As the Commonwealth Games loom large in the Gold Coast, New Zealand’s panel of selectors have finally shown their hand opting for the “tried, true and tested”, with few surprises and several questions left to ponder as the road to Broadbeach unwinds.
Returning to the fold for another crack at the Commonwealth’s finest, Blackjack skipper Ali Forsyth will lead the charge in a four that famously reigned supreme at the 2016 World Bowls - with one exception proving the absence of star performer and squad stalwart Mike Kernaghan, who ruled himself out of contention prior to the official team naming citing time commitments and lack of “purposeful” preparation on greens that are well known to vary in speed throughout the day and into the evening.
With decades of experience lost and a wealth of calming ability gone with his departure, selectors have recalled the evergreen Paul Girdler, who boasts more than 200 international caps and is expected to combine seamlessly into the Blackjack quartet, joining Blake Signal and Mike Nagy - both members of the unbeaten world fours side, with Nagy set to make his Commonwealth Games debut.
Though while all hopes lay firmly on pulling off a repeat performance, many will question the sizeable absence of former double world champion Gary Lawson - who despite having won three national titles in as many years - two just last month, doesn’t feature in the selection plans or medal quest come April.
Lawson, who aged 52 and is the undisputed leader of New Zealand titles with thirteen to his name, has recently admitted his willingness and passion to make a high profile comeback after his less than ideal hiatus from the top echelons, conveying publicly that he is in the “best shape of his life” and believes his form is at undoubtedly at its peak.
A quick glance through his resume in the last few years will back such a statement up, National Intercentre champion with Canterbury, National Interclub titles with Eastbourne and Redcliffs - yet having not been involved in the side since the public spat with the sports top brass in 2009, has yet to roll a bowl for New Zealand - leaving many bowls commentators and enthusiasts repeatedly questioning, why, why, why?
Whatever the reason for overlooking Lawson (and boy must there be one), expectations will continue to remain high for the team and the pressure cooker will gradually increase as the five men selected set off across the ditch in an attempt to capture the first men’s Commonwealth medal since 2002 - ironically the fateful year Kernaghan snagged singles bronze in Manchester, halted only in the semi-final by the plucky Irishman, Jeremy Henry.
Any return trip without any colour medal, for the men particularly, will be seen as yet another failed attempt, and will leave a proud nation starved from success on the big stage - albeit some fine performances and medal hauls at the World Bowls events making amends for what has otherwise been a lacklustre decade or two at Commonwealth fixtures by New Zealand’s typically high benchmark and standards.
New Zealand’s shining light Shannon McIlroy perhaps poses the country’s greatest chance in claiming a medal, with the 31-year-old Stoke man running hot as the reigning World Singles champion. A near miss in Glasgow four years ago will surely fire McIlroy up as he goes toe-toe-to with some of the finest singles exponents in the game fresh from claiming the New Zealand singles title for the second time in three years.
Other combinations will see Signal step in for Kernaghan as lead in the pair for McIlroy, while Forsyth will skip Girdler and Nagy in a more than formidable trio.
National singles runner-up Andrew Kelly and former Blackjacks mainstay Tony Grantham can consider themselves desperately unlucky to miss the cut, with both players clearly leaving everything out on the Taieri greens in a last-ditch attempt to capture the selector’s attention - but alas, the tried and tested prevailed - with very little emphasis placed on the national results in January - reflected by the noticeable absence of Nagy and Signal who during the event remained in Australia due to work commitments.
Meanwhile, the women’s side takes on a predictable line-up with reigning Commonwealth singles champion and world number one Jo Edwards charged once again to bring home the goods in the singles berth, while promising up and comers Katelyn Inch and Tayla Bruce will be champing at the bit to make their Games debut following some impressive results in the last 12-18 months on the domestic and international circuit.
In what will feel like deja vu for many astute followers, longtime pals Edwards and Val Smith will once again team up in the pairs - much like they did last time round, topping their section and exiting in the quarter-finals to the hands of Northern Ireland, while the irrepressible Mandy Boyd returns to international duties following her abrupt withdrawal from the 2016 World Bowls - at the time pregnant with her baby daughter Maycie - no doubt a smiling favourite around the Christchurch greens.
Showing no signs of slowing up as a busy working mum, Boyd proved in fine fettle as she skipped her side of Leigh Griffin, Sheryl McLean and sister Angela to the top of the podium in the women’s fours at the recent National championships - an effort that showcased the pure ability and determination to once again succeed in the silver fern.
But with Bruce and Inch given the nod for the first time on the Commonwealth stage, there is seemingly no room for the resolute Selina Goddard - a member of the bronze medal winning four in Glasgow in 2014 and recently placed third in the world at the Champion of Champion singles at St John’s Park, Australia, nor that of Angela Boyd - a recent Gold Star recipient and dual World Bowls’ medalist taking silver in the pair and bronze in the four.
A mighty showing at the nationals saw Goddard combine expertly with former Blackjack Amy McIlroy, finishing last eight in the pairs and losing on an extra end to Boyd’s side in the fours finale - however the results of Inch, finishing runner-up to Edwards in this year’s singles and reportedly making huge strides at the Commonwealth Games venue Broadbeach now as her home club, selectors have put the faith in two other promising youngsters both hungry to make their mark on what is considered the biggest arena of them all.
Boyd will skip Smith, Inch and Bruce in the four, while Inch and Bruce will line-up for the triples discipline - presenting a strong medal chance in both. It is understood World Bowls’ bronze medalist Kirsten Edwards ruled herself out of contention.
And while opinions on all selections, varying combinations and absent players continues to rule rife in clubrooms and greens across the country, the fact remains that the selection panel have named a side they genuinely feel is the best fit to represent our nation at the present time and based on previous results and form, firmly back them to bring home the bacon.
As always time will tell and full credit and sincere congratulations goes to all those selected.
Do us proud Blackjacks . . . give it heaps.