London 2012: GB handball men must 'step up' to avoid whitewash
Great Britain handball captain Bobby White has warned his team could fail to progress beyond the Olympic group phase if they do not improve their consistency.
Speaking after a crushing 40-24 home defeat against Austria, which left GB bottom of Pool A and winless in the 2013 World Championships qualification phase, White told BBC Sport that they need to start producing stronger performances.
"Some people in our team need to start stepping up, taking more responsibility and really taking the chances when they are given to them," said White.
"Steven [Larsson] isn't always going to score 10 goals per game. Other people can, but they need to be more consistent."
Larsson, the GB right-back and 2011 player of the year, finished the match with a burst lip, bruised nose and just two goals after being man-marked throughout an encounter which he admitted at times "wasn't very nice".
Twelve months ago British Handball were awarded guaranteed host-nation places for both the men's and women's teams after being able to demonstrate considerable "performance milestones".
With opponents in London likely to be even stronger than any they have previously faced, there are concerns that the hosts could face an Olympic whitewash.
CAUSES FOR CONCERN
In early 2007 a select group of GB men and women relocated to Denmark, the home of British Handball's centralised training programme, but a shortfall in UK Sport funding in 2009 saw the facility close and players were forced to find professional club contracts on the continent.
Last March it was announced that the GB women would be heading back to the UK to Crystal Palace, where they would be based at the UK's first centralised training centre.
With funds limited, players have combined training with part-time work, but the men chose another option - retaining a decentralised programme and continuing their development at club level.
"It felt like the best decision at the time," said White.
"Coming back would have caused quite a few problems for some players financially, with many playing for good European clubs at a high level.
"It would have been a shame to sacrifice their careers for the sake of maybe a small improvement for us."
But as the GB head coach Dragan Djukic explained, to date, this left the men with few opportunities to play together.
"Sixty days per year is not enough for a team to prepare for an Olympics, but when you are disappointed you have to check your budget and realise that is the problem," Djukic told BBC Sport.
Experience is also an issue for GB. The average age of the British team which faced Austria was 23, which is significantly younger than that of most elite European nations, which ranges from 27 to 30.
"Many of those nations have players with more than 80 international caps and this is a big gap to the 30-50 we may have," said Djukic.
After seeing four straight World Championship qualifying defeats for GB and a winless run at a training camp in Latvia over New Year, the team's head coach admits that on court "something isn't quite there yet".
Fitness is also an area to be addressed.
In the first half against Austria in Crystal Palace, GB trailed by just four goals, but the toll of their recent exertions seemed to take effect in the second period, with the hosts slipping to a 16-goal defeat.
"We have to analyse this game because at the Olympics we will have similarly tough matches within three days," said Djukic.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Although the team may lack experience it does possess the benefits of youth.
"We are a very young team and able to play in not just London, but two more Olympic Games potentially," Djukic told BBC Sport.
"We still have a long way to go, but I really believe that this handball team has a chance."
To achieve their aim of a top-eight finish at the 2012 Olympics, Great Britain are likely to need at least two victories.
Although they may have come up some way short against Austria, the performances of Steven Larsson - in addition to those of Martin Hare and Chris McDermott, who scored 11 goals between them at Crystal Palace - proves that the team do have potential match-winners.
"We are still learning and still developing, but we are definitely on track and just need to find that little bit more consistency," said GB performance manager Lorraine Brown.
Shortly after the London Handball Cup in late April, the British men will base themselves at the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace, which will give the team just over 10 weeks together before their likely opening match on 29 July.
"Hopefully the Olympic preparation will help us develop some real consistency with our play and we can really get to know each other as a team," said White.
Those sentiments were echoed by head coach Djukic: "It will give us around three months to live, train and play together and I am sure that this team will look completely different after this camp,."