Reprinted with permission from Australian Swimming & Fitness
Water polo is played by two teams of 13 players, seven of whom are in the water at any one time. There are six reserves who can be interchanged at any time during the game. In real time the interchanging players must swim to the team bench corner of the pool and “tag” the incoming player. If a goal has been scored, or after a quarter or a time-out, there is no prescribed way of entering the water.
The game is played in a 30m x 20m pool for men and 25m x 17m pool for women. Quarters are of seven minutes’ actual time duration. Each time the whistle sounds, the clock is stopped. It then restarts when the ball is put back into play. The game is won by the team that scores most goals by placing the ball 100% past the front of the goal posts.
There are two parts to the game – live time and dead time. Live time is when the clock is running and dead time is when it isn’t. To foul a person (in a minor way) in live time earns a free throw to the opponent. To foul (in a major way) in dead time, earns a 20-second expulsion from the game.
There is almost as much dead time in a game as there is live time (games go for about an hour). The essence of water polo is to get an opponent ejected (major foul) from the pool for 20 seconds. This is the “extra-player situation.” By having one extra player in the pool the chances of scoring are increased.
If a player is ejected three times, he or she cannot take any more part in the game. Other major fouls include striking, disrespect and forcing a penalty shot to be taken. If a person causes the latter he or she does not leave the water but remains in the pool and has a major foul recorded.
Disrespect earns expulsion for the match with a replacement but brutality (striking) earns expulsion without replacement, forcing a team to play a person down.
Minor fouls are what stop the clock a lot. These are mostly intentional but sometimes unintentional. They allow an opponent to take a quick free throw.
Players can shoot from anywhere inside the playing area but they cannot handle the ball with two hands or stand on the bottom of the pool. The goalkeeper can do both. The only time a player can shoot a free throw is from outside the 7m line.
In the event of a draw in a play-off match of the World Swimming Championships, the match will go into extra time of two periods of three minutes. If no result occurs, periods of three minutes are played until the first goal is scored and that team declared the victor. In preliminary play, draws are common.
The sport is the most physically demanding of all team games, requiring top performers to cover up to 3km in the pool during the one hour it takes to complete a game. This exertion is quite apart from the physical contact, both above and below the surface of the water that players must endure.
Despite this, the sport is almost totally devoid of injury from personal contact and generally speaking is played in the spirit demanded by the stringent rules. While the general public view water polo as a tough sport, this is not generally the case in top-class play. However, water polo players do command a respect reserved for few other athletes. The typical player is tall, well built, powerful and possessed of outstanding endurance, mainly because of the swimming in each match.