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Interview with the New Zealand youth handball team

Youth handball. Perhaps these two words might not mean much by themselves, but when someone is a handball lover, they know exactly how much they mean since that’s the first step for the next generation in this sport. Every handball player’s biggest dream is to take part in at least one world championship because that is the time when they have the highest chance to show the international handball teams and clubs what they are capable of on the court. 

 

My three interviewees, John Whittaker (17), Stan Schirnack (18), and Keir Robertson (18), were part of that New Zealand youth team that travelled across the whole world all the way to Budapest to start their journey and compete at the IHF (International Handball Federation) Men’s Youth World Championship 2023 in Croatia. The boys have spent nearly a month in Europe, and for many of them, this was the first time travelling so far from New Zealand. Although, how does Hungary come into the picture other than landing at the airport? Team New Zealand was drawn to Group B, where, alongside Morocco and Slovenia, they faced the Hungarian team. Although the boys have met Hungarians outside the court, as well because during their trip, they had a chance to train with the youth players of NEKA (National Handball Academy), and they were able to take a peek into Telekom Veszprém’s training and had a chance to talk to the players. I will let them tell the rest of their experience about this outstanding opportunity.



AUcklevél: How and when did you meet for the first time with this very European-based sport? 


Stan: 

My first season of handball was in 2019. It was the end of the year, term 4, and our Romanian history teacher started a course. My friends wanted me to play, so I joined the team that year. 


Keir: 

I also started in 2019, term 1, and got introduced by our Romanian history teacher in my school a year before, saying he was starting a new sport called European Handball, and he asked if we were keen to try it out. I went home, talked to my parents about it, and then first I just went along with it, having fun. 


John: 

My first proper season with handball was in 2021. I got introduced very late in 2020, in November during school, and I thought it was very interesting. I started off with beach handball in 2021, then kind of went through 2021 as more of a developmental season, and 2022 is where it all started off from there. 


Aucklevél: In 2022 at the Oceania Cup organised by IHF you finished second behind Tahiti but few months later due to Tahiti’s political situation, New Zealand got selected to take part at the World Championship in 2023. How did that make you feel? 


Stan: 

We were at a restaurant celebrating the end of the tournament, and there was an IHF official there. He came to us with the news that Tahiti can’t actually compete at the World’s, so all at once, together as a team we got told and we all jumped up, started celebrating, hugging each other. It was a pretty surreal moment. Everyone was like „We’re going to the World’s, let’s go!” We were all just stoked, it was pretty good. 


John: 

Personally, that was definitely one of the highlights of however long I’ve been playing handball. To be completely honest, it’s something that I’ve thought about a few times whenever I am thinking about handball, thinking about how happy we all were. I want to relive that moment, and it makes me work harder every single day to try to get another moment like that, especially with my team and my boys. 


Keir: 

I was pretty gassed about it. The official who told us the news ended up being one of our coaches going on to World’s, so getting that knowledge from him that we are going to the World Championship was like a blessing in disguise, but just to see how hard we worked as a team and then we got this chance, it showed us we can do whatever we want to if we put our minds to it. 


Aucklevél: There was a huge cooperation going on behind the scenes before your trip because the last time New Zealand has taken part in such a big international event was back in 2011 in Argentina. Although this time, the destination was much further. Have you ever been to Europe before or this was the first time you’ve crossed across the ocean. What did your friends and family say? Did they accompany you? 


John: 

This was not the first time I’ve been to Europe; I was there in 2017 for a family vacation with mum and dad, and although I was too young to remember a lot of the details, it was something that I really enjoyed. In terms of the trip, my mum and dad did come along to Croatia, they weren’t there in Hungary, but they were able to watch every single game in person, which was absolutely amazing because that type of support from your family is second to none. 


Stan: 

This was not my first time to Europe. I’ve been there several times. We go to the UK like every second year to visit family, so it felt like a regular trip to me, to be honest. Although the destination this time was a bit hotter and nicer. My dad came to Croatia to watch the games and so did my uncle from the UK.


Keir: 

Everyone - my friends, my parents, even my school - was very supportive. My mum came along to watch all the games. My grandparents were to come over, but due to medical reasons, they were not able to attend. They were really sad about it because they knew how much it meant to me, but that was the decision we had to make as a family. 


Aucklevél: How did you feel when you’ve landed in Budapest the first time? Have you had a chance to look around in the capital? 


Stan: 

When we landed in Budapest, we met two of our teammates who were staying in France, and as we walked out of the airport, a bunch of Asian tourists came over to the team to ask for photos of us. They had no clue who we were, but I think it meant a lot to all of us (he laughs). Then we got into the bus and went straight to NEKA, so we did not have a chance to look around in Budapest.


