England Programmes U17 Water Polo boys’ team recently finished fourth against older teams at the Amadeus Baltic Trophy in Lithuania.
Captain Ben Ray fills AquaZone in on the team’s experience in Vilnius...
Waiting For Our Chance
As a team, we'd been preparing for about two months for the competition but, for so many of us, we've been training together and wanting a chance to compete internationally like this for two years.
We didn't really feel any pressure to achieve a certain place before the competition - our only real goal was to grow as a team and enjoy the experience of playing against other countries. I think the whole team were more excited than nervous for the week.
We flew out to Lithuania from Luton Airport on the Wednesday. This was good for the players from London, who got plenty of sleep and had a small drive to the airport. But for players from a bit further away - like me, from Manchester, it was a case of a little sleep and a massive journey!
We arrived at about 2 in the afternoon local time and our first game was against Lodz from Poland wasn't until 12:00 the next day so we had plenty of time to recover from the jet lag and the huge journey that some of us had made.
We really didn't know what to expect from the hotel but when we got into our rooms, we were all pleasantly surprised by how clean the rooms were! We all got a bed each and the bathroom was clean. We were all happy and most of us made use of the wi-fi in the hotel rooms and chilled out as we had a busy week ahead of us.
It was clear it had seen better days but overall it wasn't a bad facility to play.
On Thursday morning, we also had a team talk with coach Norman Leighton and team manager Anthony McGuiness about what the goals were of the week. We walked into the spectators gallery and I personally wasn’t sure what to feel about the facility. It was clear it had seen better days with the Olympic rings mounted on the wall but overall it wasn’t a bad facility to play.
Our first game against Lodz on Thursday went perfectly. We stuck to our game plan and came out looking the better side, winning 10-5.
We had two matches on the Friday, against Finland and Moldova. We’d been watching Finland the previous day as they got heavily beaten by Moldova and we as a team had high expectations for ourselves.
We won narrowly 8-7 but neither I nor the team were happy with our performance. We had gone into the game complacent and we learned our lesson from that.
We knew the Moldova game was going to by far the hardest in the group stage as they were physically huge. We worked hard from the start but unfortunately couldn’t finish our chances so lost the game.
Our post-match routine would be to get in the warm-up pool and do at least 10 lengths swimming down. Then we would spend 10-15 minutes stretching down to ensure our muscles would be ready for the next game.
Another post-game ritual we would have was to watch over the previous game and look at the positives and negatives. This, in my opinion, was a crucial factor as to why we progressed as a team over the week.
Knock Out Stages
Although we had lost our last game in the group stage, we were overjoyed to reach the semi-final. We knew the game against Lithuania was going to be a hard one and the crowd was packed for the game as the home nation was playing.
The game was a lot closer than the 11-6 scoreline read and if it weren't for the Lithuanian number 4 (he ended up as top scorer with 39 goals from five games!), I'm sure we could have beaten them.
The bronze medal match against Moldova was the best moment in my water polo career so far. At the start of the game we lined up like any other game but this time we got to sing the national anthem as well.
Singing the national anthem gave us fire in our hearts to go out there and meet them at their physical level. I must say that the game was the most physical game I've ever been in.
Two of their players got wrapped for brutality but in reality, four of them should have.
One of our players was bitten and many others were punched in the face. I am proud to say that not one of our players reacted and we showed that we were the better team towards the end.
I am proud to say that not one of our players reacted and we showed we were the better team towards the end.
We worked fantastically as a team and showed great perseverance throughout the game and the tournament.
An international competition like the Baltic Nations Cup is high-paced - not too different from our National Age Group competition - but there is a lot more physicality on the international stage and the quality of converting chances is a lot higher.
As a squad we have got so much potential to be the first squad in a long time to qualify for the European Championships and I believe with all my heart that this is a goal that our squad can fulfil.
I’m expecting everyone to now continue their training at their clubs now that they have the belief that there is something fantastic in this team.
Soon there is a training camp for our squad in Northampton were we will meet and work on tactics, however, if we are to unlock our true potential I believe that we have to continue training together if not be training even more.
Finally, I'd like to say a big thanks to Norman Leighton and Anthony McGuinness on behalf of the team for all their efforts.