who understands water polo, knows that Hungary is one of the best water polo nursaries in the world and its teams are considered as a benchmark. To beat a Hungarian team is an achievement in itself for any team and coach. Only few teams can boast beating Hungary at world championships or Olympic games. In Kuwait, among other strong players, they had future senior level world championships’ medallists and Olympic champions, Marton Szivos, Norbert Madaras and Adam Steinmetz, to name a few. The win against them would have given us an easier opponent in a quarter-final.

When the match started, it became clear that the opponents’ game-plan was to intimidate us and target our leading players. In the 3rd minute of the 1st quarter a Hungarian player, Ferenc Vindisch, grabbed our captain Dean Semmens’s head and forcefully pulled it down towards his knee. Upon the impact, a huge wound opened in Dean’s forehead. The cut was so large and deep that blood was gushing from it.

I do not know how it looked in 1956 in Melbourne (read the previous post “Blood in the water”) but in 1999 in Kuwait there was plenty of blood. That was one of the most vicious acts of violence and brutality that I’ve seen in water polo.

Under normal circumstances, with such an injury, Dean should have been taken to hospital. But he was our most experienced player and we needed him in that match even more now because of his shooting prowess since we had permanent extra-man. I asked our doctor, Michael Ryan, to do whatever he could to get him back in the game as soon as possible.

As the match went on, to public and officials’ amazement, Michael, assisted by a physiotherapist, Cheryl Grossman, operated on Dean on the pool side. 12 stitches were inserted. Somehow they sealed the wound to make it water-proof and by the middle of the 3rd quarter Dean was playing again. When I looked at his sewed forehead after the game, it looked awful.

The player, who committed that act, absolutely unprovoked, would have gotten away with the “murder”, were it not for the referee, Aleksandr Galkin, who had the courage to call brutality in a big match and excluded the culprit for the reminder of the game without replacement.

I have seen matches in which the teams, who had a numerical advantage, have lost. Often, it happens because referees are becoming lenient towards the other team evening up matches by making unwarranted calls. In that case, to his credit, the ref continued to officiate correctly.

During the remainder of the match, our opponents acted in a provocative manner both in the water and on the pool side. Their coach, Ferenc Kemeny, was “red carded”. None of our players had experienced such circumstances before but we managed to bring the game to a logical end due to the highest degree of playing discipline that distingushed the team. For the first time in history Australia beat Hungary at a world championship 12:7.

Australia’s goals: Christian Hoad-2, Trent Franklin-1, Nicholas Falzon-1, Dean Semmens-1, Peter Tresise-1, Tim Neesham-1, Thomas Whalan-5

“We are making top 4!”

That result set up a quarter-final match against Canada rather than Yugoslavia.Some future Canadian stars were in that team: Robin Randall, Vladimir Cosic, Nathaniel Miller and Thomas Marks, to name a few. But having beaten the North Americans 10:5, we still had to play Yugoslavia who, in turn, beat Hungary 7:6 to make top 4.

Australia’s goals against Canada: Christian Hoad-1, Dean Semmens-2, Peter Tresise-1, Tim Neesham-2, Adam Richardson-2, Thomas Whalan-2

“Yugoslavia is also beatable!”

In terms of its standing, Yugoslavia’s water polo has always been on a par with that of Hungary and the USSR. They were the European champion at the time and had the players who subsequently defended the colours of the Yugoslav and, after cessation, Montenegro and Serbia’s, senior teams. Future captain of Montenegro’s senior team, Nicola Janovic, was there. It was Australia’s 2nd big-time victory over Yugoslavia. The first had been at the world championship in Cuba in 1997 where we beat them 4:3 to make top 4.

The Kuwait match was one of those that I am most proud of in my coaching career. As is always the case with the Balkan teams, they had powerful centre-forwards, lethal shooters and clinical overall skills. However, those traits were completely neutralized because of our players’ perfect implementation of the game plan. The Australians’ collective actions in defence were so well synchronised that the opponents could not unlock it for 3 quarters.

In attack, the shot quality insured that almost each resulted in a goal. The Yugoslav coach, Milorad Krivokapic, himself a former goalkeeper (we played against each other in the final of the Moscow Olympic games), replaced his keepers twice. He changed a starting goalie in the second quarter and then returned him back in the fourth as the other was not much of a help either. At some stages we were leading 7:3 and 9:4 and won the important match 10:9.

Australia’s goals: Trent Franklin-2, Dean Semmens-2, Peter Tresise-1, Tim Neesham-3,Thomas Whalan-3, Gavin Aubrey-1

That result was important as it allowed us to play Slovakia in the semi-final rather than eventual champion Italy.

