By Anastasia Prikhodko
The popular and competitive sport, underwater rugby is making a splash. Although it has been around in Australia for less than five years, the first major Australian Underwater Rugby Nationals tournament has provokes interest.
The tournament will be held at the Australian International Scuba and Underwater Sports Expo (ODEX) at the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre in September to promote and acknowledge water sports.
Originating in Germany in the 1960s, the sport was dreamed up by free divers, as they needed a fun alternative to swimming laps of the pool in winter. The game took off in Scandinavian countries, as well as Chile and Columbia.
Although the name suggests a similarity with traditional rugby, the only common aspect is that both are full-contact sports. Underwater rugby is more like water polo.
“The game is played at the bottom of the pool, with a small weighted soccer ball, flippers, a mask and snorkeling gear,” says Ben Harris, the coach of the University of NSW team.
“There are six people in the water and six substitutes out of the water; there is one basket on each side of the pool for scoring.”
Training consists of practising to hold one’s breath underwater, aerobic fitness, ball and communication skills.
“Communication skills is a big one. Since you can’t talk underwater, you have to be extremely aware and focused,” Ben says.
Most sports attract spectatorship but watching underwater rugby is rather difficult. However, for the big games an underwater camera is used and the action is projected onto a screen. The games at the ODEX Convention will be filmed.
“Usually if people want to watch, they can jump into the pool,” Ben says. It is a 20-minute game, with 10-minute halves. Players are allowed to come up for breath but without the ball.
“The idea of holding your breath is intimidating for many new players, so being comfortable in the water is definitely a plus.
“The constant fear of ‘I am underwater, I need to get to the surface’ can cause black-outs, but fortunately my team hasn’t experienced any,” Ben Harris says.
Bobby Chen, the president of Australian Underwater Rugby, says, “It was only in 2012 that underwater rugby became officially recognised as a sport by the Underwater Federation.”
He is the main contact between the sport and The Australian Underwater Federation (AUF). He has been playing the game for three years, and says it is his main passion and hobby.
“I have always enjoyed team sports, and since you cannot talk, you have to be hyper aware. It is also different and more demanding than all the other sports I have played,” he says.
The University of NSW team is the first and biggest underwater rugby team in Australia, with around 30 players. “Our team is mixed, and age doesn’t matter, we have players aged 14 through to late 40s,” says Ben.
During a game, the referee wears a scuba diving suit and is also at the bottom of the pool. Instead of a whistle, he has two metal sticks that he bangs together if there is a penalty.
Although this sport doesn’t have many restrictions, there are a few rules – no pulling of swimwear, no taking the ball out of the water, and no holding on to the goal.
“We are going to try to organise a sort of league between the Australian cities,” says Bobby Chen. This is the second year ODEX will be held in Sydney, and also the second year underwater rugby.
The expo will run a national competition between Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Hobart. A team from Columbia is also planning to attend.
As in other sports, there is a competitive streak between Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand currently holds the 2009 Trans- Tasman Cup; the competition will be held again at ODEX.
The sport has been played in New Zealand since 2008 and there are currently only two underwater rugby teams there.
“The New Zealand team will be competing in an international tournament at ODEX. We will be sending 12 players to represent New Zealand. Then we have our own national competition next year,” says Joerg Bungert, the founder and coach of the New Zealand team based in Wellington. He has played the sport for many years in Germany.