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Duncan CochraneAn interview by Paul Hammond, aka Clyde, with Duncan Cochrane, long time member of the Australia men's canoe polo team and member of the ICF Canoe Polo Committee. Interview originally conducted over email by Clyde in early 2003.






Clyde: What’s your background in Canoe/Kayaking before you got into Canoe Polo?

Duncan: Before playing polo I had always had a keen interest in white water canoeing and kayaking and done some trips in both canoes and kayaks with a youth group. I first started when I was about 12, and got really serious when I built my first kayak at school as a tech studies project when I was 16. I went into a shop to buy a new paddle to go with the new kayak and was asked if it was for polo or white water. I said what is polo, went out and had a game the following week and started playing polo seriously from then on. White water is always something I have loved and will basically paddle almost anything up to Grade 5. I have done a little slalom- only one serious event, and love play boating, but I am not into actual Freestyle competitions- it seems like a good way to may the fun stuff too serious. 
Clyde: How long have you been in the Australian Men’s team and where have you competed with them?
Duncan: I first played for the Australian Junior Team in an International series in Sydney in January 1989 against 11 overseas teams. We actually beat all the other teams (including Meridian) except the French Team and the Australian Men’s Team. We beat the Australian Men’s B team which was great fun. I then made the senior team which Toured Europe in August 1989 but broke my collar bone in Italy during the second last competition before we went to Essen.
Since then I have toured Europe in 91, 93, Worlds in 94, 98, 99 as coach, 2000 before Brazil and 2002- so I have seen plenty of mainland Europe and the UK and  I have also had several other trips either coaching or competing to New Zealand, Japan, Canada, US, Hong Kong. Most of the Australian Team members always try and combine a trip overseas with a short holiday afterwards- it makes it more cost effective so I have done a fair bit of travelling around as well.

Clyde: Being like an “Island Nation” – albeit on a continent, many others have had very slow rates of progress, so how has Australia managed to reach such a high level and then maintain it for such a long period despite the lack of National opposition?

