26.05.2008 – Graham Croker
A 5-all draw with Montenegro in the final preliminary match of the men’s water polo tournament at the Beijing Olympic Games cost Australia a chance of contesting the quarter-finals and shooting for a medal.
With Sydney University representatives Thomas Whalan, Trent Franklin, Robert Maitland and Sam McGregor prominent throughout the tournament, the Australians officially finished 8th, one place better than their effort at the Athens Games four years earlier.
Australia opened their campaign with a backs-to-the-wall 12-8 win over Greece. Australia kept the Greeks scoreless in the second half, despite having McGregor and Maitland fouled out of the water in the closing minutes.
But they didn’t capitalise on the effort and lost 9-8 to Spain in their second match.
Spain scored four unanswered goals in the first quarter and extended the lead to 5-0 before the Australians found their rhythm.
They pulled back to 5-6 when Gavin Woods scored his second goal early in the third quarter, but never managed to get on terms. Whalan also scored twice but Spain’s first-quarter blitz told the story.
The Sharks kept their quarter-final hopes alive with a hard fought 8-5 win over Canada in their group A clash at the Yingdong Natatorium.
The Australians took some time to find their rhythm and trailed 1-3 at the end of the first quarter. They turned that to a 7-5 advantage by the end of the third quarter and clung on to win by three goals.
“It is always a tough game with Canada for some reason, despite what the scoreboard said two days ago (when Canada lost 12-0 to Montenegro),” said Australian head coach John Fox. “We made it hard for ourselves, but I was always confident we were going to win.”
With matches against competition heavyweights Hungary and Montenegro on the agenda, the coach said his charges needed to take a calmer and more controlled approach. With two wins and a loss, the Sharks needed to beat either Hungary on Saturday or Montenegro on Monday, if they were to snare the vital third spot in Pool A.
Hungary, the Olympic champions from Sydney and Athens, triumphed 13-12 in an epic encounter, before Australia played a five-all draw with European champions, Montenegro. A win was required to make the quarter-finals.
The campaign was a roller-coaster ride, with some memorable games and some lapses that, in the end, proved costly.
The game against Hungary, one of the greatest teams to ever play the game, was described by Australian greats Tom Hoad and deputy Chef de Mission Peter Montgomery as the greatest game they have ever seen Australia play.
In the classification matches Australia beat Italy 17-16 in a nail-bitter, going ahead in the penalty shoot-out, and then lost -8-9 to Greece to finish 8th.