Improving the Game without Reinventing the Wheel:
A Referee Perspective on Cause and Effect (TWPC Part 3)

Loren A. Bertocci, PhD
Water Polo Planet

After watching as many games as I watched at Roma 09, Dr. Hunkler asked me to provide a summary of the current game, from my referee-perspective. The most common laments about the 21st Century game of water polo include, but are certainly not limited to:

  1. The game is too physical, with too much emphasis on wrestling and not enough on skill;

  2. The front-court game is too static and too vertical;

  3. The driving game is gone;

  4. There are too many whistles, making the referees too much the center of attention;

  5. What the referees do is so difficult to understand we cannot trust the outcome;

  6. It does not draw enough interested spectators or supporters.

Since 1998, I have been fortunate to attend several technical meetings (the sessions run by the delegate/evaluators) at major FINA events as well as six different FINA Referee Schools. Most of these sessions were directed by Sr. Gianni Lonzi, who was then, and still is now, Chair of the FINA Technical Water Polo Committee. I have been fortunate also to have had many unofficial conversations with Sr. Lonzi. Based in large part on these inputs, it is not particularly difficult to reconstruct the picture of the game that is the target of all these instructions. Similarly, having seen as many of the meaningful games played at major FINA events over the same period of time, it not particularly difficult to see that the game played in most of these games can vary (sometimes greatly) from the target of these instructions.

The rules, as they are currently written, combined with the instructions to referees, as they are currently delivered, would, if allowed to be executed, produce a game that would not fall victim to any of the above laments. So, let’s go through some of the details, one at a time, in no particular order, to explore this. We will save the solution(s) to the end.

Solution #1 – strictly enforce “interference with a free throw” so that a free throw is completely free. No physical contact, no hand-up, nothing. A completely free throw.

Problem this would address – there is still not enough of a deterrent to the perimeter press. Currently, the perimeter minor foul is a tactical weapon that runs time off the possession clock and gives the defenders time to reposition. Although the direct shot was put into the rules to make this perimeter press less effective, allowing the perimeter defender to continue to play defense lessens the likelihood that this shot will score, which is a self-defeating outcome.

How this would impact the game – this would make it far less likely that a perimeter defender would actually try to foul any player anywhere near a box from post-to-post and out to the 7m line. All of these defenders would have only the following choices: shot block, back off to stop drives, or double down to front the center, taking the center out of the play but allowing high percentage perimeter shots.

Solution #2 – much more vigorously enforce WP 21.8 (hold sink) and WP 21.9 (strike) at the center (particularly defender) position;

Problem this would address – there is far too much wrestling at the center. No one wants to see the “lock up,” where the center and the defender grab each other to push and shove for ball-side position. Right now, this is whistled as a contra foul too often, or at least too often in situations where the center defender is at least equally guilty. All this does is embolden the defender to be more physical the next time. If we were more willing to whistle these fouls, we would not even get to the point of having to whistle the contra foul.

How this would impact the game – wrestling would be less frequent and much less effective. This would result in the center defender becoming more of a finesse player, working for position, rather than a thug trying to outmuscle the center. The only muscle work would be after the ball arrived, which is what we all would enjoy watching.

Solution #3 – be much more willing to do #2 away from the ball to allow the center to establish position without having to wrestle;

Problem this would address – this would further dial back the physicality at the center position. The incorrect application of “advantage” has been, and is now, a poor excuse not to whistle real fouls away from the ball.

How this would impact the game – if the ball is on the perimeter, everyone knows that one of the options being considered is an entry pass to the center. This would extent the dilemma (to or not to double team the center) throughout the entire possession. If doubled, it makes the perimeter attackers able to pass in a 5-on-4 manner, with lots of rapid ball movement. If not doubled, it opens up the entry pass to the center AND the driving game (with no sluffer ready to pick up the driver).

Solution #4 – strictly enforce WP 21.8 (holding and sinking) by the team playing 5-on-6;

Problem this would address – right now, in part because the defense is permitted to continue to hold and sink the attackers, the 6-on-5 shooting percentage is still only about 50%. So, there is still a good tactical benefit to both the original foul and the hold-sink fouls by the team playing 5-on-6.

How this would impact the game – if the shooting percentage on the 6-on-5 goes up, there is even less tactical benefit to fouling and defenders will have to dial up their position and finesse game another notch.

Solution #5 – strictly apply what Lonzi teaches about contra fouls away from the ball – they must be the equivalent of a defensive personal foul

Problem this would address – the driving game has been almost completely eliminated by the contra foul. Why would any clever coach tell a perimeter player to drive (getting goalside of his/her defender) if the referee is going to whistle a contra foul somewhere else? The result is no worse than a 4-on-6 counter the other way.

How this would impact the game – attacking teams would be encouraged to dare the perimeter defenders to (again) “choose their poison.” Which is more of a risk, a shot (defended vertically) or a drive (defended horizontally)? Take away one, and the attacking team can do the other.

Solution #6 – strictly apply what Lonzi teaches about double exclusions to eliminate pairs of knuckleheads;

Problem this would address – physicality again. Let’s face it, far too often, the game is too physical, and far too often, it is pairs of players who have decided to square off, no longer interested in the rest of the game.

How this would impact the game – if two players don’t want to play water polo, each is excluded, each gets 1/3 of their allotted fouls (to no tactical benefit), with a higher than normal chance of a goal on the resultant 5-on-5 or the counter off the miss. We send a message to everyone about how the game is to be played and get some good scoring chances to boot.

Solution #7 – strictly apply WP 21.9 (striking) against a defender, and in favor of an attacker, who gets inside position and picks up the ball to shoot it. This rule already explicitly states that it can be whistled even if the player is holding the ball. Why not just enforce it?

Problem this would address – the absolutely incomprehensible situation where a player beats everyone to the inside, picks up the ball to shoot it, gets whacked from behind, and the referee puts up “The Claw” to explain that the reason a penalty foul was not whistled was that the shooter was holding the ball. OF COURSE!

How this would impact the game – right now, when this kind of a power move by the center, or inside drive by a driver, is not whistled as a penalty foul, these kinds of moves are discouraged and the game becomes more perimeter, more static, and more boring.

THIS game would be fun to watch and would look not unlike the NBA in the 1980s where a defensive team had to CHOOSE to double the center and give up easy jump shots or press on the perimeter and let the ball go into the center where any decent player could make a dunk or a 5-foot shot. This game allowed the Lakers to have “Showtime” or a “choose your poison” of doubling Kareem or Byron Scott-Michael Cooper jump shots and the Celtics to play a “choose your many poisons” game of Bird-McHale-Parish on the inside or Danny Ainge-Scott Wegman-Dennis Johnson jump shots. It was not uncommon to have 240 points scored in those games and they were always entertaining.

THIS game requires NO changes of the rules. It merely requires that referees actually DO what Sr. Lonzi instructs in the FINA Referee Schools and make very small tweaks to what is already done. This would produce a game that almost any non-expert could understand and enjoy. I do not know what is going on inside the political world of FINA, but if there were a way to provide Sr. Lonzi with even more authority to make all this happen, I am confident that the game would become less subject to internal criticism and, at the same time, more (internally and externally) popular