Duncan: I think part of it is the fact that Australians LOVE sport! It is just such a huge part of our lifestyle to be throwing a ball, swinging a bat or racquet or kicking something. Historically, whether it is in business, sport or even war, Australians are renowned for “giving it a go” no matter how unlikely the outcome. And we hate losing- every sporting team in Australia will always try and do that bit extra to win- even when we have been written off or are behind.
Whatever sport you play you are always encouraged to do your best, and because we have a relatively small population (less than 20 million in the whole country), each sport will give all their participants the best coaching and assistance they can to encourage them and keep them competing. In polo it is no different. For example in Adelaide we are lucky if we can get 20 kids playing the sport- so every one of them gets goods coaching and encouragement to keep playing.
I think something we have been very lucky with is our ball skills- so many of our players grow up with a ball in their hands be it Cricket, Baseball, Tennis or Basketball- even footballs- the oval ones, so we have naturally good ball skills. This obviously transfer well into polo. Combine that with some white water that is rarely accessible so people play more polo to keep their skills up. In Adelaide there is no WW so it is either racing, marathon or polo as far as competitive canoeing goes.
Clyde: It seems like the overall score is 3-2 to Australia – do you see it that way and who will get to 5 first and how long do you think it will take?
Duncan: I would love it is Australia gets to 5 first, and I would love it even more if I could be part of it. Unfortunately I think the weight of numbers will see the Europeans win 5 before we do- not that we will stop trying mind you. I think the total number of players in Europe and the regular competitions and training you have against each other are making it that much harder for us to even stay competitive. Every Training weekend we have is at least a 2000km round trip and we only get that level of competition at the moment once every 2 years when we come to Europe. Hopefully in the next few years we can do more with Asia and New Zealand to rectify this- otherwise we will all be left behind.
The other major factor is the cost. Each of our players is up for $8000-$10000 Australian dollars every time we go overseas- so many simply cannot afford to keep playing at that level for 4-6 years. I am a firm believer in a team needing a very strong core of players who have played together for a long time for it to be successful. We had it from 91-98, and got the results. GB have had it from 95-2002 and have got the results. I think the Dutch and the Germans will be VERY hard to beat in a few years as their players mature and stay together.  One thing we have struggled to achieve since Portugal is keeping the core of the team together- hopefully we can do it for Japan as we have a very keen group who are all pushing each other to go again.
Clyde: Your Kayaks Plus business seems to be making the world a smaller place with exports to just about everywhere. Any new developments for the empire?
Duncan: Kayaks Plus is the sole reason Carolyn and I have been able to keep competing- if it was not for the kayaks we would have been bankrupt long ago. I am really lucky at the moment that due to the various exchange rates my gear is relatively cheap for other countries to buy. There is also the durability factor- our style of game has always involved big boat tackles so our boats although a bit heavier are built to last. In the European style of game it is not uncommon for players to get several years out of our kayaks- I think one of the French Guys record was 6 years for a boat he bought in Adelaide, so it is good value for money.
I think boats are an ever evolving item- and hopefully will continue to do so. All the top designs are relatively similar now so it comes down to personal preference and value for money.
In terms of new projects we are just about to move to a brand new bigger factory where we will have the space to produce more boats quicker and also begin production of paddles and helmets. There is a new boat design on the drawing board for the girls and lightweight guys and we are in discussions with Dagger Australia about doing the Vampire 2001 in plastic for the American market where they need a bigger boat. The original Dagger Vampire was done on the Vampire S for the Australian Schools and Asian markets and has been a huge success.
Clyde: With Carolyn’s deep involvement in the sport as well, do you actually ever get time away from it?
Duncan: NO! And I get reminded of it all the time. It gets VERY difficult at times especially with all the planning, meetings, coaching and training that goes on. Australian polo is basically self governed- most of the players actually do the work as there are no full-time or even part-time paid administrators. I currently hold 3 positions (all voluntary) in Australian Canoe Polo- Vice Chairman, Chief Referee and Coaching Director, as well as positions on the local South Australian organisation and the ICF. When I am not working at the Fire Brigade- my paid job, I will either be working on Kayaks Plus stuff or Polo stuff or both. I actually find training and competing overseas to be a holiday- as I don’t have to worry about the rest of the stuff for a change.
Clyde: What is your involvement with the ICF?
Duncan: I am a member of the ICF Athletes Commission which is a three person panel which is meant to present the views of the athletes to the full board of the ICF. It is difficult because the other two people are from Racing and Slalom and I represent the non-Olympic disciplines including polo, marathon, rodeo and down river racing. The biggest problem is we have no easy way to meet or make suggestions. I have made a point of trying to get to the ICF Polo meetings but even this is difficult- most are in Europe or Asia so it is another airfare I need to find. However I try and get as many opinions on all issues as I can- especially via the Polo Forums which I then pass onto the ICF polo committee- whether they can act or not on some issues is sometimes difficult to resolve and it is impossible to keep everyone happy and still achieve the best result.
Clyde: How do you think we can get away from the ever stressful scrutineering at World Championships?
Duncan: I would love to make the boat specs and uniform rules much clearer and simpler to implement. The boats specs are being worked on and I have just been told should take effect by 2005. The biggest problem is that the boat specs and full scrutineering really only get implemented at World And Continental Championships, so people get away with unsafe, or illegal gear for 99% of the time. At the end of the day- all the equipment should be about safety, team uniform and performance-  I honestly have never yet understood why a flush head footrest bolt needs to be taped! Or how a helmet number which is clearly in breach of the minimum size is allowed to be passed. For boat specs- I personally think we only need Length, Width, round edges and padding specs. If someone wants to use a shallow depth boat then as long as their PFD is still protecting their kidneys- let them use it.
I think also we should protect the legitimate designers from the cheap rip off builders who do not make any changes and just produce a cheaper copy of the same boat. All this does is reduce the return to the legitimate designers who actually put effort into improving the sport and this in turn I believe just reduces the effort of the designers and also the spin offs in sponsorship to the top players.