AUcklevél: Handball in New Zealand is still in its infancy compared to Europe. In Auckland there isn’t a separate court just for the team to train and they don’t even use resin which is indispensable part of the game back at home. After your arrival, you have taken part at a Hungarian training camp organised by NEKA before the Championship. How was the first training? How different was it compared to the ones here, in New Zealand?


John: 

In comparisons of our trainings, we had three main training camps leading up to World’s. We went to Christchurch where we were able to use resin for at least half of the training camp and it was purely just for us to try it and get used to it, get our hand kind of ready how much we’ll be using it over in Europe. In Hungary, we had a two-hour training at NEKA on the exact day when we landed, we were really exhausted. The amount of resin we had to use in Hungary was a big difference compared to the amount we were allowed to use in New Zealand. We kind of had to rush to get used to it. We had to use two, three times as much as we used to back at home because lot of the European teams used way more than us and we had to try to get used to the level of use. 




Keir: 

Every training camp that we had just made us come together as a team, brought our relations closer and closer. Obviously, the difference between the training camps in Hungary and New Zealand was a lot different because in Hungary the weather was completely different. All the trainings back at home were cold and in Hungary was hot, and lot of the boys were pretty mad at each other because the heat caused us lack of concentration. We were supposed to use the resin, but we preferred not to, and many European teams were quite mad about it and in the end IHF had to do something about it and we had to give it in. We got used to it in the end, because even back at the Oceania Champ we were using it. Although I felt like even the balls were different types than the ones, we had in the training camps here in New Zealand. Completely new experience.


Stan: 

The first training in Hungary was surreal, for us it was fancy. It was a new arena to play in and massive courts, all handball specific. We also trained along and next to other national teams such as the U19 Hungary team. I felt like everyone felt more focused and the environment made me realise where I was and that made me put more effort in. I also felt like they were one of my better trainings. They really set the mood for the entire trip, as well. Training in Hungary was different because we got to use as much resin as we wanted to. We were kind of using a bit too much in the beginning. The different level and the quality of the equipment we used were just far better than in New Zealand.


AUcklevél: After the training camp, you travelled to Croatia, Varazdin, where the games were taken place. What did you have in your minds? Did you have any goals or different tactics that you’ve discussed before entering the court? 


John: 

The commute to Croatia didn’t feel too long. To be honest, we had each other, so the time kind of went by and a lot of people were sleeping. The first game was against Slovenia, which was definitely a tough task for all of us, very interesting first game. We knew that they had placed 11th in the European qualifiers. We found out at the end of the tournament that most of the teams in the top 12 were all Europeans. They were all great teams. We have focused on what we could do and how better we could play. We did focus on our place and use our strengths as much as we could. We did look towards, trying to prevent some of their games. We were watching films about how they were playing, especially on their final game to the tournament and what they tried to pull out so we can be prepared. 

Keir: 

Obviously our main goal was to win at least one game at the tournament. We actually had one, but it wasn’t the way we wanted to (they laugh). It was by default against Burundi. Looking back at the tournament it was a massive learning curve for all of us, we wouldn’t have minded to win a game, but there were a lot of errors we needed to work on, but we all knew that coming to the tournament was going to be an experience and we just have to work on that as a team for the next Oceania Championship later this year. 


Stan: 

The trip to Croatia felt pretty calm in the bus, everyone had their own seats and people that were in the back were chatting, the ones in the front were sleeping, it was pretty chill. It was nice and good experience. Going into the games in Croatia, even though we had loads of focus on the other teams and what they could do, we reassured ourselves. We knew how much we could deal with and we knew they have got more than that. At some point we knew we’re not going to be able to compete as high level as them even though we want to. We had to deal with that and just focus on ourselves. 


Aucklevél: You’ve played your first match against Slovenia and the result was a 60-11 goal difference to Slovenia. How did the first match make you feel and also how did you feel after your first match on a World Championship?


Stan: 

To be honest, I think a lot of the boys were not happy with the result, but I think many things could have gone worse. It was our first match and we were just testing our borders. It was a lot of unknown things considering that match. As we got further into the tournament, we were less happy with the results. We felt like we should have been known better but after that Slovenian game there wasn’t too much overly negative impact, or anything extra from our coaches. They told us that it has already happened. This is where we are right now, that is the level, this is the World’s, we have to step up and play as best as we can, and it has to be like that for all the games.


