Trinity success at water polo intervarsities

Trinity water polo has done the double for the second time in three years after its men’s and women’s teams beat NUIG and DIT respectively at their annual intervarsities.

sport1The phrase “golden generation” is a relatively modern one, more modern than most would assume. The term was first used by the Portuguese media around 2000 while referring to the emergence of a group of talented young footballers, most notably Luis Figo. Golden generations have come and gone in world sport, Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam team and Spain’s European and World Cup winning teams of 2008, 2010 and 2012 among them. The proof of any golden generation is in the trophies they win. Few remember potential unfulfilled.

The Trinity water polo teams of the past five years could well be considered the golden generation. The men made every final save one since 2010 but had only emerged with one title. The women suffered a similar record, just one title in the five years running up to 2015. The double in 2013 was considered by many as the coming of age of Trinity water polo but an underwhelming varsity performance 12 months later for the men brought the hype to a shuddering halt. The women could well have been considered unlucky, losing the 2014 final to a last minute goal, a scenario all too common for the men’s team.

Those surrounding the 2015 men’s and women’s teams must have been quietly confident that this could have been another fruitful year for the university. The injection of Kevin Johnston, an Irish international player, to the men brought something that had been lacking the previous year, an out and out goal scorer. This was complemented by the arrival of freshman Jack Reilly, a solid defender with the ability to control games from the back. The women too could look at the return of Simona Herbaj as a similarly critical input.

Group stages

The group stages of this year’s intervarsities, held on January 30th and 31st, were relatively stress-free for Trinity. The women easily dispatched UCD (12-6) and the combined effort of NUIG and NUIM (15-10) in the group stage and emerged from their group as winners.

The men faced UCC and NUIG, the latter being the only team to beat Trinity since 2012; indeed nobody on the current men’s team had ever beaten the Galway outfit at a varsity tournament. The NUIG game was a scrappy affair with the 13-10 score line flattering the Connacht men somewhat, while UCC were dispatched with relative ease with a 10-2 score line.

Both teams were set to face Queen’s in the semi-finals. The men’s semi-final got off to the worst possible start for Trinity. A loose pass was intercepted and a Queen’s front three possessing an Irish international in the form of Matt Hanna raced through on goal, outnumbering the solitary Trinity defender and putting the ball past keeper David Cichon.

In previous years this may have derailed a Trinity side, who are notoriously slow starters, but the men led by the senior players of Mark Murphy, Kevin Johnston and Melchior de La Rochefoucauld galvanised the 12 squad members and held firmly onto the coat tails of the Ulster men for the ensuing three quarters.

Former international rugby player Murray Mexted is often attributed a quote referring to the “ebb and flow of psychic energy” determining the result of tight games. In the final seconds of the third quarter, Matt Hanna’s third major foul excluded him from the rest of the game with the score at 5-6 to Queen’s and the ensuing quarter would see that ebb and flow firmly behind the Trinity men.

With three minutes remaining in the final quarter, Trinity centre forward Dáire O’Driscoll drew a major foul from an opponent, giving Trinity twenty seconds with a one man advantage. Trinity’s veteran coach, Bert O’Brien, showed all his experience by immediately calling a timeout, during which the ensuing team talk lasted all of five seconds: “get out there and do it”.

The Trinity men assumed their preferred “man-up” positions and resumed the game. It was then the ball landed in the hand of one of the squad’s youngest members, Cormac Dickson. Dickson, calmness personified, let fly and rifled the ball into the top corner, tying the game at 6-6.

From there on out Trinity turned the screw, a brace from Melchior de La Rochefoucauld and a goal from Kevin Johnston put the game beyond doubt. Trinity emerged from a bruising semi-final, 9-6 victors, and would face the team that had beaten them on the previous two occasions, NUIG, in the final.

It would be unfair not to mention the man of the match for the men’s semi final , the team’s youngest member, Jack Reilly. Often the most important contributions go unnoticed, yet Reilly’s skilled handling of the attacking force of Queen’s allowed Trinity’s front three, Johnston, La Rochefoucauld and O’Driscoll to chip away at their defence.

Reilly was integral to everything that happened in that game, snuffing out attacks and distributing quick ball to the forwards.Special mention too should go to Trinity’s number 8, Mark Murphy, the Sandycove man quietly disrupting the rhythm of the Queen’s team and controlling midfield with an air of calm.

The women faced a similarly physical encounter in their fixture but Queen’s women posed fewer problems than the men. Trinity’s women had made the final the previous two years with a rather stable squad of players. Five had tasted success two years previously and six of the seven starting players had beaten Queen’s at the exact same stage of the tournament the year before.

