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Letters & Opinion

by Steve Jones - NZ Correspondent

New Zealand Coat of Arms

CROQUET WORLD ONLINE MAGAZINE is pleased to add to our roster of distinguished correspondents a champion of the sport and a keen observer of the croquet scene in New Zealand and around the world. His first "New Zealand Report" follows.

New Zealand's "secret weapon" in MacRob '96 was held back until the final, critical Test again Great Britain. Their practiced deployment of a subtle variation of the Diagonal Spread leave helped, but it didn't deliver the knock-out punch needed against the Brits. Now, however, a number of successful programs in schools are yielding promising results - gifted young players that could give New Zealand the winning edge in world competitions in the next century.
The season has now officially begun in New Zealand. Coaching clinics have been held from Auckland to Gore and everyone is raring to go now that it's stopped raining at last! The first significant tournaments are the Invitation events in November.

The top players are still feeling a little jaded after their defeat in the MacRobertson. They went to England expecting to win, but a number of factors were involved in their demise. They were up against a GB team brimming with talent, although most (Fulford a notable exception) were not quite playing to the best of their ability. On this account, New Zealand should have done better; but some of the NZ players were also encumbered by a loss of form, and in the end the final result was an appropriate one.

Before leaving the subject of the MacRob, I should respond to Richard Hilditch's comment in CROQUET WORLD ONLINE MAGAZINE that the "standard" new standard leave was used heavily by Australia and New Zealand. Yes, this was the "fall-back" leave and was used quite often (as it was by all countries), but Richard must have been too busy tucking into his sausage, bacon, egg, chips and Orange Squash to notice the subtle variations in the New Zealand leaves and how they were different in the final Test against Great Britain. In particular, the use of the Reverse Diagonal Spread leave, which NZ had been practicing hard for weeks, was reserved for the final week and did indeed cause some confusion - and missed lifts - in the GB camp.

The Reverse Diagonal Spread is, as the name suggests, similar to the Diagonal Spread but the position of the balls across the court is reversed. In the Reverse spread, the striker's balls (say blue and black) are placed on the West boundary a yard apart with a rush pointing at the peg. One opposition ball is placed half a yard North West of the peg (which hampers the shot on blue and black) and the other wired near the East boundary.

There is nothing new about this leave; it is often used when the opposition is off hoops 1 and 2 but a striker's ball is for hoop 2. The difference with the NZ leave was that it was used after the FIRST break when there were still three clips on hoop #1. The idea was to break up the usual pattern of lift-taking by presenting something different, thereby causing lifts to be missed. (Another subtle leave variation was also used successfully in the MacRob, but you'll have to read about this in my forthcoming book!)

If New Zealand did not have the winning edge this year in the MacRobertson, we may have the critical advantage for the next Series - in New Zealand in the year 2000 - through development of young players. There are many youngsters in New Zealand who really are as keen as mustard. Despite the current drain of top-level young players to Great Britain (like Aaron Westerby and Andrew Johnson) NZ should be a force to be reckoned with in the young players department in the very near future.

The best of the up-and-coming bunch is Toby Garrison (aged 18) from Wellington. Having taken some notable scalps at his first Nationals last season, he has been selected in the President's 16 for the first time this year. Significantly, the event is to be played at Garrison's home club - Waimarie. With 4 of the MacRobertson team lining up (having shaken off their blues) plus the evergreen Bob Jackson, the event should be quite strong this year, and Garrison will relish this challenge. Its format has been changed yet again this season. This time it will be played as a single round robin - all the players playing each other once. This is in contrast to last season, when there was a single round robin in two blocks of eight followed by 3 rounds of best-of-three matches.

Yet more youngsters will compete in other invitation events. Matthew McLay (17), winner of last season's National School Age competition, plays in the 3-7 bisque event at Pukekohe (near Auckland) along with Malcolm Neal (18), another excellent young prospect.

