Having completed the long journey safely and being made feel right at home, thanks to Hamish ‘Rodney Cuddles’ McIntosh, it was now time to turn my attention to the lawns! The event was hosted by Epsom Remuera Croquet Club and Carlton Croquet Club, which are within walking distance from each other and only a short bus journey from the centre of Auckland City. Play on the first morning began with doubles.
There were twenty one doubles partnerships divided into two blocks. The pairings proceeded as would be expected and the crucial games came at the end of the day when the top seeded partnerships played off. Despite the label of number one seed in Block A, Hamish and I could not play with consistency, as a result losing three doubles matches and missing out on a top two spot which would have seen us through to the semi finals. Instead it was Jared Keeman and Sean Foster who proved to be the front runners in the block stages, playing very well together and remaining unbeaten. Duncan Dixon and his brother, Andrew Dixon, were the second qualifiers from Block A. Aaron Westerby and Bob Jackson, as well as father and daughter partnership, Tony and Erica Stephens, qualified from Block B. The Dixon brothers were triumphant in the evening of day two having defeated Keeman and Foster in a well contested final.
Meanwhile, Hamish and I had finally found our form in the Doubles Plate knockout and were convincing winners beating Steve Sykes and Paul Anderton 10 – 1 in the semi final, and Nelson Morrow and John Christie 10 – 5 in a single 19 point final. It was telling that the finalists from both the doubles main event final and the doubles plate final all came from the same block.
The weather was entirely glorious, if you were going to the beach! For an Irish man with such pale complexion it was not an easy task playing in the hot and occasionally humid conditions, but I persevered. Results from the block probably reflected this acclimatisation period as I suffered a number of unexpected losses. Despite these setbacks I qualified second in my block of seven behind Duncan Dixon.
There were no easy matches in this event and once the knockout draw was announced it was clear that anyone who progressed would have played a lot of very good players. Despite this, the draw was kind to Jared Keeman, Hamish and me. Given we were all staying in the same house it was a relief that the earliest any of us would have to play each other would be a semi final, should we progress that far.
As it happened, we all did make the semi finals. The last spot taken by Duncan Dixon, making all semi finalists 23 or under. Keeman navigated his way through a tough last 16 match against Bob Jackson very well and then went on to play his doubles partner, Sean Foster, in a match spread over an evening and morning. Needless to say, the goodnight of rest helped Keeman immensely and he took the match 2 – 0, to set up a semi final against Duncan Dixon. Hamish played Geoff Young in the last 16, winning in straight games, and then went on to play his first croquet coach, Sabri Mullaaliu, once again winning in 2 games. This set up what was an eagerly anticipated semi final against me. I had come into good form in the knockouts and despite a tight game one ultimately being decided by an unfortunate wrong ball incident, which I was most certainly on the benefactors end of against Erica Stephens, I went on to win game two well after a mighty clearing battle at hoop 11. In the quarter final I had to take on Mike Crashley, a member of the New Zealand team that ran Egypt so close in the final of the World Team Golf Croquet Championship in South Africa last year. Thankfully, this was one of those matches where I felt I could do little wrong, and even rarer still, I was almost right! It was a match of few errors and the highlight was a long angled jump at hoop one in game two, which sailed through to good position at hoop 2.
So Hamish and I entered the semi final having not dropped a game in the knockouts and both playing well. We took our positions on lawn 1 with a good sized crowd of spectators lining the boundaries. It was a high stakes match and I must admit to being a little nervous at the start, which definitely did not help my accuracy. Hamish got off to a better start with the crowd behind him he raced into a two nil lead. But that was neutralised and going to hoop 7 it was 3 – 3. I took my chance at hoop 7 and built up an advantage, but despite being 6 – 4 up the match finished on hoop 13. I put a ball in two yard position, as did Hamish. I put my other ball in deeper position and Hamish’s second ball was blocked from the next ball to play so I had a chance to finish the game. Despite the black ball looming beside mine while I took the hoop shot, it eased through the hoop to give me the first game. Game two followed a similar pattern to game one but roles reversed. I took a 2 – 0 lead and scorned a great chance at hoop 3 to take control. So we went to hoop 7 at 3 a peach again and this time Hamish capitalised and gained a two hoop advantage. An interesting battle at hoop 12 culminated with a jump shot attempt by me from about 3 yards with a ball in the jaws. It flew to high, hitting the top of the hoop sending the ball through. With the crowd reinvigorated by Hamish levelling the match things could have got away from me. I missed two long jump shots at the start of game 3, both hitting the outside wire and disappearing into the distance. Fortunately Hamish let me off a couple of times by missing short hoop shots so at hoop six I could still level the game. After a while Hamish ended up in the jaws and I was left with my third jump attempt of the game. Given the angle, length and a ball in the jaws it was the most difficult. It flew through the hoop, followed by a real Andy Murray “Come on!” The momentum shifted with that shot and I took the game 7 – 4 to reach the final where I would play Duncan Dixon, who had managed to overcome Jared Keeman in two games.
Duncan was looking to win his 5th GC National title and it was looking like an uphill battle to stop him given Duncan had only dropped one game in the event to Tony Stephens in the quarter finals. But I was confident going into the match and felt If I could perform as well as I had in the previous knock out matches that I had a great shot. Sadly, despite trying my absolute hardest I didn’t play my best, especially clearing shots which had been very good in the previous rounds, but in the final tended to snick rather than hit centre ball. On a number of occasions the snicks actually promoted Duncan into good hoop running positions, especially a particularly devastating positional shot I played approaching hoop 7 from the south boundary which cut Duncan in front. Game one went to Duncan convincingly, 7 – 1. I was desperate to make a fight of it but I just wasn’t striking the shots the way I wanted to do. Even though my play was below par I managed to play myself into a good position at hoop 8 in game 2. I had a ball two feet at a slight angle and had just cleared Duncan level with hoop 2. I thought I had managed a block behind his partner ball so I was slightly surprised when his shot went straight through the hoop to make it 5 – 3. It was a real body blow, one from which I did not recover and so the title was Duncan’s after he finished the game 7 – 4.
Congratulations to Duncan on his 5th title and he is a deserved winner having played consistently at a high level throughout the event.
A big thank you to everyone involved in organising the event, Pam and Chris especially, who were manageress’s in Epsom and Carlton respectively and to Philip Drew who was the off site manager ensuring everything ran smoothly, the referees and to all of the ladies and gentlemen who helped in the kitchens throughout the week.