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Canoe polo requires paddling skills, physical endurance and teamwork. New Zealanders are up to the challenge. Writer Helen Cordery explains how.
Text: Helen Cordery
Country: New Zealand

hen you think of New Zealand, you might first picture rolling green hills dotted with sheep and cows, or postcard-perfect beaches filled with barefoot families holding chilly bins and soggy fish and chip packets.

Maybe you might think of a dense, damp forest, stirred only by the sound of unusual birdcalls, like the tui or kiwi, or the All Blacks, the national rugby team, famous the world over for their sporting prowess and gut-wrenching take on the Maori haka. With all of the amazing things Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand) is known for, it is perhaps no surprise that the sport of canoe polo has taken root there.

Canoe polo, also known as kayak polo, is exactly what its name suggests: polo played using canoes on water. It is also probably not what you might picture when you think about New Zealand.

Its first known incarnation appeared in 1970 after it was demonstrated during the National Canoe Exhibition in London. Later, a National Canoe Polo Committee formed to develop the game further, and today the sport is played in most countries around the globe. Described as a cross between basketball, water polo and kayaking, the sport is fast and extremely physical, with the canoes providing an extra level of difficulty as players fight to take possession of the ball and get it to the goal.

The sport is rapidly gaining popularity in New Zealand, currently ranked first in the world thanks to the Paddle Ferns, the national women’s team who recently took the top honours at the World Championships in Italy in 2016. The men’s team, known as the Paddle Blacks (team names continuing the kiwiana naming trend put forth by the All Blacks and Silver Ferns), are currently ranked seventh worldwide, and both teams are heading to the World Championships in Canada in 2018.

Sport-loving New Zealanders have taken to the sport like ducks to water.

“What I like about canoe polo is that it’s a fast and exciting game, and you are exhausted by the end of it,” Lisa Darragh, a former competitive canoe polo player, states. “It requires a lot of skill to play: you must know how to paddle a kayak, throw and catch a ball, cope with the aggressive tackles you will receive, and roll the kayak back up without releasing the ball”.

Like so many other Kiwis, Lisa seeks adventure (this is the nation that birthed bungee jumping after all). She got her first taste of the sport while at university in Auckland. “I was in the university Canoe Club, which was actually a white water kayaking club, and we regularly travelled around New Zealand visiting and paddling rivers such as the Kaituna in Rotorua, the Wairoa and Rangataiki. My first taste of canoe polo was at a University Games competition. Canoe polo then was relatively unknown, but not as unusual as the underwater hockey which also competed at these games. I have stayed involved with canoe polo since then, competing at the interregional level and even once at an international competition.”

A game has two teams of five players and two referees, who monitor the ‘pitch’, a space usually marked by floating ropes. A game lasts for 14-20 minutes, separated into two 7-10 minute sections, with a 1-3 minute half time period after which the teams change sides. Each half begins with the ‘sprint’ where each team lines up in front of their goal and then races forward to gain possession of the ball, thrown into the water by the referee. The aim is to score a goal by moving the ball, either by hand or paddle between the players, to the other end of the pitch between the goal posts which hang 2metres above the water. This is a contact sport, where tactics and teamwork are as important as fitness, which welcomes anyone able to paddle a kayak.

“The rules and tactics are similar to basketball (if you can imagine basketball in a boat on water) and it is similarly fun to watch. It is also a game for all body types. Bigger, stronger people usually play more defensive roles and lighter people are faster on attack, Lisa explains.

Lisa advises anyone intrigued by the idea of canoe polo to have a look at some videos online, particularly to get a better idea of how the canoes fit and move inside the pool. It is a competitive sport and games are frenetic, so body and face protection must be worn at all times. There are also other measures to ensure both player safety and smoother play time, including buoyancy aides (inch-thick foam that protects the torso on all sides), and the kayak is filled with foam to prevent injury as well as having a spray deck attached to prevent water entering the cockpit. The canoes are also specially built for the sport, having better manoeuvrability than a normal kayak, which are heavier and bigger, while the paddles have a rounded design to prevent injury.

Lisa recalls one of the events she attended, where a player was knocked unconscious after a head-on collision with an opponent while trying to take possession of the ball during the sprint. Both players were fine, and Lisa played in the following game. She says serious injuries were fairly uncommon.

Today, bodies such as the New Zealand Canoe Polo Association are encouraging the sport across the country. This is the national branch of the Worldwide Canoe Federation, which is committed to developing the pursuit of canoeing in its various forms, including canoe polo. It promotes the sport in schools nationwide, and sets up events and training courses, something which has been particularly embraced in the central region.

“Canoe polo is not rugby, so it doesn’t command much screen time,” Lisa concedes, “but the sport is really popular in the Hawkes Bay, where they have an extremely large school-age-based competition. In fact, when the kids from Hawkes Bay grow up and go off to university, they usually contribute to the teams in other regions.

How To Play

Canoe polo can be played in a pool or any uninterrupted expanse of water big enough for the 10 players to manoeuvre and to erect two elevated goal nets. Two referees monitor the game from the sides. Teams need one ball (specifically a water polo ball, available in various sizes), buoyancy aid (to prevent injury), helmets and face guards for each player, paddles, kayaks (specifically a canoe polo kayak), spray deck (attached to prevent water filling up the cockpit), two goals (each 1 meter high and 1.5 meters wide) attached to a 2-meter high frame. There are various offensive and defensive moves; have a look at a canoe polo website for detailed information.


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Canoe polo is a sport that is quite popular in New Zealand. It is also known as kayak polo and you play it like polo but with canoes in the water. Some people describe it as a cross between basketball, water polo, and kayaking. The sport is fast and extremely physical and the canoes make it even more difficult.

The national women’s team is the Paddle Ferns and they won first place at the World Championships in Italy in 2016. The national men’s team is called the Paddle Blacks. The names of the teams represent iconic Kiwi elements.

A game has two teams of five players and two referees. The space where the teams play is called the ‘pitch‘ and it is marked by floating ropes. At each end of the pitch, goal posts hang 2 metres above the water. The aim of the game is to score a goal by moving the ball between the players, by hand or paddle, to the other end of the pitch and between the goal posts.

Lisa Darragh, a former competitive canoe polo player, says the rules and tactics are similar to basketball and the game is really fun to watch. It is a game for all body types, but you must have a lot of skill to play. She suggests that the best way to understand the game is to watch some videos online.



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