Clyde: Do you think we are getting closer to a professional sport and do you think that would be a change for the better?
Duncan: There is little doubt that aspects of our sport are getting more professional. The players, coaches, training methods, fitness levels and equipment are all getting better year by year. There is also some serious money being spent on competitions, national leagues, import players etc. The Malaysian Federation reportedly just spent $18000US on a custom made canoe polo scoreboard! I think the next big step is to sort out the refereeing issues- with different grades of referees and also a certain number of non- playing top grade referees at each competition- I know the ICF are working on this now. I think probably also more countries- especially the newer countries will start importing coaches to both give their players the better feedback and also help train up their own coaches to that level.
Is it a good thing- of course, but I would just like to see us get to the stage where players do not have to fund their own travel and equipment. I have played with so many top players who just cannot afford to keep playing and it is a real shame. Unfortuanlty unless we either get a huge financial backer who turns the sport professional or we make it to the Olympics this will not change for most countries in the near future.
Cylde: How long are you going to keep going as a top flight player ? Do you think this will be a decision you will make or one that will be made for you?
Duncan: I have already made this decision once- I had actually retired after Brazil, but the finances changed, Graham moved to Australia so I had a new training partner, and we had a really good group of keen players who I believed had a really great chance in Essen. As it turned out things did not go totally to plan but that is just an indication of how close the top teams are now, and how good the next level of teams are getting. I would love to keep playing but finances and possibly a family have me currently retired. However there are several players like myself, Alan Vessey, Erwin Roos and others who have been to all the worlds so far and there is almost a pact forming to keep going until the World Games in 2005. I would love to be a part of this group if I can so we will have to wait and see…
Clyde: Are you aware of how much teams (National and Club) in Europe want to play against Australia ? What do you think about that?
Duncan: Not sure how to answer that one. I know there are some teams who do not like playing us as their boats have suffered over the years! There are others who I know always use us a bench mark of how they are travelling but I think this has changed due to our results in Brazil and Germany. There are certainly some in Europe that no longer see us as being a force, and I would like nothing better for our team in Japan to prove otherwise
We have always tried to make a point of playing as hard as we can on the field but have a few beers and be social afterwards and I think that has helped our reputation in some countries- there always seem to be plenty of people buying beers anyway.  Personally- it is the best thing about our sport at the moment- everyone is so friendly from the top teams right down to the rookie teams and I would hate this to change. It is one of the reasons I am so against the limiting of team numbers- although at some stage it will have to happen, I just think it is far too early to start doing it. Personally, I am more than happy to play anyone at any time and would rather compete than train. Any countries are more than welcome to come to Australia on their way to Japan if they want some games- or for the Oceania Championships in October this year as well.
Clyde: A couple of years ago there was an Australian Development squad over here on tour. They didn’t seem very representative of what we saw at the 2002 Worlds. Do you think it helps or damages a Nations image, if a weak team are below par and their opponent just assume that’s the quality of the real National team?
Duncan: I think these tours for us are a necessity if we want to remain competitive! We try to make a point of entering as a development team, the uniforms are different and the whole focus of the tour is different- on development, not results, so I do not see that it damages our reputation. It is really no different to the European countries entering U21 teams in the European Championships- it's just that our teams come to Europe and they are not all U21. So far 4 of the 12 players involved in these teams have made it to the senior team in either Brazil or Germany and all were far better off for the experience, so we will keep doing it if our players can afford it. We actually consider these tours in some ways to be more beneficial than sending a team to the U21 Worlds as they get a better tour, with more focus on training and techniques than on results- so in the long term they are better players.
Clyde: How do you find club polo varies over there compared to what you have experienced in Europe and is it developing over there?
Duncan: Our structure is very different to Europe and currently being reviewed. Most of the main centres play polo in local competitions each week in a typical round robin and finals structure as opposed to the European style of 1 weekend each fortnight or each month. Due to the distances we travel, there are far fewer weekend competitions, but these are gaining in popularity. We have no National League as such- we tried one for a couple of years but it was just far too expensive, so we basically have too championships per year- The Interstate championships where each state of Australia selects their best teams and enters, and the Club Championships where any club can enter. This year we have the first ever Oceania Championships- which realistically is just us and NZ but we are hoping that in the long term we can combine with Asia as well. The clubs are not nearly as big over here as in Europe- there are very few with club houses and there are currently NO permanent polo fields in Australia. Most of the clubs just enter the local competition which is normally in swimming pools and only the bigger clubs actually provide equipment- this is normally done by the local association. We are in the process of trying to build permanent fields in the bigger regions to make polo more accessible and I think this will dramatically increase our club development.
Clyde: In your team chant, who is the man with the big red nose is?
Duncan: The big red nose started as a drinking song- the man with the big red nose says” Drink more Beer”, we changed it to “Score more goals”- accept after the last game when the beer comes back into the song.
Clyde: Was it true the Graham said he wasn’t going to got to the Essen Worlds if he had to wear team speedo's and lycra shorts?
Duncan: YES, and he was not the only one, but team rules are team rules so he wore them. He now actually quite likes the lycra look and is regularly seen in public wearing them- NOT. Graham and a couple of others are leading a revolt for Japan and rumour has it the lycra shorts will be replaced with far more traditional Aussie Board shorts.
We are all trying to get the best team to Japan so that we can try to get Graham to be the first to sin a gold medal for two different countries- oh and we have to try to stop GB getting 3 in a row- that’s a record we want to keep! 
Interview originally published on Clyde's Polo Page

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