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Death of a champion
reported on Nottingham Board

with thanks to all the writers here, and to John Prince, who supplied most of the
illustration, along with answers to the editor's questions i n the small sidebars
Posted March 27, 2021

The Nottingham Board was created by Ian Vincent and managed for decades out of the Nottingham Croquet Club, as the sport's main means of spreading news and information quickly, with about 1,000 subscribers. Anyone may join, but it is mostly used by top players and others interested in learning about the sport, and for all sorts of announcements. This is major news shared widely in a surprisingly intimate way.

It began with an announcement on the Croquet New Zealand Facebook page, by Brian Boutel

by Croquet New Zealand on March 22, 2021

Croquet New Zealand was saddened to learn that CNZ Life Member Paul Skinley passed away this afternoon.

Although Paul often said he learnt croquet while in his pram accompanying his mother when she was playing at Rangatira Croquet Club in Dannevirke, Paul began to play seriously at the tender age of 11. Quickly developing his own style, Paul ascended the player rankings in New Zealand winning his first North Island Open singles title in 1974.

Paul enjoyed a decorated career which included three NZ Open Singles titles (1980, 1981 and 1985) and was runner-up another three times, the most recent being in 2016. Along with his singles titles, Paul also won the NZ Open doubles on two occasions in 1995 and 1997 pairing with Dr Steve Jones both times.

Paul was selected in the New Zealand MacRobertson Shield team seven times (1979, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1993, 1996, 2000 and 2006) however due to an injury was unable to compete in the 2006 event. During his tenure in the team, New Zealand won the MacRobertson Shield twice, in 1979 and 1986.

Paul�s prolific playing career was recognised as he was part of the initial group to be inducted in the CNZ Hall of Fame in 2015.

The contribution to croquet goes far beyond just his playing prowess as Paul has left his mark across the national, regional and club level of the game. Paul has served on the Executive / Committee for CNZ, Wellington Croquet Association and of course the Wellington Municipal Croquet Club which he joined in 1978. From hoop setting to coaching have a go session, Paul's vibrant, happy personality was infectious and ensured everyone felt welcomed and would develop a love of croquet.

Here Paul is looking very determined at United in the mid 90's. He and Bob Jackson were running head to head on consecutive triple peels completed during the event, according to John Prince, who recalls, "It had got well into double figures until Bob failed one and Paul notched up one more."

It would be impossible to list all that Paul has done for croquet but in recognition of his enormous contribution, Paul was made a Life Member of Wellington Municipal Croquet Club in 2005, Wellington Croquet Association in 2015 and Croquet New Zealand in 2019.

Paul's passion and love for croquet spanned over 5 decades. He was a towering and beloved figure and he will be sorely missed.

Our thoughts are with Paul's family and friends at this difficult time.

Chris Clarke was quick to comment

Very sad news. Paul had been seriously ill for some time, but had still been intending to play in the NZ Open last January had his health permitted. He was a central figure in NZ croquet and even more crucial to "the best little croquet club in the world", Wellington MCC.

I am sure others who knew him for longer will be able to add further, but here are some of my memories of Paul.

Paul survived high risk emergency surgery for a heart issue about four years ago, but shortly after was diagnosed with cancer and received treatment for several inoperable tumours. He battled this with great fortitude, amazing the medical staff with his determination to get well enough to play croquet. They told him playing croquet was the best thing he could do.

--John Prince

I first met Paul at Hurlingham at the 1989 World Championship where he kindly gave me a Jaques mallet bag. He was already a "legend" in my eyes having been part of the NZ MacRobertson Shield winning team of 1986. Some of the spectators at that event said he played at a similar level to Hogan and Jackson. He was always popular with spectators - his nickname of the "Earl of Elegance" was true both for his croquet and dress. Immaculately turned out (he also did most of the NZ team's ironing!), Paul had a highly unusual technique, playing Solomon grip with his toes pointing together so that the mallet would not pass between them, but instead had to be lifted over them. He had a long backswing for power strokes which often went past 90 degrees and yet it was his touch that was his major strength.

