South African schools water polo 

The water polo girls team from Pearson High in Port Elizabeth - number 1 ranked team in South Africa in 2018.


A brief history of schools water polo in South Africa

While water polo in South Africa has been dated back to the 19th century, there was not always a formal inter-provincial tournament in this country.

Each province started off on their own, with impromptu games taking place between boy’s schools after the weekly inter-schools galas, and these games can be traced back to the middle of the 20th century. While there was a fair amount of competition between the schools, not too many competed due to the long held belief that water polo would affect swimmers strokes. It was in 1970 however that Rodney Mazinter proposed the creation of a formal schools league in the Western Province, and things kicked off locally, spreading to the other provinces.

In 1970, at the Annual General Meeting for the South African Amateur Swimming Union (SAASU), Rhodesia, or Zimbabwe today, was the first group to propose the creation of an inter-provincial tournament similar to Craven Week for rugby. While the proposal was accepted by the board, the task to plan this was given to Rhodesia, but nothing happened for another three years, when Mike Mortimer made another proposal in a report for SA swimming Annual.

It was when Jannie Storm and Johan Terblanche got together though that we saw the creation of the precursor of what we know today as the SA Schools Inter Provincial Tournament. This first tournament was held in Potchefstroom in 1971, but was a far smaller affair to what we know today. Only three provinces attended (Transvaal, KZN and Western Transvaal). In the coming years, more provinces joined this event; however Western Transvaal never made any further appearance at these events. It was only in 1974 when the event evolved into the structure we know today, with multiple playing days, that saw things grow even more. Despite having made the initial proposal for this type of event, Rhodesia only joined in 1974, which meant the tournament consisted of U19 boys’ teams from Transvaal, Natal, Eastern & Northern Transvaal, Eastern Province and Rhodesia.

In 1976, it was decided that three selectors would be picked to choose the SA Schools team – although there was no guarantee that the selected team would play any matches together unless he hosting province could find any suitable opposition. The tournament continued like this, and in 1976 the Orange Free State joined, followed by Western Province in 1978.

In 1975, when Natal came out victorious, Rhodesia promised to have a far stronger side the following year. When the tournament came around, a strong Rhodesian side arrived at the Wits pool in Johannesburg. Once the traveling team had shown their strength by defeating all of the provinces, a mini test series was played against the selected SA Schools Team, and with the top players pulling together and playing well, Rhodesia suffered their first defeat of the tournament. This post-tournament event continued up until 1980, when the then Zimbabwe schools team played a SA Schools B team. However, after a shift in political climate in Zimbabwe, their teams would not return again until 1993.

As a filler to this, the SA Schools board decided to play against a SA Defence Force U19 team, however it was felt that this did not fit the event, and so was stopped in its very first year. Over time, there was an attempt to include both South West Africa (Namibia) and Griqualand West, however these sides fitted better into a B league, and soon they stopped attending the events. It was in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s however that we saw a boom in the tournament, and the growth to what we have today. As the years went on, more and more teams were added, until we saw age groups from U13 – U19 for both boys and girls!

From the pen of Theo Garrun…

I started teaching at Highlands North Boys’ High in 1979 and, having played water polo in the army, and at Wits, I was put in charge of the school’s only team, and told to contact George Lobo at St David’s, who was organizing the fixtures.

He convened a meeting of the schools who played the game – there were only 11 of them. They were King Edward, Jeppe, Parktown, Athlone, St John’s, St Stithians, St David’s, Highlands, Roosevelt, Hyde Park and the German School.

So, I guess, that gathering was the Transvaal Schools Association in those days. The coach and manager of the two teams (u-19 A and B) that went to the SA Schools tournament were chosen at that meeting and the travel and other arrangements were made by the Transvaal Schools Swimming Association, run by the late Johan Terblanche, who was also the chairman of SA Schools Water Polo in those days.

