The Advantage Principle Revisited

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet
02/01/15

Over the past two or so years FINA has implemented a number of fundamental rule changes aimed at creating and protecting movement, making the game more dynamic and fluid, with more drives and movement in the front court. All these changes are aimed at improving both the players’ and the audience’s experience; ultimately the goal is to increase the popularity of the sport.

Since then, the FINA TWPC has issued a number of additional revisions, along with interpretations to clarify the intent of the new rules. Most importantly (and rather uncharacteristically), for the first time it actually asked for inputs from the water polo community at large, and also from experts from different sports and fields. During Cancun and Dubai a veritable “Who’s Who” of water polo and other personalities put forth many proposals on ways that the game could be improved.

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One of the rules which has been completely reworded as part of the major revisions launched in 2013 is WP7.3, commonly referred to as the Advantage Principle. Although technically not a rule itself, WP7.3 establishes the framework for the application of the other rules:

WP 7.3 The referees shall have discretion to award (or not award) any ordinary, exclusion or penalty foul, depending on whether the decision would advantage the attacking team. They shall officiate in favour of the attacking team by awarding of a foul or refraining from awarding a foul if, in their opinion, awarding the foul would be an advantage to the offending player’s team.

 

[Note. The referees shall apply this principle to the fullest extent.]

 

The new wording of WP7.3 above is significant for two reasons: Firstly, it brought needed clarity by stating referees shall officiate in favor of the attacking team. While the old wording hinted at that notion but made optional, the new language leaves no doubt of what is expected of referees.

Secondly, the TWPC seems to have made a conscious effort to make the wording of WP7.3 the same in all the languages of the participating nations. The old wording was woefully inadequate in that regard, to the point that no two translations read the same. This version eliminates that issue almost entirely.

However, with all the other rule changes, both already enacted and proposed, and with people like Coach Dettamanti rewriting the playbook in an effort to restore movement and driving to the game, one has to wonder: is the Advantage Principle still needed, or is it time to replace it with something else?

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The principle of offensive advantage is not unique to water polo; practically every team sport has some version of it. Although not necessarily as concise, precise and to the point as the new wording of WP7.3, the principle of advantage seems to be the same, that is: the team in possession has the advantage, and referees must both recognize and protect it.

In the case of water polo, historically this has been interpreted as follows: if a minor foul was committed away from the ball it was to be ignored. If a major foul was committed away from the ball, the referee had to assess whether the foul presents an advantage for the defense, in which case it was to be ignored. If a defensive foul occurred at the location of the ball the referee was to withhold the whistle as long as the ball was still playable, particularly at center. This last part was motivated by the TWPC’s express desire to see more “natural” goals at center. And if a foul occurred during a change of possession in the back court, behind the line of the ball, it was to be ignored because it clearly didn’t affect the play. (Brutality was excepted in all cases cited, of course).

Although on the surface this made sense, there were unintended consequences which some blame for the present state of the game. To begin with, while holding on the perimeter away from the ball did affect play at the point of the ball, it did prevent the attacking team from driving and developing movement in the front court. As a result, the most commonly available play option was an entry pass to the center, in the hope of an exclusion. Secondly, it was expected that the attacker was to make an effort to continue playing despite the foul, particularly at center. That is why in fairly short time the center became the biggest player on any team. Thirdly, the hole guard also was a big guy, and while the ball was on the perimeter (where his team mates were holding to prevent drives) he had a free hand to tangle with the center because some interpretations suggested that the Advantage Principle allowed it. Lastly, holding by the defense in the back court after a change of possession stifled the counter-attack, potentially resulting in retaliation and a turn-over.

As expected, in time the TWPC recognized the problems and took steps to rectify them. Impeding in all its forms was (re)elevated to a major foul (WP21.8). Two-handed holding and holding in the back court were considered so egregious that they were given their own, brand-new rules (WP21.10 and 21.11, respectively). Despite the redundancy of some of the new rules, and the awkwardness of their interpretations, the intent of the new rules was clearly positive.

The past year or so that these changes have been in effect has seem what has been described as more consistency in calling the perimeter, increasingly more movement on the perimeter and less holding during the transition, along with a decrease in shoulder shrugs and utterances of “Advantage!” in response to the colorful urging of irate coaches.

With that in mind, it almost looks like these rule changes, when properly applied, make WP7.3 redundant. Why would we need a rule directing referees to whistle in favor of the offense, when practically anything the defense does is a major foul these days? Isn’t the proper and consistent application of the new rules sufficient? It is arguable that many conceivable situations are already covered under the present rules. Many yes, but it seems not all.

As a student of the game, I found it amazing to see just how little many people (players, coaches, referees and fans) actually know about WP7.3. Many had no idea what it was, and of those who did the vast majority of those I’ve queried (excluding referees) didn’t actually know that the wording had changed. One referee who shall remain nameless actually said: “I know the game and I know the rules. I call my game and I can’t be bothered with all this advantage crap.” (n.a.: he is no longer officiating).

It is perhaps because the new rules and interpretations are clearer and more comprehensive, that those instances where the proper application of the Advantage Principle become that much more important. Let’s assume, for example, the following situation: the offense takes a shot with five seconds left that is blocked. Knowing the shot clock will soon expire, one of the defenders breaks away from the attacker he was guarding and starts swimming towards the opponent’s goal, with a player from the opposing team one-and-a-half body lengths behind. The ball is still with the goalie as the players start making their way down the pool, when a defender roughs up an attacker in the transition. The attacker retaliates, and the attacking referee excludes them both.

On first look this may seem as a good call: the foul and retaliation both occurr near mid-pool, and even though the leading attacking player is ahead of the defender the ball is still in the back court. Since the advantage is at the location of the ball (which in this case is behind the location of the foul), the double exclusion doesn’t affect the outcome of the play.

However, if one considers WP7.3 above, it is easy to see why in reality this is a bad call. To begin with, the attacking team has numerical superiority in the front court. The goalie has possession and is looking for a suitable moment for the release. Since the typical free pass speed is 35-40 mph, once released the ball would reach the attacker in the front court in about 1 to 1.5 seconds, probably before the defender could catch up.

Of course, the mid-court defender’s motivation for fouling is to attract attention to himself, in the hope of thwarting the attack. By whistling the foul, the attacking referee haplessly played into the hands of the defender. Contrary to the explicit language of WP7.3 and subsequent interpretations which clearly state he must not whistle any foul that to clearly disadvantage of the attacking team, he denied the front court attacker a potential one-on-one scoring opportunity without giving the play a chance to develop. Had he waited to whistle the foul for just one or two seconds more he could have accomplished two things: firstly, if the ball was passed directly to the attacker in the front court, either a natural goal or a penalty would have likely occurred, in which case the call would be remembered as a brilliant example of the proper application of WP7.3. If however the ball was not passed to the attacker in the front court, then he was free to whistle the double exclusion to his heart’s delight, and again the call would be remembered as a brilliant example of WP7.3. Unfortunately, in this case he chose not to wait.

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The above example may or may not be hypothetical, but it attempts to illustrate an important point: even with the new rules and the new playing strategies being developed as a result, WP7.3 is still very much relevant. Determining what constitutes offensive advantage always is relatively subjective, but the new wording and interpretations leave little doubt as to what is expected of referees. The added clarity only strengthens the Advantage Principle’s position as the cornerstone of the game.