It might be up there with some of Britain’s ‘weirdest’ sports (not quite bog snorkeling, wife carrying or welly-wanging), but Underwater Rugby (UWR) is a 3D mixed-gender sport that is currently making a splash all across the world.
After phoning several sports teams for my match report assignment, I came across this unusual sport. I had no idea how it would look on the surface with a crowd watching from above, but I imagined that with the help of sports commentators, the replays, and all of the action a broadcast could capture, it shouldn’t be too difficult. So, I decided to contact the team to see if they would let me cover one of their games. They did… and they were quick to invite me along, BUT it turned out to be an international tournament in Lucerne (which for those of you who don’t know – is in Switzerland). For a crazy moment I thought, yes! why not? But then it also turned out to be just 4 days before our NCTJ Media Law exam, so not the best idea. ANYWAY, with The Deep End having recently opened and the Six Nations starting this weekend, it seemed like a fairly topical and suitable-ish opportunity for an interview (missed Gonzo Journalism chance!)
I apologize if you have already heard of it, but I like to think I’m at least moderately informed about most things sport-related and I’d 100% never heard of underwater rugby (until a fortnight ago). So, here are 10 Q&A’s that I wanted to find out. Oh… and did I mention that they are team Great Britain?
1. What exactly is underwater rugby?
Basically, underwater rugby is a 3D contact team sport played underwater. To score you simply put a salt water-filled and therefore, negatively buoyant round ball into the opposing teams goal. The fun element comes from the fact that the goal is at the bottom of a 3.5M to 5M diving pool and there are 6 opponents all trying to take the ball from you. Each team has 12 players with 6 in the water at one time and constant and unlimited substitutions. Players wear a diving mask and a small snorkel so that they can watch the game from the surface and dive down to join in. They also wear fins (or flippers) to make the game faster and make more use of each breath. A player will normally be in the water for a max of three dives as the exertion required at depth really saps your energy, hence the constant substitutions.
2. So how do you communicate under water?
We communicate by punching an open hand, it’s a surprisingly effective way of making a noise underwater, try it next time you are swimming.
3. In rugby there are often lots of injuries - is this the same when played underwater?
The sport is perfect for those who have had previous injuries playing contact sport, because you are in the water the impacts are much less and injuries are very rare. The only thing that tends to go wrong is people banging their elbows on the tiled walls and bottom of the pool, but you can wear an elbow pad to avoid it.
4. UWR was first invented in the 1960's, how and when did the sport arrive in Britain?
I [Rob Bonnar] started a club called ‘Pure’ in Putney, in 2013, with my friend Olly ‘The Otter’, who had played underwater rugby for a number of years in Slovakia. Olly and I met at ballroom dancing classes and over a beer developed the idea of starting a club. It was his vision and quite a few beers that brought underwater rugby to the UK. He got a local welder to make our goals for us and imported a few balls from Germany. All of our players had swum before, some competitively, some played water polo, some spear-fishermen, free divers, and others played underwater hockey/octopush - some other clubs have whole female teams of synchronized swimmers. Many of us had also played rugby before, including the women in the team. Like rugby, there is a position for everyone, every body shape, fitness level, speed and agility.
5. Underwater rugby is quite a niche sport, but you have been able to travel around the world to compete, how has your experience been so far?
It’s a game played in tournaments; the format for all competitions is for a group of 10-12 teams to get together and play a tournament. So over a day/weekend each team plays 6-8 games. We have competed in Florence, Bordeaux, Lucerne, Madrid, Valladolid, there are tournaments all over the world. The underwater rugby community is small because the sport is so niche, it’s a family really, we all play together, laugh, eat and drink together, it is a really great community to be a part of. Also, because of our location in London players from other teams are always coming along to join us at training when they are on holiday or business. There is always at least one person from Spain, Germany, Colombia or Singapore at our training.
6. After a recent stream of publicity, what has the feedback been like?
I [Rob Bonnar] went on Radio 2 recently on a Friday night to talk about underwater rugby, the show is listened to by about 7 million people. That week we had a short note in the London Metro newspaper; which is read by 3 million people every day. Out of that potential 10 million people who we contacted, 2 people turned up to training. It’s a sport for one in every 5 million unfortunately. But everyone who comes along for a free trial session will be able to play if they can swim. We get great feedback from all our visitors - it exceeds their expectations.
7. What are people's reactions when you tell them that you play underwater rugby?
Normally people look disbelieving, they just don’t understand, then they imagine people playing oval-ball rugby, but underwater – and with rugby boots on!
8. You mentioned before that people seem to find women playing the sport even more surprising than the fact the sport even exists, why do you think that is?
People have a stereotype of contact sports that they are not for women. Underwater rugby is one of the sports that allow people to play to their strengths. While lots of women might not be able to out-wrestle a chap for a ball they can use teamwork, strategy, speed etc. to nullify any pure strength disparity.
9. What does it mean to you as a team to say, "I play underwater rugby for GB"?
It’s great, flying the union flag and feeling the pride in the team to represent our nation.
10. UWR isn't an Olympic sport (yet anyway!), how would you like to see it develop?
Underwater rugby has a long way to go to be an Olympic sport, I’d like to see underwater rugby develop further in the UK, multiple clubs and a UK league would be ideal.