As the curtain falls on the 2023 World Bowls Championships, the New Zealand Blackjacks can look back on their campaign with pride and overall success.
Although the competition itself was only two weeks, the results have been years in the making - with selectors opting to ring in the changes and form what appeared to be a relatively new-look side heading over to the Gold Coast.
And except for a few somewhat disappointing results, the formula worked, and large strides have been made to restore New Zealand among one of the highest performing nations in the sport.
Basking in the glory of winning the Taylor Trophy (awarded to the best women's team), the Kiwis proved they are up there with the best talent in world bowls, while for the men, a bronze medal in the fours proved the highlight. However, special mention must go to singles hopeful Andrew Kelly, playing his way through to the quarter-finals in both the singles and pairs (with Tony Grantham) - only to be denied by the victorious Irish pairing of Gary Kelly and Adam McKeown, and two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist Aaron Wilson in the singles.
And a nod to the men's para pairs combination of Mark Noble and Darron Wolland and vision impaired representatives Kerrin Wheeler and Jayne Parsons - all narrowly missing on medals this time around, with the finest margins proving the difference.
But let's reflect on the tournament highs . . . memories that will be remembered for a very, very long time.
Burnside's homegrown hero Tayla Bruce demonstrated her credentials on the biggest stage of all, backing up her 2022 win in the World Champion of Champion Singles to lift the coveted women's singles trophy at Helensvale, remaining unbeaten in an impressive display, dropping only the triples final to the Australians in what would be one of the most consistent performances seen at recent events.
The loss in that final saw Val Smith and Leeane Poulson add to the medal count with a well-earned silver, while for the women's fours of Katelyn Inch, Smith, Selina Goddard and Poulson, it was a bronze medal - beaten by an aggressive England quartet who went on to be the eventual winners.
The women's pairing of Inch and Goddard will be left to rue a slow start in their quarter-final fixture, dropping the game to the Scotland duo by a solitary point, though can take heart with a strong qualifying run of six wins and one loss. The men’s triple of Sheldon Bagrie-Howley, Lance Pascoe and Chris Le Lievre were equally unable to progress to post-section, but with the addition of Grantham in the fours, won their section, quarter-final and rounded out their campaign with a bronze – losing to the powerhouse Scottish four of Alex Marshall, Paul Foster, Derek Oliver and Jason Banks.
In other results, the Para women's pairing of Teri Blackbourn and Julie O'Connell threw their Multi-Nations disappointment to one side, playing their way through to the gold medal opposite up against 2022 Commonwealth Games gold medallists Rosemary Lenton and Pauline Wilson of Scotland, lifting the gold and rounding out a spirited debut performance on the world stage.
Figures provided after the event by Bowls Australia show New Zealand as the second equal most successful team at the competition, narrowly behind host nation Australia and on par with England. As part of the analysis, points were awarded for Section Winner (20), Runner-up (18), 3rd in section (16), with an additional six points added for winning gold, four points for silver and two points for bronze.
The table wash-up had Australia on 182 points, New Zealand on 164 and England equally on 164, though with an all-round effort from the team, saw New Zealand take out second in the overall medal count. In addition, the para contingent finished third overall out of the 11 countries competing - a remarkable effort for a team brought together just a matter of months ago.
Reflecting on the campaign, New Zealand Head Coach Mike Kernaghan said he was delighted with the overall team effort - particularly celebrating the two gold medal moments in the women's singles and para women's pairs.
"Tayla was absolutely top drawer in the singles, really composed, on point and made great decisions tactically . . . (and) while the final was close, she looked like a winner all the way through. It was a superb all-round performance," Kernaghan said.
"Added to that, it was an absolute thrill to see Teri and Julie come away with a gold medal too - they played brilliant throughout and were probably quite relieved to get over the line this time. Fantastic."
Kernaghan also made special mention of the Taylor Trophy, pointing out it was the first time New Zealand had achieved this feat since 1973 - the first time the women's world championships were held in Wellington.
"Given the number of brilliant female players we've had in the last 50 years, this group of women have done something that none of those that had gone before them had managed to do - and that speaks volumes of this team. And to do it in Australia, that was so exciting for them."
Summarising the men's efforts, Kernaghan offered a pass mark for the men - giving a nod to the quality of play from Kelly, despite being unable to medal.
"While Andrew didn't medal, he was truly world class. You could say he was unfortunate by the post-section draw, but (ultimately) you have to beat them all. That's the nature of the world championships, you have to beat these guys every time and, on this occasion, in post-section, our boys came up a little short.
"Overall, I'd give a pass mark plus for the para team, the men just reached a pass mark and the ladies, they were sensational. If the women aren't the best team in the world right now, we probably have to be right up there."
With little on the international radar in the next 12-18 months, aside from a Trans-Tasman clash early next year, Kernaghan is putting the challenge out to anyone knocking on the door for selection.
"Any player that has aspirations to play at this level, it's over to you to put some runs on the board and as we've shown with the last lot of selections, the opportunity will be there to take the next step."
Two gold medals, one silver, two bronze, the Taylor Trophy for only the second time in its history and second on the overall medal count.
The training camps and events would not have been possible without the financial support of City of Gold Coast
Take a bow New Zealand, congratulations to all involved.
Results at a Glance
2023 World Bowls Championships, Gold Coast
Women’s Singles – Tayla Bruce
Women’s Para Pairs – Teri Blackbourn, Julie O’Connell
Women’s Triples – Val Smith, Tayla Bruce, Leanne Poulson
Women’s Fours – Katelyn Inch, Val Smith, Selina Goddard, Leeane Poulson
Men’s Fours – Sheldon Bagrie-Howley, Lance Pascoe, Chris Le Lievre, Tony Grantham
TAYLOR TROPHY (awarded to the best women’s team)