The swimming association’s treasurer/secretary was Dudley Wallendorf, who taught at Athlone Boys’ High where Buddy Herd was the principal. Herd had no official position in the association. But he effectively ran things behind the scenes and coached Athlone who, along with KES and the German School, were the strongest teams and supplied most of the players to the provincial teams.

When I arrived, Herd roped me in and, in 1980 I attended the SA Schools tournament, as manager of the B team. The coach of both teams was Mike Leemhuis, then a teacher at KES, and Herd was manager of the A side.

Lobo left teaching to become a professional soccer referee in 1981, so the organization shifted to Athlone, run by Herd and Wallendorf. 

Herd had a heart attack in 1981 and suddenly retired, so from 1982 I became the chairman of the loose association and, for the first time, we elected a committee and drew up a constitution – to operate as a sub-association of Transvaal Schools Swimming.

Polo was still very much a minor sport. The schools had 1 senior and 1 junior team, mainly, and in the beginning games were played on Wednesday afternoons after the boys’ schools galas.

Interprovincial competition had started, in likewise fashion, with matches between Transvaal and Natal played at the end of the traditional 10 schools gala that was held each year.

It evolved into a proper tournament in the early 1970s, played in either Joburg or Durban in the early years. 

Rick Proctor had taken over from Leemhuis at King Edward by then and between us, we decided we needed an interschool tournament, so we revived the Edwardian Cup tournament, which hadn’t been played for a few years, in 1981.

After the departure of Leemhuis, Old Eds SA national player Dave Adams coached the Transvaal team for a few years, until Piet van Tonder moved down from Zimbabwe to take up a post at St Stithians.

He was to coach various Transvaal teams for the next 25 odd-years, with considerable success. Other teachers who served on the committee, and coached or managed teams in those years were Andre Britz, Athol Reid, Dave Pitcairn, Mike Allin, Walter Goodwin, Brian Webster, Dave McGaw and Peter Wright.

At interprovincial level, Natal pretty much ruled the roost, with Transvaal beating them on the odd occasion in the A section.

The two provinces had the most players so they both soon introduced a third team (under-16 colts) to play in the B section at SA Schools in the early 1990s. That was to lead to the introduction of a junior age group, and the start of the move towards the current, multi-age group tournament.

There was very little girls water polo. In Joburg a few of the co-ed schools played – Hyde Park, Roosevelt, Krugersdorp, Rand Park and Edenvale. In about 1985 we picked a girls team that played against Western Province at SA Schools, but it was a short-lived experiment and girls polo only really took off when the girls’ schools became involved many years later.

Water polo then was, as it is now, very much a coach-driven sport. In the late 1970s the German School was coached by a Dr Puxhandel, the Austrian trade commissioner to SA and a former Austrian national player. He had two sons at the school, who along with a number of others from there, made the SA Schools team.

After Puxhandel was recalled to Austria the game waned and eventually died out completely at the school.

Jeppe had a spell as the top school under Dave Pitcairn, as did KES under Brian Webster, and later St Stithians under, in turn, Van Tonder, Pitcairn and Webster. That was to change, of course, when Vlado Trninic went to St John’s.

There were scores of fine players who passed through the Transvaal teams in the time I was involved. Among those that stand out are, in in the early years, Bruce Bowker, Neville Watt, Craig Hinds and Arno de Nooy. And later on, Duncan Woods, Brendan Varrie, Steven Standfest and Allistair Stewart. All went on to play for South Africa.

In my time as chairman we hosted the SA Schools tournament twice – in 1982 and 1989 – and saw the game grow in terms of the number of schools playing and the number of teams per school. It was, however, still pretty low key compared to the current situation.

Water polo is now far more professionally run, no question, and the introduction of bigger swimming pools made all the difference. In the early days, schools typically played in the deep end of a swimming pool – a field 15 to 20m in length, tops – and even if they wanted to have more teams there would not have been enough space for them to practice in.

It’s a different world to the one I bowed out of in 1995, and the game has become the premier summer code, for boys and girls, at schools in South Africa. All credit to those running the sport now, and God’s strength to them for the future.