MANCHESTER, England, Feb. 18. DEFENDING champions Lancaster City will be looking to retain their men's title at the British National Water Polo Club Championships this weekend.
Ryszard Detko's team defeated Rotherham Metro 5-3 in last year's showcase final, but start the defence of their crown against Bristol Central in tomorrow's semi finals at the Manchester Aquatic Centre.
Lancaster won the final in 2003 with an 11-6 victory over Penguin, so triumph this year would yield a history-making treble of successive titles for the dominant North West club.
Rotherham, with England junior captain Adam Schofield amongst their ranks, face Edinburgh club Portobello in this year's other semi final clash hoping to progress to Sunday's final.
Last season Rotherham beat Lancaster 6-5 in the preliminary stages of the competition and then cruised to an 11-5 win over Bristol Central to reach the final. However, Lancaster's experience told and they took silverware for the second year running when the battle between the two big guns went their way.
This season also sees the first ever women's competition with hosts Manchester to meet Liverpool, while Sheffield play Coventry in their respective semi final clashes.
Both competitions are set to attract plenty of interest at the 2002 Commonwealth Games pool, particularly in the men's event where Rotherham do have high hopes of avenging last year's final defeat to rivals Lancaster.
Lancaster's task hasn't been made any easier with star players Tom Curwin, their top-scorer with 46 goals, and Andy Squires both absent. The influential duo are currently playing for the Melbourne Tigers in the Australian National Water Polo League, along with a number of other top English players.
Bristol, who face Lancaster in the last of Saturday's matches, will be without the experienced Craig Figes, the 3rd highest scorer in the National Water Polo League this season.
Figes, who has scored 46 goals for Bristol, is starring for West Sydney, along with Cheltenham pairing Mark Banwell and Alex Parsonage. Graham Martin-Bye, from Penguin (eliminated in the preliminary stages after three defeats from as many games), is playing for Balmain Tigers. All six players are Down Under to gain valuable experience and develop their games.
"This year should be a great competition," said Nick Hulme, the National Water Polo Performance Director. "I'm sure the competition will be really tight even though there are some key players missing for a few sides.
"Lancaster will take some beating in the men's event, but there's one eye on the Commonwealth Games next year, so players from all the teams will be looking to perform. The competition should be very open."
Hulme is also rightly excited about the inaugural women's competition, which he hopes will help attract more spectators to this year's championships.
"I hope more people come and watch the championships now that it is a combined event," added Hulme. "It gives the spectators a chance to see the best men and women in the country battle it out for honours."
In the women's competition honours could be won by any one of four excellent teams, although Sheffield are weakened by the loss of centre-forward Fran Layton, daughter of the England coach Norman, and Carol Mohan, a feared outside shooter. Both ladies are playing for the Freemantle Marlins in Perth, Western Australia.
It is hoped the experience will benefit both players as they bid to succeed in the European Cup. Sheffield are due to play in Prague soon, Liverpool face a trip to Athens, Greece, and Manchester will travel to France to play Bordeaux.
"Sheffield will be weakened but all the ladies' teams will be looking to find some form with the European Cup just around the corner," added Hulme.
Weekend (Feb 20-21) schedule –
British National Water Polo Club Championships, Saturday – Women (3.00): Sheffield v Coventry; Men (4.15): Rotherham Metro v Portobello; Women (5.30): Liverpool v Manchester; Men (6.45): Bristol v Lancaster.
Sunday – (9.00): Women's 3rd/4th play-off; (10.15): Men's 3rd/4th play-off; (11.30): Women's final; (12.45): Men's final.