Rugby...But Not Like You Know It

The first time I heard about underwater rugby was on a friend’s Facebook page. It was the week after O-Week and there was a ‘come and try’ night. The tag line was “just like quidditch, add water”.

How could I not?

From the thread on Facebook it seemed like quite a few of my friends would also be giving it a try as well. It was only later that night I realised I had been the victim of ‘sarcasm blindness’. None of my friends turned up. Apparently they all thought it was just a big joke. But I held my nerve and stuck around by the side of the pool. I introduced myself to other first timers. There was a quick briefing, we were repeatedly assured that no one would drown… and then we jumped into the pool. Sure enough, 60 minutes passed and no one had passed out. I did, however, swallow a good half litre of water that night (and inhaled a few hundred mLs more) but despite all that it was a hell of a lot of fun.

In many ways that description of underwater rugby being like quidditch is just spot on. You are weightless. You can pass the ball up, down, left, right, forwards and backwards – as well as get tackled from any of those directions. Instead of brooms you wear these giant flippers, the kind you would use for snorkeling. It’s mixed gendered, played both competitively and for fun, and it’s a full contact sport. Subject to a few sensible rules, if you’re holding onto the ball then you’re fair game.

Yes, you have to hold your breath. Almost the entirety of the game is played underwater, sometimes in pools as deep as three and five metres. Even the ball (round and not in the shape of a ‘terrestrial rugby’ ball) is designed to sink in the water. And the goals are metal baskets which sit at the bottom on either ends of the pool.

I would be the first to admit that this seems like a pretty daunting challenge for someone trying it for the first time. Holding your breath doesn’t come naturally. It doesn’t matter how fit you are, whether you are a surf lifesaver, a triathlete or a computer gamer. Most people will start at a similar base. But because holding your breath is mostly a mental barrier, people generally improve very quickly once they stop freaking out.

Underwater rugby is generally compared to (or confused with) waterpolo and underwater hockey. But unlike in waterpolo, underwater rugby actually has underwater referees – making it a much cleaner sport. While it shares quite a lot of similarities with underwater hockey, in that they both involve swimming underwater and holding your breath, the actual gameplay is very different. Underwater rugby is full contact and is played in the entire water column, not just at the floor of the pool.

For a sport that has been around for over 50 years though, it’s odd that so few people have heard about it. Underwater rugby was first invented in the 1960s by SCUBA diving clubs in Germany, starting off as a game that was played to keep divers fit during the winter months. It slowly evolved into a competitive sport, which has since spread across Europe and over continents. Germany and Norway are the dominant powers, whilst Colombia and Denmark are the rising stars. Less competitive clubs have sprouted up in the USA, Greece, Turkey, Italy and even New Zealand.

In Australia underwater rugby is an even more recent phenomenon. The first team was set up six years ago in Sydney, following the return of an Australian girl from her exchange in northern Sweden. However, in the last two years teams have also sprung up in Brisbane, Hobart, Melbourne, and of course, Canberra.

Team Canberra is barely a year old and consists of a small, but passionate, core of regular players. While we are purely in it for the fun of it, we have on several occasions played friendly matches against the Sydney team. We always welcome new players and are working hard on growing this sport. We think this should be as big as roller derby, ultimate frisbee, and yes, even mixed-frickin-netball.

So if you have a sense of adventure (or a bad knee which renders you unfit for conventional terrestrial sports) then come along and see if underwater rugby might be your thing. You might even discover a knack for it and make it into the first national team to ever represent Australia overseas at the World Championships in Colombia next year. The worst you can do is have a lot of fun. And don’t worry, you won’t drown.