New Zealand had never won a game at a Handball World Championships or International Handball competition.
But that all changed over the school holidays when the New Zealand U17 Boys made history by winning four of their eight games at the inaugural Beach Handball U17 World Championships played on the island of Mauritius, off the coast of southeast Africa.
The 10-strong New Zealand team of mostly Year 12 students featured players from Wellington (eight), Christchurch and Palmerston North and was captained by Paul Ireland of St Pat’s Town (number 8 singlet pictured above).
Paul discussed New Zealand’s maiden win against South Africa. “Before playing this game we had all been told that New Zealand handball teams had been to four world championships and had never won a game, “ he explained. “So going into the game we all pumped and we beat them two sets to nil. That was the best game we played in the whole tournament.”
New Zealand also had the support in the stands of the highly ranked Portuguese team who had earlier beaten them, while a rousing pre-game haka was well received by the crowd.
New Zealand went on to beat South Africa and Togo again and lose to host country Mauritius to finish 13th out of 16 teams. The tournament was won by Spain who beat Italy in the final. Handball is very popular in Europe and is an Olympic Sport. In the girls competition Hungary beat the Netherlands in the decider (no New Zealand team) and these countries are all among the best in the world in the senior ranks.
Not bad either considering none of the New Zealand team had played beach handball until a few months ago when they travelled to the Cook Islands for the Oceania Championships. They finished second to Australia in the Cook Islands, booking their passage to Mauritius.
“There were rumours of the U17 World Championships late last year, so we set our sights on qualifying. We had about 30 players in the overall group, which got reduced to 10 and we started preparing then.”
New Zealand was grouped with Italy, Portugal and Australia in pool play. “In our first game we played runners-up Italy. We had seen footage of them playing from their Euro tournament so we knew what we were in for. It was such a great experience to play them and for us to see first hand the amount of skill, hard work needed to compete with the best.”
The trip bodes well for the future development of beach handball in New Zealand, a sport that provides strong pathways overseas with regular tournaments worldwide.
All the New Zealand players have a background in indoor handball, with the two being two distinct sports. “Beach handball is a lot different to indoor, it’s really fast-paced and fun to play. It incorporates aspects that make it exciting for the crowd, like different scoring.”
There are four players on the sand at any one time, but on attack the goalie becomes a rush goalie and part of the attack.
The trip was entirely self-funded, including the coaching staff Tim Rayner and Aaron Huddleston who are current senior New Zealand representative players as well.
Back home, Paul plays for his school St Pat’s Town in indoor handball, who were crowned NZSS Senior champions earlier this year, beating Christchurch’s Cashmere High School in the final.
Paul has been playing handball since 2014. “I got into the sport through my brothers, one of whom went to Samoa in 2012 with the New Zealand U20 team, and I thought this is a cool sport and a way to represent my country.”
As well as indoor and now beach handball, Paul plays social basketball and football and serious cricket, being a member of the St Pat’s Town First XI and a fast bowler.
Paul is back at school now, but next week he’s off to the Cook Islands with the New Zealand U21 indoor handball team to compete in the Oceania Championships. He is the only member of the recent U17 beach handball team to earn selection for this team as well.
The other two current school-aged players in this U21 team are Cassius Papera (Paraparaumu College) and Angus Hazelton (Scots College).
The New Zealand team in Mauritius was:
Paul Ireland (St Pat’s Town)
Max Brookes (Scots College)
Angus Hamilton (Cashmere High School)
Michan Hunter (Palmerston North Boys’ High School)
Danyah-Lee Skelton-ChongNee (St Pat’s Town)
Miguel Aizpuru (St Pat’s Town)
Josh Holland (St Pat’s Town)
Joseph Poata (Wellington College)
Ezekiel Fiso (Scots College)
Johnathan English (St Pat’s Town)
Coaches: Tim Rayner and Aaron Huddleston
College Sport Media is dedicated to telling the story of successful young sportspeople in New Zealand