John: 

It was a definitely wake-up-call type of game to us. We knew Slovenia was good and we still believed in ourselves but there were two definitely different teams out there. I think for the first 5-6-7 minutes we held up pretty well, but it was only because we came out there to be the best, we went goal for goal in the beginning of the game. Considering us, it was definitely something we could look positively on, but it was not possible to keep that level throughout the whole game so we just tried our best. 


Keir: 

In my opinion, the score should not reflect too much on us as a whole. I feel our team did not show their best type of game but we were completely new to the competition. Coming into the tournament we knew these games are going to be tough but we did not dream of getting beaten that badly. I feel like we can take these as lessons and reflect on them so that we can hopefully take that and go for the next Championship, but ten times better. Few... well, a lot of errors here and there could have been found in our game but at least we have something we can work on in the future. 


AUcklevél: Your next match was against Hungary and the end result was 49-6 to the Hungarians. In the Hungarian media there were articles about you where they said even though you might have lacked in experience and games compared to the other team, you were playing persistently and sometimes you were showing some great solutions to the crowd. How was the whole experience from the court’s point of view? How different this match was compared to the previous ones that you’ve had? 


Stan: 

As a goalkeeper I feel like it was not a big scoring game. It still felt like an improvement because they scored less, although they were not going 100%, but I think, I personally played better than I did against Slovenia. With the Hungarian media saying stuff like that is very nice I feel. One of our big things going into the tournament was that we knew we did not have the experience and the big thing we wanted to do was just like keep going on and not drop our hints and that is nice to hear we got some recognition for that. I am sure we wanted to be recognized more for our skills but it is still nice to hear.


John: 

Looking towards that game, we knew Hungary finished 4th in the European qualifiers. They were very sound defensively, and they are still one of the best in the world right now. In that game, they went from a team that can score a lot to a team that will hold us from scoring. It was definitely a different type of game. We prepared the same way. We focused on ourselves and made sure to do our best in the best way possible. Personally, that was my first game to switch from pivot to center, and having just started off against such a good defender side—a team that was able to hold anyone to score goals in a 60-minute game—is very impressive. They gave us a lot of different looks during the game; it was a variety of ways, but I do feel they gave us the opportunity to also give back some good solutions. That game, in particular, was the one that helped us the most. Once we finished that match, our own games afterwards were a completely different New Zealand side, and from that on, you could see that we were playing a lot more technical handball while keeping our level of persistence throughout the game. Personally, that switch against that sort of team was the hardest game of my life, to be completely honest, but I think I made good use of the situation despite that.


Keir: 

Sure, that was one of our hardest games. Not scoring double digits was really hard and everyone expected us to have a worse game against Hungary because that team was even better than the previous one we played with. We held our ground as hard as we could but obviously the results were not on our sides and yet again it was something we could learn a lot from. 


Aucklevél: Looking at the statistics, you’ve played your best match against Morocco in the first group round. Have you changed anything in your game compared to previous matches? 


John: 

We changed a lot in the outfield players. In terms of how we approached the game, as I have mentioned before, after that Hungarian match, we wanted to play differently, and that affected us significantly in a positive way. I think that was our first game without one of our big hitters because of some political problems, so we were missing our right back, and that was the game where I had to start at that position for the first time. Despite the fact that Morocco won that match, I can say we looked to our place more often, tried to execute them better, and looked to take what the defence gave us because, since we were unable to force anything, we were able to analyse the game from a point of view that was different from the previous two games. Playing two really top teams beforehand made us apply what we had learnt from the previous games, and we came out with a result that pleased not just us but many fans and watchers of the New Zealand team.


Keir: 

I feel like that was one of our best games to this day. Obviously losing our right back was a huge loss for the team but maybe that was what has brought our team even closer and made us be able to play this well. We were doing really good but in the second half we also got tired and the difference was just growing and lead up to the fact when we were unable to catch up anymore. 




AUcklevél: You had a chance to meet with the players of Telekom Veszprém. Please, tell me more about this experience hence you’ve had the opportunity to confer with world classists, Olympic and European-championship handball players. Did they give you any advice? Is there anything that you are applying in your play and games since then? 


Stan: 

When we watched the Veszprém training, it felt surreal. As a team, we sat in awe, watching our idols and those whom we had been learning from. For most of the time, my goalkeeping coach and I were chatting with Rodrigo Corrales. We talked a lot about some of the basic mental parts of the game as a goalkeeper and how I needed to focus on each attack separately, not feel at fault if the team was doing poorly, and let my mistakes go during the game.


