As the curtain falls on 2018, a new year beckons and with that comes the eagerly anticipated Summerset National Championships – a prime opportunity for players to put their hand up on the big stage and etch their name in to the history books.
This year, staged in Auckland, more than 500 competitors have put themselves forward for the split competition with the singles and pairs the only disciplines on the agenda – with the Fours scheduled to commence in Wellington early March.
The format shake-up has helped to increase playing numbers across the greens, with numbers in the two disciplines virtually equal to that of participant numbers in Dunedin last year – albeit Bowls New Zealand CEO Mark Cameron acknowledging the geographic and population variance.
“The initial objective to grow numbers for the nationals by having it in two parts of the country appears to have worked very well, and overall that’s great for the competition and great for the sport in general,” Cameron said.
With the recent announcement of sweeping high performance changes afloat, players aspiring for higher honours know their opportunity awaits as the three-strong selection panel of Philip Skoglund Jr, Marlene Castle and Peter Belliss look on from rinkside in their bid to select the country’s best – as places remain up for grabs in both the High Performance and Talent Identification squads respectively – both sides selected post tournament.
In a record turnout for the singles since 2010, the men’s and women’s titles will be fiercely contested, with dual World Champion of Champion and Outdoor Singles champion Shannon McIlroy lining up for a mammoth defence, restarting the lengthy and impressive process that saw him coast through more than 20 games unbeaten to be crowned the world’s best in the latter part of 2018.
Noticeably absent in the women’s field is reigning champion Jo Edwards, also crowned World Champion of Champion alongside McIlroy, though due to scheduled preparation for a bumper playing schedule in the first half of the year, is unable to front in Auckland – opening the odds to several front runners as the week progresses.
Players to watch include the impressive Ashleigh Jeffcoat once again pairing with the vastly experienced Dale Rayner, former Blackjack duo Amy McIlroy and Selina Goddard, mother and daughter combination Leigh Griffin and Kirsten Edwards, former National Singles’ champions Tayla Bruce, Sue Wightman, Dean Elgar and Tony Grantham, Female Development Player of the Year Leanne Poulson, among other up and coming talents – while the seasoned campaigners such as Rob Ashton and Petar Sain, Val Smith and lead Lisa Prideaux, Central Otago hopefuls Pat Houlahan and Alister Watson and consistent Auckland champions Mike Galloway and Martin Dixon will prove tough for any opposition to dispatch.
Dual world champion and record New Zealand titleholder Gary Lawson will also be out in force, this time pairing with former national representative and fellow Eastbourne Eagle Jamie Hill in what will prove to be a classy duo expected to progress deep into finals play.
Lawson, who earlier this season performed a spectacular U-turn on his playing retirement, has once again signalled his international playing desires and with a fresh approach to selection, a strong performance during the week could see him catapult his way back in to national squad contention for the first time since 2009.
Feature match-ups will likely see the aptly dubbed “Young Brigade” showing their wares, with expectations high on the likes of former New Zealand Development representative Sheldon Bagrie-Howley and his composed teenage lead Seamus Curtin, Bowls3Five champions Aiden Takarua and Alex Reed, Wellington stars Bradley Down and Finbar McGuigan,Taylor Horn and Jesse Russell, Southland high performers in Caleb Hope and Craig Tinker and of course, all eyes will be fixed on the exciting Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Aiden Zittersteijn who will team up with Cook Island team mate Adoni Wichman-Rairoa, in what appears to be promising combination.
Qualifying in the men’s and women’s singles and pairs will commence on January 2, with post section action set down for January 5-8.
All results and daily reports can be found on the Bowls New Zealand website throughout the competition, with Kevin Hickland also on hand to commentate the live streaming coverage. Keep an eye on the action by following the Bowls New Zealand Facebook page.