LEAPING AHEAD: When water polo ace Joe Kayes headed to Hungary seven months ago for a tilt at a pro career, he may have felt like a minnow in a big pool. Back from a successful first season, the rising star has strong prospects in the big time, as Martin Lang writes.
Masseurs and doctors at the ready, daily restaurant meals, his own apartment to relax in of an evening and all expenses paid - it's a great ticket for a teenager by anyone's measure.
Add in the fact he's shot from the relative backwater of New Zealand to be protege to a triple Olympic gold medallist and you can't help but be highly impressed by Joe Kayes.
Signed late last year after playing for  the New Zealand junior and senior teams, Kayes and his new teammates battled to bronze in Hungary's club competition, arguably the sport's toughest domestic league.
Not that the Mount Maunganui 19-year-old is taking his fortunes with Hungarian club Szeged-Beton for granted, though. Home for a 10-week break before taking up a fresh contract with Szeged, the powerful centre forward - the key strike position in the sport - says life at pro level was a whole new ball game.
"I had to relearn everything," he said.
"For the first two months I didn't even shoot goals at training. The coach took me aside and we did leg work, changed my passing technique, talked about position in the pool, basic things," Kayes says.
"One of the big things about going to Hungary, taking that step into the unknown, was seeing how big water polo is in the keen European countries. Because it's fulltime the skills are obviously so much stronger.
"Straight after a match you've got masseurs waiting, if you have any kind of injury you're at the doctor's in 20 minutes."
With Szeged's rise from fifth the previous season to claim bronze, Kayes now has the international arena of European Cup competition to look forward to courtesy of that top-three finish.
Crucial in helping him settle in to the professional ranks has been a close rapport with the club's frontline centre forward Tamas Molnar, who has helped fire Hungary to their consecutive golds at the past three Olympics.
 "He's played a huge part in my improvement. We do lots of one-on-one training."
Aged 35, Molnar may only have one or two seasons left before calling it a day and the timing couldn't be better for his young understudy.
"My contract for the coming season should be finalised any day now. As a 19-year-old and a recent arrival I'm not pushing for any big [financial] increase. The club president is a really good guy though, and the coach knows I'm coming on okay as a replacement for Tamas."
While he isn't going to bandy any sums about, he has previously said players in Europe start on about 30,000  ($55,000). "The money's not Super 14 level but with accommodation and food covered it's definitely okay for a guy my age."
Fifth tallest in the Szeged line-up at 1.95m, Kayes' training regime trimmed his weight back a touch to 100kg despite enjoying pick-of-the-menu privileges at a local eatery. Szeged-Beton was sponsored by seven local restaurants and a couple of players would be allocated to each one, heading in every day for a three-course lunch.
Playing in second-tier European competition the Len Cup, as well as domestic leagues, the team had plenty to fuel up for but excursions to countries like Slovakia, Romania and Serbia were memorable.
"At Montenegro the place was packed and people were letting off fireworks. You couldn't see the side of the pool.
"The local rivalries rub off on you. Hungary and Serbia have a bit of history. One day the two national teams were having training at the Szeged pool, we were watching after finishing our training. There were about 40 guys having a hit-around in the pool and it blew up into a fight. There were players diving in from poolside, it was hard case."
A stint last year with the Aussie champion Fremantle Mariners was a handy stepping stone, Kayes says. "(It meant) the challenges of being away for a long time were familiar."
With broadening horizons in Europe, a tilt at the 2011 world junior championship in Greece may well be Kayes' international swansong.
"With the sport being so lowly funded back here I can't see how I could fit playing with the national senior men's team in with the European season," he said.