Kiwis aren’t meant to fly. They are flightless, nocturnal birds who rummage around for food in the woods and stick close to their roots. They are rarely seen by the public except in wildlife centres and are shy to the extreme. Not so Joe Kayes, the hulking New Zealander who emerged from the land of the long white cloud, travelled extensively, played in the daylight and dark and became one of the world’s leading water polo exponents.

One can hardly call Joe shy or unassuming. He is a larger-than-life character who expects and gets respect in and out of the water. His chequered career includes rising through the ranks in New Zealand, gaining invaluable experience in Hungary, winning a national league in Australia and eventually switching nationalities to compete for, and captain, the Aussie Sharks men’s water polo team. It’s not the normal route to potential stardom, but one Joe needed to take if he was ever to achieve his Olympic dream – something he achieved at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Joe Kayes (AUS) posing for Australian Olympic Games water polo team ©Getty Images

Up to 128kg

Heralding from New Zealand with Samoan heritage, there is no Olympic water polo history as the country needs to beat Australia if it ever wishes to make the quadrennial event, something it has never achieved.

Joe is exasperated for Kiwi water polo and its lack of opportunity at Olympic level.

Water polo simply isn’t a major sport in New Zealand. The sporting scene is dominated by rugby, soccer, etc and water polo is very far down the list. It’s disappointing in a way, but I also understand the marketability and way sport funding works and that’s life.

“New Zealand has some great talent and great players have come through over the years, but unfortunately there is no funding to continue developing these players after junior level.”

Many Kiwis have crossed the Ditch (as the Tasman Sea is known in the Down Under world) to ply their trade in Australian competitions and at one stage fielded national teams in the Australian National Water Polo League in the early 2000s. Some have even gone on to play for Australia, but not at the Olympic level.

Joe was destined for that honour, such were his skills, his dedication and his outlook on life. If it was a possibility, then he would pursue it.

Long-time Aussie Sharks assistant coach Paul Oberman has the utmost respect for Joe, calling him “a happy person”.

He’s a very good leaderhe communicates well with the athletes; they expect him as a centre forward to be the best and he expects the best in return. He’s on that equal footing with the athletes where there is a mutual respect and mutual expectation that working hard is the right way to go about it.

Oberman says Joe is an excellent swimmer for his size who can power through the water “unbelievably”.

He’s been up to 128kg (282 pounds) and for him to go that fast and power that body through the water; he has huge strength. His bench press is phenomenal – 150-160kg. He’s so strong in the upper body and doing squats. No one else in the national team gets near to him.

His positive attitude means he believes strongly that the Sharks can succeed as a national team.

“He’s a fun guy to be around and loves cracking a joke and having a laugh. He doesn’t play favourites and is happy to help out. He won’t shirk the issue when it comes to carrying bags.”

Oberman rates him along with the best, saying: “As a centre forward, he’s one of the best in the world. Being so strong, he has so much upside and ability and holds the position well. So well that he’s been unfairly punished by the referees because of his strength compared to other athletes. He’s also probably one of the two best post players in the world. He has a great knowledge of post play, a great knowledge of the game, from playing in Hungary and he’s very good at passing on his knowledge to help fellow athletes. Although he hails from New Zealand and loves his heritage, he genuinely wants to succeed for Australia.

Kayes (AUS) in action during the 2016 Olympic team trials ©Getty Images

The Hungarian impact

Fast forward to 2019 and the FINA World Championships in Gwanju, South Korea, where Joe was involved in a controversy that reverberated around the stadium and had everyone propounding a theory on what did or did not happen and what the consequences would be.

Joe was playing for Australia, and in the all-important quarter-final clash with Hungary, Joe found himself in the unenviable position of driving to goal to level the match at a crucial stage – a goal could have given the Sharks the chance to win and progress to the top four and an outside possibility of playing for gold.

This is what I wrote for the FINA website at the time in Korea:

It all came down to the last four seconds in a match where both teams were even (9-9) and either team could gain the prize of a trip to the semifinals. Luck did not ride the way of the Aussie Sharks who were denied a penalty attempt in the last 10 seconds when Joe Kayes drove to within a metre of the goal-face and was impeded under the new rules.

However, the referee decided it was not a penalty; Hungary called a timeout in the mayhem that followed, gave the ball to Marton Vamos and he speared the ball past Joel Dennerley for victory at four seconds. Australian head coach Elvis Fatovic was still remonstrating with the referees about the non-call, but the match was lost and the chance for the top four gone.

Joe’s reactions were probably much like those of all members of the team, but it was accepted as a result of war. The referee’s decision is final in water polo, right or wrong.

Joe reflects on that moment: “It’s definitely a ‘shit-happens’ scenario, but it did hurt for a while. I think the boys were playing really well and we would have loved the opportunity at playing a semi-final and I think we did deserve that chance, but sometimes things don’t go to plan. The dream lives on and I know the boys are just as hungry to come back and prove we deserve a good result – once we can travel and play again!

Meanwhile, Joe’s former Kiwi countrymen had earlier seen their hopes of a magnificent Gwangju farewell dashed when a two-goal lead against South Korea in the final quarter was squandered and the match went to a shootout, which the Koreans won 17-16 for 15th position.

This is where New Zealand dwells in the rankings – fighting for the lower end of the market and dreaming of one day making the top 10, which its women’s team has frequently visited.

The fact that Joe was competing at World Championships for Australia, following his first Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, was testament to his desire and his impeccable skills as a dangerous hole man.

These skills were honed under the watchful eye of one of the sport’s greatest centre-forwards – Tamas Molnar. The triple Olympic champion had a huge influence on Joe during his stint at Szeged in Hungary.

