By Michael Burgess
Tayla Bruce arrived at the Stoke Stakes Women’s Singles on 30 October with few expectations.
It wasn’t that she didn’t think she could do well – Bruce has been a Blackjack since 2015 and is recognised as one of the best bowlers in the country – but more that pure results weren’t going to define her weekend.
“Heading into the tournament my goals were process based,” explains Bruce, who switched from a permanent classroom role to relief teaching at the start of this year, to commit more time to her sport and allow a more flexible schedule. “I had been working on a few different things and this was the chance to put them into practice. That was my focus; getting the right processes going, and then the results would come along with it.”
And Bruce wasn’t overawed by the strength of the field, which was laden with Blackjacks and centre champions, as the crème of New Zealand’s female bowling talent had been attracted to Nelson for the $6,000 event.
“No - I was excited when I saw all the names,” says the 25-year-old. “That was the reason to go to the event. I wanted to be challenged and needed to be put under the pump…that would set up the rest of the season.”
Bruce made the perfect start, with a 100 per cent record from four section matches on the Friday.
“That was a great way to begin,” says Bruce. “But I had some tough games on Saturday, including Debbie White (Waikato) who was also unbeaten and needed to make them count.”
She did – with three further wins – to book her place in the main event on Sunday. The cut-throat nature of the event was epitomised by those who didn’t progress; defending champion Selina Smith was relegated to the plate event, as was long time Blackjack Val Smith.
In the quarter finals Bruce faced Nationals pairs and fours teammate Clare Hendra, prevailing 21-15 in a close contest.
“It was cool to play her,” says Bruce. “We are good friends and she was really on form so I was going to be happy whatever the outcome.”
That win set up a semi final with 2019 Stoke finalist Linda Ralph, which evolved into a cliff hanger.
“I had a bit of a lead, but she is very experienced and came back,” says Bruce. “We were both really struggling on the rink, both a bit frustrated and the score was swinging.”
At 20-17 down, Bruce was in trouble. She staved off the immediate danger – taking a point – but looked like she would be packing her bags on the next end, as Ralph held shot with just one bowl to play.
“It was do or die,” says Bruce. “I needed to find something [at 18-20], something came out of nowhere. On the last bowl I managed to get a toucher to keep myself alive.”
“That is where all the mental skills work and preparation comes to life. It is good to test it out in a moment of real pressure, in a real game.”
Bruce made the most of her reprieve, taking out the semi-final to set up a decider with former Burnside teammate and bowls legend Jo Edwards.
“She is the best there is, so I saw it as an ideal opportunity to play her,” says Bruce.
Bruce started well, skipping out to an early lead. She maintained that advantage and at 19-8 looked to have sealed the contest, before a tremendous recovery from Edwards.
“She did an awesome job of coming back,” says Bruce. “I dropped three at one point where I was a bit loose but otherwise I wasn’t playing that badly but she was just collecting points.”
But Bruce had the final say, eventually taking out the match 21-17.
“It is always nice to play her and that is the first time I have beaten her [in singles] in a proper game,” says Bruce. “It’s a good milestone.”
Bruce was also unbeaten throughout the event, in a format that is arguably tougher than even the National Singles.
“That’s something I am really proud of,” says Bruce, who lauded the tournament, now in its third year.
“They were great hosts, they put on great food, it was well run and well structured.”
Organiser Brendan Hodgson was thrilled with the weekend.
“It went really well,” says Hodgson. “The rain was a bit disruptive on Saturday, but everyone worked so hard to get things going again and on Sunday we had a perfect Nelson day. The members were fantastic – we had 40 people working as markers and it was all hands-on deck.”
By Michael Burgess