Women's Water Polo World Cup 2010: World's best women's water polo teams head to Christchurch (NZL)

Water Polo World Cup

New Zealand's women's water polo players take on the planet's heavyweights this week at the 15th FINA Women's Water Polo World Cup at Christchurch's QE II Stadium. Ranked outside the elite group, the Kiwis face the daunting task of mixing it with seven of the leading teams as they battle for world supremacy in the year's major test ahead of next year's FINA World Championships in Shanghai, China.

It's the second time Christchurch has hosted the event after the first in 1988. This four-year spectacle, dominated by the Netherlands with eight titles since its inception in 1979, is headed by reigning champion Australia, who last week bested six of the teams at the 10th Anniversary Tournament in Sydney, celebrating a decade since women's water polo's inclusion to Olympic Games.

As in Sydney 2000, Australia beat the United States of America in the final. The USA has dominated the sport since 2000, winning three Olympic medals, three FINA World Championship crowns and five FINA World League titles but a World Cup gold medal still eludes this current crop of players. The USA won its only gold in 1979 when international women's water polo was in its infancy.

Gracing the team in Christchurch is the most decorated player in the world, Brenda Villa, a member of that silver-medal-winning team in Sydney, as well as every USA team since. Captaining the team, she leads by example and still has the scoring prowess that makes her a superstar of the sport.

Another medallist from 2000, Russian captain Sofya Konukh who played as a 20-year-old in the bronze-medal-winning team, had enough presence in a match in Sydney last week to score six goals and show that she still has the right stuff to play at this level.

Australia's most-celebrated water polo athlete, Melissa Rippon, boasts Olympic bronze from Beijing in her medal cabinet, which contains a further 11 medals having won World Cup and Commonwealth titles on the way.

This event will be the most closely watched of the year worldwide with the rider of five FINA World Championship berths up for grabs in Shanghai. Top five here means no further qualification is needed.

Who will win? Australia has the current form with two victories over the USA in the past week. However, USA has the background of big-match wins and these two teams' rivalry is a set above the rest in what is the tightest frame of teams in memory. Greece pipped Russia for bronze at last month's FINA World league Super Finals in La Jolla, USA at which the USA bettered Australia for gold in a penalty shootout. China topped Hungary in the play-off for fifth while Canada dipped out to Olympic champion Netherlands for seventh.

What of this last match? The Olympic champion versus the world No 2 from last year's FINA World Championships! So close is the competition that any of the eight teams could fill any position.

In La Jolla, eight of the 24 matches went to penalty shootout! Amazing! The fact that Canada, so unlucky not to win gold in Rome last year and with almost the same team, could only manage eighth. The Netherlands reshaped its team after winning gold in Beijing, changed the coach to an Italian and was not expected to fare better than it did.

Who should you be watching this tournament? Cast your eyes over the dominant USA with its supreme centre-forward strike force of Kameryn Craig,  Annika Dries and Juliet Moss. Look out also for Villa and newcomer Anne Belden. The Australians also have a powerful two-metre trio in captain Bronwen Knox, Gemma Beadsworth and Holly Lincoln-Smith. Knox and Beadsworth were World Team selections in La Jolla. Eighteen-year-old Ashleigh Southern, who made her international debut a week ago, slammed in eight goals in Sydney to force her way into the team.

Russia also has the magic to succeed. Konukh is the standout with her rifle-like shots from outside. Ekaterina Prokofyeva was the world's best junior last year and at 18 is a player of the future. Backed up by Anna Timofeeva, Olga Belyaeva and Evgeniya Pustyinnikova, Russia is a balanced team coached by one of the legends of the game - men and women - Alexandr Kabanov.

Greece pursues the dream after Olympic silver in Athens - the highest attended sport of those Games (even surpassing track and field) - and proved in La Jolla that medals do not elude it. A FINA World League gold in 2005 stands as the country's highest water polo honour. Heading the team is the undoubted centre-forward scoring machine Alexandra Asimaki. Throw in veteran captain Kyriaki Liosi, another veteran shooter in Antigoni Roumpesi, dynamic Angeliki Gerolymou - a certainty from the penalty line - and you have a great team.

China has worked wonders with its team since 1995 when it burst on to the international stage. A series of fifth placings is the best the team has  achieved at senior level, although the junior team, of whom most of these athletes played, claimed silver at the world championships three years ago. Watch Gao Ao and her swift arm in action. Teng Fei has a knack at getting into space to score, while captain Sun Huizi brings experience to the team and even backed up in goal in Sydney when Yang Jun was dragged for a poor effort by head coach Juan Jane Giralt, the former Spanish Olympic champion mentor of 1996 and world champion of 1998.

Hungary was a late acceptor for the tournament but boasts a powerful resumé of five medals, including gold in Perth in 2002. Captain Rita Dravucz is a  most accomplished player as is Agnes Valkai. The powerful Aniko Gyongyossy is a wall in goal while Dora Kisteleki is the strike force. The nuggety Barbara Bujka, who once played for Germany, also finds the back of the net on many occasions.

Canada is the enigma at the moment with eighth in La Jolla and a far-from-stunning display for sixth in Sydney last week. Captain Krystina Alogbo is world class and the toughest attacking centre forward. Backed up by penalty hero Emily Csikos, dominant left-hander Dominique Perrault, another two-metre star but excellent outside shooter Christine Robinson and fast-improving Monika Eggens, Canada has the team to win.

New Zealand has missed many opportunities to play in the big time but finished 12th in Rome last year, just behind China. Current form suggests a tough ask but gutsy players like captain Anna Sieprath and Casie Bowry command respect. Goalkeeper Carina Harache has played the Australian and Italian leagues and is world class while Emily Cox, Lynlee Smith and Kirsten Hudson are not averse to slogging it out with the stars of the game.

All in all, this tournament is a tasty appetizer heading to the 2012 London Olympic Games.

World Cup Performances
Australia: Gold (1984, 1995, 2006); Silver (1991, 1999); Bronze (1979, 1981, 1983, 1997)
Canada: Gold (1981); Bronze (1988, 2002)
China: Fifth (2006)
Greece: Sixth (1997)
Hungary: Gold (2002); Silver (1988); Bronze (1989, 1993, 1995)
New Zealand: Fourth (1984); Fifth (1979, 1981); Sixth (1988); Seventh (1991); Eighth (1995)
Russia: Silver (1997)
USA: Gold (1979); Silver (1980, 1983, 1984, 1989, 2002); Bronze (1991)

FINA World Cup, 1988, Christchurch, New Zealand
1. Netherlands
2. Hungary
3. Canada
4. United States of America
5. Australia
6. New Zealand
7. Puerto Rico