“We can make top 2!”

Slovakian senior and junior men’s water polo was at its peak in the 90s – early 2000s. In Kuwait, they had one of the tournament’s most dangerous shooters, Josef Hrosik, who scored 2 goals in our match. For us, it turned out to be a difficult game; we were 1 goal down at half-time and the main time finished in a draw 5:5.

At the time, the “sudden death goal” rule was in force. A third additional quarter started with a Slovak swim up sprinter being allowed a handicap of, at least, half a meter. They got the ball and in 15 seconds were awarded a 6 on 5 man-up advantage. The Australians survived that attack in the water and a heart-attack on the bench.

Subsequently, we had at least three 100% goal-scoring counter-attack opportunities. Tim Neesham’s – twice – and Adam Richardson’s shots missed the target. Eventually, we also received an extra-man opportunity. I called a time-out. As I was speaking to the players, I knew it was going to be our last chance.

During that extra-man play, Thomas Whalan, who had already scored 3 goals, made it look absolutely natural that he was going to shoot thus committing the goalkeeper and defenders before delivering a comfortable pass to Nicholas Falzon who was closer to the goals. The latter’s off-the-hand shot was irresistible. We won 6:5 to become a world championships’ finalist for the first time in the nation’s history!

Nicholas was one of the most conscientious persons I have ever coached. It is a pity he is not much involved in water polo nowadays due to his work and family commitments. Because of his integrity, excellent communication skills, pleasant personality and knowledge he would have made a perfect official. Water polo needs people like Nicholas. He is currently a partner at a prominent accounting firm “Lawler Partners” and has two beautiful daughters with his wife, Rowena.

Australia’s goals: Trent Franklin-1, Nicholas Falzon-1, Tim Neesham-1, Thomas Whalan-3

“Let’s win the world championships!”

Yugoslavia lost to Italy in the semi-final 4:7. So we faced the latter in the final.

To this day I am blaming myself for waxing-lyrical during the game-plan meeting deviating from the “business as usual” approach. May be that made the team a bit softer and prevented us from lifting the crown. Perhaps, another reason was an excessive fatigue factor due to the extra 2,5 periods that the team had to play in the semi-final. I am not using these as excuses though.

Australia was in the game throughout entire match. With 1 minute 56 seconds to go in the match, with the score 6:6, the Italians received an extra-man opportunity. They converted it 18 seconds later. We received our chance with 1 minute 13 seconds to go, when an Italian player was excluded for 20 seconds, but failed to take advantage of it. Maurizio Felugo, who became world champion on a senior level last July, scored his only goal in that match to seal their win 8:6

I refer to the previous post – “Squadra Azzura – World Champion!” -in which I provide more details on the Italian team’s background and the Kuwait-99 match.

Australia’s goals: Tren Franklin-1, Dean Semmens-1, Peter Tresise-1, Thomas Whalan-1, Gavin Aubrey-1

Yugoslavia won Bronze by beating Slovakia 10:8.

I coached many teams – club and National – with whom we achieved phenomenal results given their status domestically or internationally at a particular point in time. Each had their strengths and weaknesses. In Kuwait, we climbed a couple of steps higher to become one of the best in the World!

Thank you Tim Neesham, Laurie Trettel, Thomas Whalan (VC), Cheryl Grossman (Physiotherapist), Michael Ryan (Doctor), Peter Tresise, Toby Jenkins, Gavin Aubrey, Trent Franklin, Adam Richardson, Richard Whalan (Manager), Dean Semmens (C), Nick Falzon, Fabio Pavanello, John Neesham, Christian Hoad, John Thompson (Reserve) and Harry Miller (Reserve), who was with me between 2AM and 4AM every morning helping to prepare for the next day!

You did this country proud! Happy Australia Day!

About Erkin Эркин Shagaev Шагаев
European, world, Olympic champion, two times World Cup winner Чемпион Европы, мира, Олимпийских игр, двукратный обладатель Кубка мира

7 Responses to Australia’s Blood in the Water – Happy Australia Day!

  1. Jenny Henderson says:

    Hello Erkin

    I really enjoyed reading this detailed account of that match. I am having lunch with a friend in a couple of weeks and she works for Lawler Partners here in Sydney! She may know Nicholas.


  2. Karen Aubrey says:

    Hello Erkin

    I agree – They did this country proud!!! Thank you for your special insight that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It brought back some precious memories of my nephews achievements – and of course the teams!!

    Karen Aubrey

  3. christian says:

    Hi Erkin, Thanks for this i enjoyed reading it. And thank you for helping me be a silver medal winner at a world champs and doing it with my best friends. I hope your well


    Christian Hoad

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