The women got off to a trademark fast start with Captain Naomi Beard leading by example, scoring a brace. Simona Herbaj and Caoimhe Slevin, who had been so commanding all tournament, put the Trinity women into a healthy lead by half time. The exclusion of Beard for her third major foul of the game dampened the attacking threat of Trinity somewhat but Deirdre Kindregan, Fiona Fenton and Canadian import Nina Baker kept the scoreboard ticking over.

The women having dispatched Queen’s by 16 goals to 7 would face DIT, the team that had beaten them in the last minute of the previous year’s final. In hindsight it seemed prophetic that both teams would face the last team to beat them in the finals of the tournaments. The golden generation had been given the opportunity to prove its pedigree.

Women’s final

In the women’s final, four quarters of tit for tat scoring left the scores tied at 8 goals apiece at the final buzzer. The women could well have won in ordinary time, a penalty somehow disallowed despite hitting the back bar of the DIT net. This would have fazed many teams, injustice sometimes galvanises but often demoralises those who suffer them. However much like the men in their semi-final, the adversity only strengthened the determination to win.

A delightful lob from the left hand side of the goal by Caoimhe Slevin, sailed over the Irish international keeper and nestled beautifully in the back of the net, 8-7 and retribution seemed to be in the hands of the Trinity women.  With less than a minute remaining, eventual MVP winner Lisa Kelly took hold of the ball and equalised for DIT, 8-8. It required a wonderful save from Michaela Hogan to ensure that the game finished 8-8, her block down landing in the arms of Deirdre Kindregan who snuffed out the attack and brought the game to a penalty shootout.

The Trinity men, warming up for their final took seats, one member of the squad deciding he couldn’t watch and relying solely on the cheers and groans to determine what had happened. Penalty shootouts are almost akin to the Leaving Certificate; it’s probably not the fairest way to settle it but it’s the best option available.

Five brave souls would have to step forward and place their necks firmly on the block. Deirdre Kindregan, Caoimhe Slevin, Fiona Fenton, Simona Herbaj and Nina Baker would be charged with the unenviable task of settling the game. DIT elected to take the first penalty which was tucked away by MVP Lisa Kelly.

Step forward Trinity’s first penalty taker, number 5, Deirdre Kindregan. Kindregan, who had been so reliable throughout the tournament, fluffed her lines as her penalty struck the left arm of DIT’s Keeper and bounced back into open water. Advantage DIT. Michaela Hogan, the Trinity goalkeeper, who had been impervious for most of the games that weekend, must have been somewhat confident as DIT’s fourth penalty taker made the long lone swim to the five metre line. Hogan had gotten close to the previous two penalties but had been unable to stop DIT taking a 3-2 lead in the shootout, with Simona Herbaj and Fiona Fenton both slotting penalties for Trinity.

Hogan proved her worth as she got a hand to the penalty thrown her way. Slevin, who well could have been the match winner not five minutes earlier, stepped forward. The San Francisco native placed her shot neatly in the top left corner tying the shootout at 3-3. Keepers are often animals of confidence; Hogan, buoyed by her save thirty seconds previous spooked DIT’s last penalty taker who rattled the post but ultimately failed to convert the final penalty. Advantage Trinity. The final penalty taker, Nina Baker, swam to the centre of the pool in almost dead silence.

An often analytical player, Baker had been silently watching the DIT goalkeeper fade to her right for each of the penalties. As the whistle of Patricio Masip sounded Baker placed the ball to the keeper’s right and won the tournament for the ladies’ team.

Men’s final 

The men clapped but their joy for their female teammates needed to be short-lived, a rematch with the last team to beat them in a final was imminent. Ultimately they need not have worried; a scrappy yet convincing performance against Galway meant they entered the final minute five goals to the good. The starting six were withdrawn as Coach Bert O’Brien emptied the bench. Veterans of the 2013 win La Rochefoucauld, Murphy and O’Driscoll were joined by Johnston, the MVP, on the bench in celebration. A testament to the team spirit that had enveloped the squad was displayed as the aforementioned quartet lifted Trinity captain Féilim O’Connor from the pool and embraced. A team had finally come of age.

The final score of 12-9 may not have reflected Trinity’s utter dominance of the game, indeed La Rochefoucauld and O’Driscoll squandered  four one on one opportunities between them,  but it did reflect one thing. The golden generation of players for both men and women had finally fulfilled the potential they held in such swathes. Trinity had done the double for the second time in three years – Trinity College Dublin: Men’s and Women’s Intervarsity Champions 2015.

Photo, via Student Sport Ireland: Maeve Phillips, TCD sports scholar and World Down Syndrome swimmer, launches this year’s intervarsities with Amanda Ní Ghabhann, water polo development officer for Swim Ireland.