Australia and other Southern Hemisphere nations have the drop on Northern Hemisphere nations when it comes to implementation of the new FINA water polo rules.

As a result of the FINA Water Polo Congress earlier this month, a raft of new rules and adjustments have been weaved into the fabric of the sport with an official start date of 1 January 1 2023.

Since European competitions had started prior to the congress, most will follow through on the old rules until the finalisation of those events.

In Australia, the new rules were in use within days of the Congress, with fresh summer competitions across the country jumping in at the deep end as various national championships are to be staged in coming months.

For the Men's and Women's Water Polo Tournaments at the 18th FINA World Championships Gwangju 2019, new rules had been instituted earlier in the year, but European players had still been playing the older rules. Consequently, in Gwangju, European players were caught up in a fast-learning exercise.

New FINA Technical Water Polo Committee chair Tamas Molnar (pictured) said the new committee worked vigorously to submit rule changes to the FINA Bureau ahead of the congress. He said some of the rules were 30-40 years old and that future revisions will come.

“We inherited (the rule change suggestions) after the election of July 4 and we only had a short time (to promote). Firstly, we sent out our proposals to federations and committees. Everybody was informed there would be a working group and by the end of July a decision would be made and submitted for Bureau approval.”

The committee working group comprised of some TWPC members as well as top water polo coaches, referees, athletes and sports administrators, with representation from all continents.

“We went through all the proposals from the previous commission, eliminated some and kept what should be good and made minor changes to the wording,” Molnar, a triple Olympic gold medallist, said.

The major changes are the two-metre zone, which eliminates the old two-metre (offside) rules, the calling of the penalty foul, and the subsequent taking of the penalty throw. The “high-fiving” in the exclusion re-entry box when substituting — bringing it in line with the same action down the side of the pool when substituting (flying substitution) — was also introduced.

A corollary of this is when a returning or replacement player from an exclusion foul and a substituting player are both trying to enter at the same time. One has to high-five while the other doesn’t under the current rules. Molnar suggested that this should be cleaned up in future and perhaps both should high-five to save confusion.

Image Source: Tamas Molnar in action against Croatia at the 2007 FINA World Championships (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

With the two-metre ruling where a boxed area of seven metres wide and extending to the two-metre line from the goal line becomes the action zone (so-called goal area) where two-metre fouls (offsides) can occur, the reaction has been positive. The new rule allows wing players to enter into the two-metre areas and receive a pass without incurring a foul. “This creates a box, like in football. This rule was tested in Hungary in 10 matches and we had positive feedback,” Molnar said.

With the penalty foul call, referees can now allow an advantage by signalling with an arm raised that if the ball does not cross the goal line, it will come back for the calling of the penalty retroactively. Molnar said that if the referee did not raise his/her arm it would not preclude the subsequent calling of the penalty foul, as the referees sometimes do not have time to make such quick calls.

The taking of the penalty throw is much quicker with less confusion, making it easier for spectators to follow.

By making the defending and attacking field players gather behind the six-metre line and three metres from the shooter, the likelihood of a rebound being scored by the shooter has risen exponentially.

Another area that was addressed was the pressure of the ball. Kilopascals were overshadowed by pounds per square inch (psi — "everyone uses psi” said Molanr) and lowering the pressure should lead to fewer injuries. “Players felt the ball was too hard and there was a lot of pain for goalkeepers.”

With the new Mikasa ball introduced at the 19th FINA World Championships in Fukuoka next July, countries will have time to practice and play with the new ball before travelling to Japan.

On the other potential upcoming rule adjustments, Molnar said: “Things were required to be added like VAR, new wording and, some rules instructions that were not part of the rules”.

The emphasis on the goalkeeper cap with the correct colouring of the numbers and totally red cap was critical as we had to differentiate between the two goalkeepers as they could be side by side in the scoring zone when the attacking goalkeeper crosses the halfway," Molnar said. “The manufacturers have to read the rules and not create chaos when designing caps.”

Since the congress, the water polo community has welcomed the updated rules, particularly among the centre forwards who have said they like the chance to complete a scoring movement without immediately being called a penalty, resulting in another player getting the glory.

The work to keep water polo surging ahead does not stop with this month's announcement: already, a re-writing rules working group is active behind the scenes, fine-tuning rules proposals that will be aired at a future date.