Australia’s men’s water polo team have improved so much that their European rivals have started avoiding them in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics
The Sharks’ best Olympics finish is fifth but are they on the up, claiming silver at the 2018 World Cup and bronze at last year’s World League Super Final.
Their Games push gathered momentum on Tuesday night with captain Aaron Younger’s late goal capping a comeback 13-12 victory over the United States in the first of three Brisbane Tests.
The teams play again on Thursday and Saturday in what will be the men’s and women’s final matches in Australia before July’s Games.
Australia and the US have also been training together.
It is a common practice in water polo and something European heavyweights have been happy to do with Australia in the past before major tournaments.
However, the Sharks’ emergence as a genuine threat means the likes of Rio silver medallists Croatia have started knocking them back in recent tournaments as Tokyo nears.
“We’ve beaten every team in the top eight … confidence has never been this good and the atmosphere is good but the tough stuff comes now,” Younger told AAP.
“We’re trying to not think too far ahead, because it’s a trap we’ve been caught in historically.
“It’s all about the lead up and trying to enjoy that and becoming a better team rather than thinking of a number (to finish in Tokyo).”
Younger is one of just three full-time professionals in the Sharks squad, describing his club Ferencvaros as the “Collingwood of Hungarian sport”.
Player of the tournament in the 2018 World Cup, Tounger said his third Olympics build-up feels different.
“It’s definitely the best position we’ve been in,” he said.
“In the last few years that mentality has changed a bit … it would be an amazing feeling to achieve something big (like an Olympic medal).”
The US women extended their remarkable winning streak to 69 on Tuesday but only just with a 10-9 defeat of their Australian rivals.
The Stingers won the first women’s water polo gold in Sydney 20 years ago, followed by bronze in 2008 and 2012, and will present as a genuine medal chance again in Japan.