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Flexing up for Kiwi World titles bid, but it won’t be easy

An international record almost as proud as that of the All Blacks doesn’t mean there are any foregone conclusions about the Allflex New Zealand Shearing and Woolhandling team’s World championships prospects in France next week.

That’s the view of team manager Ken Payne who highlights regional variations teams have to adapt to in an agri-sport growing worldwide as as-much a challenge as the looming threat of the top other hopes among more than 30 countries chasing six machine shearing, woolhandling and bladeshearing individual and teams titles in central France town Le Dorat.

The weeks starts with team assembly on Monday, followed by judges briefings and competitors training days ahead of the July 4-7 championships, which include All Nations competitions for team members and other shearers and woolhandlers otherwise in town as supporters.

In Scotland awaiting the arrival of four of his six-strong team for a pre-championships shakedown at the Lochearnhead Shears in Perthshire, Payne said: “New Zealand might be perceived as the favourites but you’ve still got to do the work.”

“The opposition is bloody good and there are three or four countries that could be quite threatening,” he said. “We are included in that list. I truly believe we’re up against it here.”

“They’re all there to win, they’re not just coming for the holiday,” said Payne, who is also far from being on holiday as he mixes team management with the never-ending duties and imminent election responsibilities as a member of the Clutha District Council, based in hometown Balclutha in South Otago.

It’s possibly the strongest team New Zealand has had since the first championships, a shearing-only competition in England in 1977.

Hawke’s Bay machine shearers Cam Ferguson, of Waipawa, and Rowland Smith, of Maraekakaho, woolhandler Sheree Alabaster, of Taihape, and blade shearer Tony Dobbs, of Fairlie are all former World title winners. The other members of the team are woolhandler Pagan Karauria, of Alexandra, and blade shearer Allan Oldfield, of Geraldine.

Uniquely, Dobbs is the only survivor from the team which had unprecedented success amid the host-country advantage at the last championships in Invercargill two years ago, where all six members claimed the maximum-possible two top-three finish ribbons amid New Zealand’s second cleansweep of the four machine shearing and woolhandling individual and teams titles.

By contrast, those spoils were divided amongst four different countries at the 2014 championships in Ireland.

Also uniquely, none of the 2017 winners will be defending their titles, all having missed selection in their respective national teams.

From the 17 shearing championships from 1977 to 2017, New Zealand has won 13 teams and 13 individual titles in machine shearing, while Kiwi woolhandlers have won seven of the 11 individual titles and six of the seven teams titles. New Zealand had also won two blades titles before the domination by African teams once the blades event became more international in 1996.

As well as the class of the opposition, Payne says the shearers face less-familiar sheep and conditions, while the woolhandlers have to learn new skills to meet the “country-specific” rules adopted for each championships based on local practices in the wool harvesting industry.

Payne says having to adapt is part of the contest, just as it was for teams competing in Invercargill in 2017, also from more than 30 countries.

With a shearing career of more than 20 years behind him along with a stint as an instructor at agricultural training facility Telford, Payne is a high-ranking shearing judge with a history also of helping run the Otago Shears held each year in his home town since 1961.

Elected to the Clutha council in a Balclutha ward by-election seven years ago, he is overseas for two months, including managing Ferguson and Smith on the annual CP Wool UK Tour, which starts with a test match against Scotland at the Lochearnhead Shears on Saturday and continues with a post-championships four-test series against Wales, all highlighting the difficulties of winning in the Northern Hemisphere alongside New Zealand’s near unbeaten record at home.

New Zealand has won just one of the last 16 tests against Scotland at Lochearnhead, and hasn’t won any of the annual series’ in Wales since 2011.

Emails and the internet keep 58-year-old Payne in daily contact with such council issues as the local water scheme, while October Local Elections nomination, closing the day he returns on August 16, is being handled by wife Anneta who will join him late in the tour ahead of a holiday in Africa.

Having managed New Zealand teams previously on two assignments in Australia he was ready for the World championships role, but was still overwhelmed.

“This is a huge honour and accolade,” he said, having never considered the roles and re-election hopes in Balclutha might have intervened. “When I learned I had been nominated and was getting it there was no way I would stand-down.”

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