Stokes Valley representative Blake Signal was in commanding form on his way to securing a maiden Speights North East Valley 10,000 Invitational Singles title, drawing on his vast experience in challenging conditions on an action-packed finals day in Dunedin.
Now in its 32nd year, the event has long been regarded as the blue ribbon singles event throughout Australasia, attracting some of the best talent on both sides of the Tasman, including in-form players from all pockets of the country.
Despite some noticeable absences in this year’s field such as six-time champion Shannon McIlroy, Blackjacks Andrew Kelly and Ali Forsyth and previous champions Aaron Wilson and Ryan Bester, among others, this year’s field continued to deliver exceptional performances that the bowls’ faithful have come to expect every year.
Following seven rounds over three days, section qualifiers were soon found at the completion of play on Saturday, with section winners guaranteeing themselves a place in the quarter-finals and the next two best performers in each section advancing through to a play-off opportunity to keep their title hopes alive.
Qualifiers included Signal, Seamus Curtin, Sean O’Neill, Brent McEwan, Joko Susilo, Jamie Hill, Roger Stevens and Tony Grantham, while Keanu Darby, Raymond Martin, Sheldon Bagrie-Howley and Finbar McGuigan lay in wait after topping their sections.
The playoffs saw O’Neill defeat Curtin, McEwan defeat Susilo, Hill defeat Stevens and Signal dispatch Grantham, setting up some blockbuster quarter-final fixtures on the final day of four.
Opening the action on Labour Day, Signal proved too strong for fellow clubmate and Wellington representative McGuigan, before going on to show the same class opposite Hill in the semi-final, 25-13. Across rinks, Darby was in a similar rich vein of form defeating O’Neill 25-17, before surviving a titanic tussle with Martin in the semi-final, 25-24. Other results saw Hill stop Southland’s Bagrie-Howley in his tracks, while Martin defeated McEwan, 25-23.
Despite consistent rain and swirling winds passing through the Valley, both Darby and Signal battled through the inclement conditions to put on an impressive display. Signal, who has recently returned from a stint in Australia to take on the role of Bowls Wellington General Manager, has been in good touch across the ditch,recently finishing third equal in the Australian Open singles - losing to eventual winner and world class exponent Aron Sheriff.
Wasting no time and settling into his groove, Signal took an early stronghold on the game, consistently finding the weight and racing out to a 13-6 lead. Not to be outdone, and demonstrating some fine form of his own that led him to the final, local hope Darby was determined to use his home-green knowledge, battling away on a precise line to claw the deficit back on several occasions throughout the fixture.
However, it was the class of Signal, a former world fours champion and Blackjack #94, who hung tough, executing some telling drives and holding his nerve at crucial moments on the televised rink - rounding out his play and prevailing 25-16.
The win saw Signal claim his first NEV title,earning him a $5000 winners cheque and a much anticipated caricature - a memoir that hangs pride of place at the North East Valley clubrooms and features essentially a who’s who of international greats.
While Darby may be left wondering what might have been, the Dunedin representative can take deserved consolation in the fact he dropped only one game through to the final, and put on a display to indicate he is undoubtedly one of the rising stars of the game. The $2.5k runners-up purse may sweeten any initial disappointment, while beaten semi-finalists Martin and Hill take away $1.5k for their efforts.
The Speight’s North East Valley 10,000 Singles will return in 2023.
Results at a Glance
32nd Speights North East Valley 10,000 Invitational Singles, Dunedin
Signal def Darby: 25-16
Darby def Martin: 25-24
Signal def Hill: 25-13
Keanu Darby (Dunedin) def Sean O’Neill (South Canterbury): 25-17
Raymond Martin (Wellington) def Brent McEwan (Dunedin): 25-23
Jamie Hill (Auckland) def Sheldon Bagrie-Howley (Southland): 25-13
Blake Signal (Wellington) def Finbar McGuigan (Wellington): 25-18