Weekend 1, Championship 1. Polytechnic has the weight of history behind it; the oldest waterpolo club in history, the most successful waterpolo club in Britain and never out of Division 1 until a few seasons ago, it is fair to say things have been tough for the Poly in recent years. Several seasons in Division 2, one difficult season back in the premier competition and a time of flux, with old players retiring and financial strain taking it´s toll, the Poly faces it´s biggest challenge in many a year. Having finally climbed back into Division 1 and the off-field status of the club as healthy as it has been in years, the hard work has just begun. Preparation for this season has been the most intense and focused in recent memory, with an extra session a week on Thursdays at the Olympic Park, Alberto Lotti flying over from Italy to run an intensive training week of 5 concurrent sessions and Poly´s first ever playbook. Finally, the season is here and this weekend was the first chance to see if the wealth of recent talent influx into the team, combined with the efforts of training have created a team that is serious about competing at this level once more.
Caledonia 11 – 10 Polytechnic
Caledonia were a super 5s team last season; whilst they don´t have specific threats that pose a significant challenge, they are a fit, cohesive and well drilled team that clearly have the ability to punish teams. Coach Gary Simons had done his research and identified the defensive drop from position 2 that Caledonia would subsequently play and Poly set up to use the free attacking player as a passing position, with a rotating drive on the left creating space for the cross pass from position 2 to position 4 followed by a first time shot. Additionally, a second centre-forward turning in from position 5 could provide a second threat from the strong side. Poly started well, with Campbell “Bambi” Gregory scoring the first from 2m on his debut, followed by captain Chris Icely doubling the lead with a nice cross cage off the pass. Defensively, Poly´s tight press and front marking of the centre-forward was proving effective, with resident tinder expert Joan Secanell transferring those skills into a cloying defensive posture at centre-back. With limited options in attack, Caledonia did not post a goal on the scoreboard until 5 mins into the first quarter. Despite a promising start, Poly failed to take control of the game and started closing the space in front of the drop before trying to feed the now overcrowded centre-forwards. Poly had no answer to four goals in succession from Caledonia and found themselves 2-4 down towards the end of quarter 2. Poly were now struggling to assert themselves in attack, either becoming static or failing to test the keeper from the arc. South African International Chris Brown found range twice before the end of the quarter to bring parity at 4-4, but Poly were not looking dangerous offensively.
Poly found themselves surprisingly 2 goals down once again at the start of quarter 3; surprising because Caledonia remained predictable in attack and for the most part, Poly defended well. At times the centre-back was caught too high, trying to front mark with the centre-forward on 5m; some fortunate rebounds later and Poly were again chasing the game. Joan Secanell pulled one back as one of the few players to take the shot on from position 2 when inside 6m, followed by captain Chris Icely and a bullish effort in centre-forward by Jeremy Johnson, rolling the ball over the line by sheer force of will. In the words of Federico Carruci, “it was not pretty”, even drawing a giggle out of Chris Brown. But goals are goals and Poly closed quarter 3 a goal ahead as a result. Unfortunately quarter 4 began to turn in Caledonia’s favor; a goal apiece from Chris and Chris aka Ice Brown and a debut goal for new Italian Giacomo Cupido, or is it Canelloni, or Carbonara? Whatever, it wasn’t enough. The outstanding statistic from the match was Polytechnic 8 exclusions, Caledonia 3. Over the course of a match that statistic alone speaks volumes and ultimately was responsible for this agonizingly narrow defeat. Still, much to be encouraged by and much more to play for.
Cheltenham 10 – 13 Polytechnic
Cheltenham were missing one or two important players and having lost their first game, this was a good weekend to play them. They are however the defending champions and no game is going to be easy in this league. Poly were impressive overall in this game and posed multiple threats from across the pool. Centre-forward, second centre-forward and arc were all dangerous and goals came from all areas. Poly conceded the first goal, but this was the only time they were behind for the entire match. Chris Icely restored parity, shortly followed by Chris Brown, who showed an intense interest in shining the left hand upright for the rest of the match and his game was remarkable for the fact that he only managed to leave the pool with one goal, which was half his number of kick-outs (remember who your Daddy is Chris). Hungarian hero Peter Benedek (no relation) ripped in the first of his brace and marked yet another debut national league goal before the end of quarter 1 and from here Poly took control of the game. Never behind again and stretching into a four goal lead, Poly were far more active, driving through the Cheltenham drop, setting up two centre-forwards and converting from extra-man. Poly kept the pressure on. It was also reassuring that Poly won the defensive contest this game, with 9 exclusions to Cheltenham’s 10.
Cheltenham are not champions for nothing and they clawed the deficit back to two goals, but the game was kept beyond their reach throughout with the Italian contingent raining in goals late on. First a delicious cross pass and first time scorcher from Michele Pappardelle, followed by a screamer from Federico Lasagna. Not to be outdone and keen to build on his three minutes from game 1, Lorenzo Calzone chucked one in at the death to seal a strong victory for the Poly. An assured display, not without errors, but with increased game fitness and a little more cut-throat finishing, this game could have been put away even more emphatically. As coach Gary Simons commented at the end of the game, it is hard to recall a time in many a year since Poly showed such attacking prowess. There are many things to iron out, but overall, this was an encouraging first weekend back in Division 1 and one thing is certainly clear. Poly did not look out of place.
- JEREMY JOHNSON