There is no real structure to the youth croquet scene in New Zealand, but there are a lot of people working on this right now. There have long been pockets of youth croquet around the country, for example in Dannevirke, which has produced youthful players such as Tony Stephens, Sonja Stephens, Ralph Brown, Paul Skinley, Peter Gleeson and Kylie Walker - all of whom represented New Zealand by the age of 20 or so.

More recently (perhaps 10 years ago), David Curtis - that young septuagenarian who came to New Zealand with the 1963 English MacRob team and stayed - had the vision to launch a School Age tournament at his local club in Hawkes Bay (in the East of the country). A dozen or so keen youngsters aged from about 10 to 18 regularly participated in this event, which was run on handicap to take account of the vast range of abilities from the novice to the minus player. My own daughter, Abigail, played in the event when she was 12, as did Tony Stephen's daughter, Erica.

Last season, the New Zealand Croquet Council (NZCC), croquet's governing body, took over the Hawkes Bay tournament, which they now run annually as a national event (which has increased its prestige). This change of administration is important, as it signals the serious intentions of the national organization towards youth development. Past winners include Aaron Westerby, Richard Baker, Shane Davis and Kylie Walker - all subsequently to become NZ Representatives. Aaron, of course, thereafter won the NZ Open Championship and the Sonoma World Championship; Richard has played with distinction in two MacRobertson Shields; while Shane and Kylie have played in the Trans Tasman Test matches. Other winners/participants such as Tony Baker, Garrison, McLay and Neal have yet to reach their full potential, but it won't be too long until they do.

On top of all this, the Wellington association will be running their 6th annual interschools competition, which last year attracted over 80 students. This event is completely different from the National event. While the NZCC event caters in general to existing croquet players, the Wellington organizers place much more emphasis on getting the numbers through the gate; almost all the players are first-time competitors.. The association aims to give a taste of croquet to as many as possible in the hope that within 5, 10, 20, or even 30 years, they will remember having played and join a club. All the secondary schools (13- to 18-year- olds) in the region are encouraged to enter one or more teams of 4 players into the competition. Some schools enter up to six teams! They then play each other (after a brief coaching session) in blocks during the first term of the year (between Christmas and Easter). They don't really need much coaching as, being young, they pick up the game quickly.

Although they are a handful to control (they invent places you never dreamt of for carrying their clips!) it is a delight to see the lawns full of such enthusiastic potential. If anyone wants details on how we operate the event, please contact me. There is no organized croquet for them during their vacation, unfortunately, and the biggest challenge for organizers is to get them to join a club after the competition has finished. This is partly because they are just getting interested when the croquet season is coming to an end.

The expanding reach of the Internet can only help in croquet's outreach to younger players. While NZ has yet to see its first "Web Baby", I think conception may have occurred, and NZ will doubtless give birth before too long!

Pre-season coaching clinics have been held nationwide and were well attended, usually running over a weekend. They are designed to provide an incentive to players of the middle grades to improve their game over the coming season. Generally they are run by some of the leading players (I did one in Nelson) and are loosely based on the excellent NZCC coaching manual written by John Prince. Often included are useful sessions on nutrition and sports psychology given by experts in these fields. I concentrated on starts, leaves and finishing (having done break play with them last season). As a coach, I find one of the most difficult tasks is to persuade players that their way of doing things is not necessarily the only way - and there may even be better ways! Without telling them they are completely crazy, one has to try and coach (or coax) them out of their bad habits into more orthodox ways. (Then, of course, one has to teach them NOT to be orthodox and boringly predictable all the time!) For example, at Nelson I went through the theory of all the different starts - from the normal one over by the 4th hoop followed by the 12-yard tice, to putting the first ball in the middle of the lawn. One or two players asked about laying the 12-yard tice with the FIRST ball. I gave an appropriate answer (as politely as I could). We then went out on the lawns to practice the various starts and - you guessed it - they started with a 12-yard tice every time!

If younger players make the same mistakes all beginning players make, they seem to learn from them quickly and discard them more easily than most. An early start is an advantage in every sport, including croquet. The early start we are giving youngsters in New Zealand may be the key to bringing the Shield back to New Zealand in the year 2000.

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