Liam Ward derives immense pleasure from other people's misery when he slips on his helmet and body protection gear in canoe polo.

For Ward that comes within the territory of assuming the "unforgiving" position of goalkeeper in an aquatic pitch where the net, suspended two metres above the surface, is guarded as one would a king on a chess board.

"When you make those blocks from people's shots it's a very satisfying thing — the ball hitting that paddle and rebounding outside the goal," says the 18-year-old from Napier who will make his debut with the New Zealand under-21 men's team which player Jed Graham, of Hastings, coaches while juggling the role of new dad of a baby daughter.

The national age-group side, including Bay's Mitch Graham, Ethan Flanders and AJ Bowden, is building towards the Canoe Polo World Championship to be staged at Welland, Canada, from July 31 to August 5.


He suspects there's a bout of nerves leading up to the champs but the team are teed up on confidence.

"It hasn't really sunk in that I'm going to play for the team yet but it probably will when I get up close in the plane there."

That Ward hasn't bothered checking out Welland to see what the venue will be like suggests the team are taking the attitude of having to adapt smartly to whatever the champs may throw at them in the northern hemisphere.

The former St John's College (Hastings) pupil is in a gap year, working as a lifeguard at Ocean Spa in Napier and picking apples in orchards to collect money for his canoe polo pursuits. He intends to enrol at Massey University in Palmerston North to pursue a degree veterinary science from next year.

"It's my first real taste of international competition because it's the first time I'll be travelling overseas to play for New Zealand."

To play against the best in the world, Great Britain, the world and European champions, takes the cake for him.

Ward, who was in the NZ U18s last year, plays for the elite Hurricanes A1 team which Eric Gurden, of Rotorua, mentors.

So what happens when opposition players infiltrate his last line of defence?


"The heart drops a little but you try to get yourself up quickly rather than let it get you down. It can be hard sometimes. You can have some happy days and sometimes you don't."

Just like his counterparts in soccer, Ward isn't shy to holler at his defenders.

It's not something he was accustomed to as a reticent bloke from his childhood days.

But that doesn't mean he should become captain because he believes canoe polo demands a level of team work few other codes do.

Unlike most other positions, Ward enjoys playing entire matches in a specialist role.

Canoe polo caught his eye on the Tamatea Intermediate notice board as something different from rugby and cricket.

"From the time I hopped into the boat it was something I really enjoyed at the Clive pools."

For someone who was swimming from a young age he had no issues taking the plunge into the water.

"I definitely wasn't a water-loving person but canoe polo has helped with that."

The physical and tactical aspects of the code strike a chord with him. The short 20-minute bursts of "full, hard-out" activity appeals.

"It's not like a marathon," he says.

The ball skills, throwing and paddle work add to that total experience of staying mobile on water to ensure no one dunks you.

Starting out as a chaser or "top man", he was in a school tourney team when the goalkeeper couldn't make it in 2015 so Ward put his hand up to fill in and caught the bug.

His typical daily training routine includes 90 minutes at the gym, at least an hour-long paddle session in a team environment or simply honing individual skills, all adding up to about 20 hours a week with rest days on Wednesdays.

His mother, Leza Ward, a caregiver, is a source of inspiration for him.

"She's always been there from the start. She pays for all my tournaments and takes me to all my trainings and my games so it comes down to whatever she can do."

Ward isn't under illusions that with his mother he wouldn't be where he is today.

Like many parents, she didn't give up on her son finding traction with a code when he couldn't strike a chord with other mainstream ones.

With a burning desire to compete at the highest level, he yearns for the day when he can become a Black Paddle, a member of the national men's team.

"To win the world championship is the ultimate goal, really."

Ward believes his NZ U21 side have got what it takes to claim glory in Welland later this year but they must work hard.

He is indebted to his Hurricanes teammates for helping him get this far.