Intense fringe sport brings players from across the world to battle it out Sheffield - and all the action is underwater

It is one of the least known, complex – and physically challenging – sports in the world.

Friday, 23rd August 2019, 15:14 pm
Updated Tuesday, 27th August 2019, 13:32 pm
Great Britain take on Colombia at the UWH Age Groups World Championship

But teams from 13 nations around the world have descended on Sheffield for the Underwater Hockey Age Group finals at Ponds Forge - apparently one of the best locations globally for the sport - this week.

The Star went behind the scenes of the complex, high impact game to discover just what it is all about.

Phil Thompson, chairman of Great Britain Underwater Hockey, talked through the pastime during the women's under 19s semi final.

The set up for the Underwater Hockey Age Group World Championships at Ponds Forge in Sheffield

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Originally called 'Octopush', the sport started in 1954 at an Underwater Diving Club in Southsea, Hampshire.

Since then there have been numerous competitions at all levels around the world, from Canada to Spain, while the 2020 Masters World Cup will be in Queensland, Australia.

Phil, who has been in the sport for 30 years, says the competition is "bringing countries' teams from all over the world to Sheffield, bringing investment into the city and putting Ponds Forge on the map as an international venue."

Each team lines up with six players, with each match lasting 30 minutes. It is played with a 3lb lead puck, and the teams battle it out on the floor of the pool, or 'court' in underwater hockey-lingo.

Italian players analyse their opponents at the Age Groups UWH World Championship

“It's not a contact sport like boxing, but it is very close proximity", says Phil.

At one point during the semi final today, 11 of the 12 players of the New Zealand v Great Britain under-19s were submerged under water, writhing and scrumming for the puck.

It can be utilised to move at speed through the mid-water, as well. The tempo is fast-paced, with an intensive training regime for the international players to stick to year-round. The physicality is almost as impressive as the players' ability to master snorkelling, swimming and playing hockey at the same time.

The sport is mostly self-funded, but this year's edition in Sheffield has forced people, irrespective of their nationality, to admit, "this is the best championships we have been to".

There is currently one team at club level in Sheffield, the Sheffield Stingray Octopush Club. However, Phil says a number of players travel to Manchester twice a week, where people come from far and wide.

The two categories on show at Ponds Forge over the past two weeks have been the men and women's under-24s and under-19s, with a total of 30 teams taking part.

There is also a master's championships, for older players. Phil admits the men's under-24s game can be 'brutal. Today one of the New Zealand side is sin-binned for her usage of her stick on an opponent. It's a serious sport.

With numerous referees, who had to swear under oath and take a bleep test pre-tournament, a commentator's box, underwater cameras and a big screen, it is easy to forget this is still a fringe sport.

Phil admits it has its challenges: "If you want to play football, you just find a park and kick a ball about. We need the infrastructure. That's why it is limited in its growth, you need a swimming pool. One of the difficulties we have is the investment in sport- and that's not just underwater hockey."

The event's organising commitee have now set up a crowdfunding page to help with these vital costs. The page can be accessed at https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/sheffield2019.

As the under-19s semi final comes to a close, with New Zealand victorious, a rupturous applause rings out from the many family members that have travelled half the world to support.

It feels like a real community affair.

The competiton finishes tomorrow, Saturday, August 24, with the finals of the four categories on display, including the host nations.

For information on how to get involved in the sport, visit www.gbuwh.co.uk.