Mitch Graham is an "inside man" in the aquatic playground of canoe polo but last year he somewhat unceremoniously found himself on the outside of the national men's team, high and dry.

His then coach, Steve Hunt, of Christchurch, and his co-selectors didn't see Graham in the equation of the Paddle Blacks.

That rebuff saw the 25-year-old from Hastings put himself in the intangible witness box of self-cross examination to question his faith in the sport.

"It's a bit of a tough one," says Graham, when you ask him why he missed out although he chooses his words carefully as the cull for this year beckons a fortnight away.


"The coach, at the time, decided to go with one of the older, more experienced players who was on his last tour so it was a bit of a swansong for him," says the electrical engineer from Unison before competing in the annual Art Deco Canoe Polo Tournament at Pandaora Pond, Napier, today.

It is what it is, Graham likes to think, but also realises no sugar coating was going to make the bitter pill any more pleasant to swallow, never mind digest.

"I thought I'd done enough to make the team. It was pretty hard to accept. I guess you start questioning all the hard work you've put in."

The team was named soon after the Oceania Championship in April last year.

Quitting the code all together had crossed his mind, albeit relatively fleetingly for a fortnight, but the burning desire to represent his country again overrode that tide of emotions.

"I was, basically, pretty dejected and decided I never want to feel like that again. I didn't want to leave it in the hands of the selectors. I didn't want to give them an option not to pick me."

It did help he was playing for his club so he didn't have the time to sit around and mope.

Graham now trains much smarter, trying to glean the maximum out of each session.


Before that he used to put in the hard yards but didn't necessarily target specific areas for a tensile template, as it were.

Always a fit athlete, he wasn't shy about mixing things up but nowadays he's zeroing in on working on his inside shooting.

The former Havelock North High, intermediate and primary pupil is more conscious of having a vision on attack, "just to be aware of where the ball is at and where it needs to be going".

Graham sees the reign of incumbent coach Kyzen MacDonald, of Wairarapa, as a new dawn in his campaign.

"It's a bit of a clean slate," says the Canterbury University graduate.

MacDonald, Hunt and New Zealand under-21 men's coach, Eric Gurden, of Rotorua, are the men's national selectors.

Graham's brother, Jed, 28, was a Paddle Black from 2009 until last year so what added to the younger brother's disappointment was the inability to savour another year with his sibling after they competed alongside each other for two years.

"I was pretty gutted and it was hard to swallow after missing out but it would have been quite cool for our last tour," he says, after Jed has gone into semi-retirement from playing because he is now a new dad.

Jed shared the pain but gave Graham, who was a national representative from 2015-16, encouragement to jump back into the wagon with a more steely resolve.

"It's certainly made me question things and come out on the other side much stronger."

Graham will play for the Hawke's Bay Hurricanes team today as a big unit who encroaches the oppositions' defence to ruffle a few feathers as an "inside man" in the hope of creating holes for his teammates on offence to infiltrate or, alternatively, create a decoy before flicking him the ball to score.

MacDonald will play for Manawatu side Expose whose paths will cross with the Hurricanes.

A chuckling Graham sees that as an opportune time to give the incumbent mentor a taste of what he's about after undergoing a renaissance of sorts.

The Art Deco is the last summer tourney before the competitive winter club national league begins although tourneys will be staged in Christchurch next month, Palmerston North in April and Auckland in May but national selection means the Takapau lake will be about early impressions.

"It'll be New Zealand's largest canoe polo tournament so it'll be nice to encourage people of Hawke's Bay to come down to watch it," he says after it lured 55 teams today.

Graham says Pandora Pond is a great venue for spectators and was cleared on Thursday but a test yesterday afternoon saw the Napier City Council close down the venue because of bacteria contamination.

Graham caught the canoe polo bug at 7 while watching his father, John, coach the Karamu High School teams.

"Jed and I would jump into Clive Pool at the end of sessions for a paddle.

"It was a family affair," he says, revealing their father coached them through to high school while mother Adie was manager when they were in their teens.