John: 

Being able to watch their training was really revealing into what we need to be doing as Handball players to develop. Their level of concentration and how they apply themselves at a high level for each drill. For me, I learnt to commit to attacking gaps and reading the open space on the court and how they exploit that space.


Keir: 

One of our coaches was able to get connections for us to be able to watch Telekom Veszprém train and being able to watch them during one of their training sessions and seeing how they train was pretty cool. I was mainly watching the pivots and see how they train and use their bodies in a game scenario and just tried to put that into my game.


AUcklevél: How did you like Hungary? You’ve mentioned before that you had no time to look around in Budapest but the training camp was near Balatonboglár. Did you have a little time to admire that area of the Lake Balaton, the “Hungarian sea”? 


Stan: 

When we were in NEKA, the dorms were right on the water, so most mornings we either went for a swim or went for a walk on the lake edge. It was always quiet in the morning, so it felt quite peaceful and was a relaxing way to start the day. We also stayed in Siófok, and some of us players spent our free time going to the lake and relaxing near the water, or we went to the mall and shopping area to buy stuff. It reminded me of New Zealand a little, with the sunny weather and everyone relaxing by the water and having big picnics. We spent a day in Balatonboglár after playing a friendly there. As a team, we spent most of our time wandering up and down the streets, walking into shops, and trying different foods. Basically, the entire time we were in Hungary, we were near the water and the weather was hot, which is the best place and weather to be in, especially as a Kiwi. I love the water and the heat.



John: 

Hungary is absolutely beautiful, coming from New Zealand I was surprised how stunning the environment was and the mountains especially. We got to swim in Lake Balaton while we were staying at NEKA and then the second place we stayed at, we were walking distance to the lake so we were swimming almost every day as recovery or for fun. When we were driving through Hungary, I was in admiration at the landscape.


Keir: 

I’m not going to lie, I felt racial anxiety in some areas of Hungary. However, I enjoyed the country where the people were quite nice to me. We didn’t get to look around in Budapest as when we landed, we basically got through customs took photos with Asian tourists who had no idea who we were and then we were off to NEKA. We did have time to go and see the lake and it was awesome as we got to swim in it when we were in NEKA and to find out it is the biggest lake in Europe was something interesting to hear about.


Aucklevél: What are your plans for the future? Are you still studying?


Stan: 

I graduated high school last year, gained university entrance, got into first-year med school, and received a scholarship to Otago University. I am currently taking a gap year and working as a landscaper to save money for my trip to Europe.


John: 

I’ve got 2 more years of college before I go to university, so just trying to get qualifications for scholarships and my bachelor that I want to do. Best case scenario, I am able to move to Europe to go play Handball and represent my country for hopefully at least another two decades.


Keir: 

I’m studying at the University of Auckland in the city, and I am studying a bachelor of sport, health, and physical education. The degree will be three years, and once I have finished that, of course, I will be doing a one-year teachers’ degree, so I’ll be able to become a primary school teacher, which I’ve always wanted to be beside dreaming about being a sports star because I had teachers that inspired me when I was younger, and I want to repay that by being able to inspire at least one kid, and that’ll make me know I’ve done my job correctly. The degree I’m going to get will help me be able to be a high school PE teacher, meaning I’ll have 2 degrees, and if I decide to change from being a primary school teacher and move into the PE side of things, I’ll be able to do so with the degrees I have.


AUcklevél: Would you like to take handball to the next level? You are still very young. Is going back to Europe on your list to continue your handball career at any level? Have you got any offers after the World Championship?


Stan: 

I would love to take handball to the next level. After playing at the U-19 World Championships, I decided I would rather pursue a career in handball than anything else. I am returning to Europe this year to be in the Interamnial Cup for Brisbane Handball in Teramo, Italy, and after visiting family in other parts of Europe, I will be at the ISI Handball Academy for half a season with the option to continue for the whole season. And I hope to return to Europe to play in Germany for the 2025–26 season and potentially stay in Europe to play handball and study there eventually as well.


John: 

I want to take Handball as far as I can. Going back to Europe is definitely a top priority for me concerning my future in Handball and how I was to progress with my career. I feel at my young age that I can use it as a selling point to teams that I have many years to learn and improve.


Keir: 

I will be trying to look into playing overseas potentially when my studying is over and play a few years in Europe, as my goals at the moment are to make the U21 World Cup next year, which is in Poland, be able to play in the senior world championships, and make the Olympics in 2032, which will be in Brisbane, and once I’ve achieved those goals, I’ll be blessed.


Thank you very much for the interview, boys. I wish all of your dreams come true and hope to meet all three of you again at your handball matches in Europe.


Enid Gusztos




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