I played junior age group stuff in New Zealand, then got a bit of a break when the Hungarian junior team came to New Zealand in 2008, the year before the 2009 world junior champs in Sibenik,” Joe said.

I was asked by (legendary Hungarian coach) Ferenc Kemeny (father of triple Olympic champion coach Denes) if I wanted to play in Hungary and he helped to facilitate my first contract in Szeged. Part of that move to Hungary was Ferenc Kemeny and (Australian legend) Tom Hoad getting me to Fremantle (Perth, Western Australia) in 2009, where I won the Australian National Water Polo League with Fremantle Sharks. After playing the junior world champs for New Zealand in Sibenik, Croatia, I moved to Szeged where I stayed and played four years.

In Szeged, I was extremely fortunate to play under Zoltan Kasas (1972 Olympic silver medallist and father of triple Olympic champion Tamas Kasas) and Balazs Vince (triple Olympian — 1988-96). The most notable aspect of playing in Szeged was being mentored by Tamás Molnar. He really spent a lot of time helping to develop me and taught me a lot.

Tamas and Joe are similar players and the fact that Joe managed to get such brilliant coaching from the master set him up strongly for his senior international career. His career in Hungary was a happy one, winning two Hungarian Cups and adding silver and bronze medals in the Hungarian championship.

Kayes (AUS) in 2009 ©Getty Images

“Australia felt like the right move for me”

Joe competed for the Kiwi senior team in World League encounters in Japan and Adelaide in 2008-09 and he comes from a sporty family. Father Paul was a rugby man and brother Daniel was a Samoan national sevens rugby player on the HSBC World Series. His mother Dorca played for Bay of Plenty/Waikato in what is now the ANZ netball championship and sister Julia (21) played representative water polo and netball before pursuing medical studies.

Joe’s introduction to the sport of water polo came in the coastal town of Mt Maunganui in New Zealand’s North Island. He was born in Auckland, but grew up in Mount Maunganui.

There was no water polo in my home town growing up. When I was about eight years old, my father started the local club, Tauranga. That was my entry into the sport. I grew up swimming and playing rugby, but I very quickly fell in love with water polo.”

What was the springboard for playing for Australia?
After playing in Hungary for a year or two, the drive to play international water polo and test myself a bit more than club-level water polo started to grow. I thought Australia was closer to home (literally), but also culturally New Zealanders and Australians are similar people. I also wanted to be a part of a team that was growing and improving, and Australia felt like the right move for me.

What happened next was a long and complicated process for Joe to make the transition from Kiwi to Aussie. He played nearly 20 matches for Australia before he was sanctioned to play FINA events.
The process of changing nationality for sport was long and frustrating and I definitely believe that it was made harder being New Zealander/Australian and not having the power that a lot of the main water polo countries have. I won’t go into that any further, but it was a huge relief once it was across the line.

He met Australia head coach Elvis Fatovic at Water Polo By The Sea in Sydney in 2013/14 and we had a good conversation about the future as he saw it and the decision to become involved was easy. “It took a little while to find my place, but I think now I’m in a good position and I have a great relationship with Elvis, which is nice.

That nationality process aided his rise in the international competition sphere. In 2014, he made his debut for the Sharks in Perth at the BHP Series, in a 12-9 loss and 9-9 draw with Olympic champion Croatia. His impact was immediate although he had overseas duties and did not slot into the regular team until the following year when he scored 31 goals.

He has since gone on to play 107 matches for Australia with at least 167 goals and was hoping to play his second Olympic Games in Tokyo this year. In fact, in 2018, Joe scored 49 goals and a further 37 in 2019. Seven goals in three matches with United States of America in January in Brisbane set the tone for what could have been another bumper year.

“I have my own little family”

Sadly for Joe and the rest of the globe, 2020 is a limbo year. However, for Joe, isolated in New Zealand during the COVID-19 crisis, his phoenix-like rise has been hampered by the fact that he no longer has a club team to play for in Europe, having had his contract not renewed at Italy’s Pro Recco in a roster shake-up. This was despite finishing equal top scorer in the Champions League with Montenegro’s Aleksandar Ivovic, his team-mate last year.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in Europe – both Hungary and most recently Italy. Playing for Pro Recco was a good experience although we didn’t get the result we wanted. COVID-19 then ruined this season and then I wasn’t renewed there, so life goes on.

Joe played for Fremantle in 2013-14 and returned to Hungary to play for Balazs Vince – this time with OSC in Budapest. He returned to Australia and played for Cronulla Sharks in Sydney from 2015 until 2018, encompassing the 2016 Olympic Games. In 2018-20 he was at Pro Recco in Italy before Covid struck, heading home to Mt Maunganui/Tauranga to be with his family and spend quality time with partner Jordyn and baby son Jai.

I have no aspirations to play in Europe any more. I have my own little family now and there’s much more to life than playing water polo, especially in Europe with the current state of the leagues and travel, etc. I’m currently in New Zealand, really enjoying life and I’ve started back with base-level training and will look to be back in Australia once restrictions are relaxed and join the boys for the build-up to Tokyo, however that looks. I have no plans currently for after the Tokyo Olympics and I won’t make any decision until afterwards,” Joe said.

While there have been lows for the Aussie Sharks, there have also been highs.

We have had some great results and have had some great times as a team. We love being on tour and playing and training together and it’s a massive strength of ours that we genuinely all enjoy each other’s company. The FINA World League Super Final in Belgrade (2019) was a great tournament for us, getting bronze, and I think we had a great tournament in Gwangju too, despite not making the top four,” he concludes.

With the Tokyo Olympics less than a year away, we trust that Joe Kayes will be his usual inspirational self and make the impact that he and his team-mates expect in their quest for an elusive podium finish.