Paul won all of his MacRoberston Shield doubles when partnering Bob Jackson. They didn't really get on too well personally, but this seemed to bring out the best of them at doubles. He played in seven MacRoberston Shield teams, winning twice and is one of only 6 players to have won over 50 matches. He won the NZ top Invitation ten times, NZ Men's 5 times and NZ Open 3 times. He also completed the first sextuple peel in the MacRobertson Shield in 1979.

Paul was made a Life Member of Wellington MCC, a place that will not feel the same without him. He served in many capacities on CNZ committees including Selection, Handicapping and Tournament. He was made a Life member of CNZ in 2019, where he had already been inducted into their Hall of Fame.

In his acceptance speech, Paul emphasised how important being a gay Maori man had been in his life at a time when there was less tolerance than nowadays. With a life filled with croquet, Paul could always be relied upon to find an entertaining story about croquet from the past and was good company. Many thanks to everyone in Wellington who has supported him in recent years and condolences to all his friends and family

Then Graeme Roberts expanded the story

Paul has been at the heart of croquet in Wellington for nearly 40 years as well as being one of New Zealand's leading players, as Chris and John have described.

Players at United Croquet Club:" Graham Beale, Paul Skinley, Greg Bryant and Ian Dummergue .

The Wellington Municipal club has been very much Paul's club over that time, attracting many strong players from other clubs as well as developing its own talent, largely through Paul's efforts. Amongst MacRob players, Chris Shilling, Aiken Hakes and Harps Tahurangi could all perhaps be regarded as Paul's proteges, and Greg Bryant acknowledges Paul's encouragement and guidance. Paul has also contributed substantially to the development of younger talent in recent years, alongside Jarrod Coutts, Chris and Jenny Clarke and Greg Bryant elsewhere in New Zealand. Most recently that has included Robbie Spooner and Aliileleimatumua Posimani. Paul's pleasure last October when accepting CNZ's most improved AC player of the year award on behalf of Alii equalled that he showed a year earlier when he received the well-deserved honour of life membership of Croquet New Zealand.

Croquet was Paul's life. He loved the sport with a passion and was wonderful company at tournaments and on tour. Highlights for him included watching the Open Championships at Wimbledon. He was delighted when Bernard Neal obtained Martina Navratilova's autograph for him. He also followed horse racing, attending meetings with the late Neil Spooner in Australia and later with Chris and Jenny Clarke in the U.K.

--John Prince

Paul was a member of seven consecutive New Zealand MacRobertson Shield teams between 1979 and 2000, and also played in 2010. He was selected but did not play in 2006. That run might have been even longer, but the timing of the 1974 series was not quite right for him. Paul, having just turned 15, won the Heenan Plate in his first appearance at the NZ Open in 1974 but his game hadn't matured at that stage. A year later and he had arrived at the top level, being runner-up to Bob Jackson in the Open Championship.

In addition to his outstanding ability, Paul was always a most determined player and, as John has noted, a formidable opponent right to the end. That ability can only have been enhanced by competing so often, with great success, in the challenging windy conditions that frequently prevail in Wellington. At the end of a match Paul could look tired, but never discouraged.

In recent years Paul has suffered increasing health problems that first limited his playing and finally prevented it altogether. But he maintained his involvement with his club and in March last year, just before NZ went into Covid lockdown, was involved in organising the club's centenary and leading the celebrations. He was, as always, rapt at being part of the club activities that have been such a large part of his life for so long.

RIP Paul. Croquet in Wellington and New Zealand is much the poorer for your passing.

And Chris Clarke came back to tell another story

Paul actually told the story of the first Mac sextuple to me a couple of years ago. It was the final Test of the series and NZ had not dropped a match to any Australian players. The story as Paul told it went like this.

In their first game against Prater and Wiesner, Bob said to Paul "stop at 1-b and I'll try a sextuple". Bob broke down, but they won the game. In the second, Bob said "stop at 1-b and I'll have another go" which Paul once again did. Bob failed again and said, "we'd better lose this one so I can have another go". They duly lost the second and then Paul said, "Now Bob, it's my turn to have a go" and went on to complete the event's first sextuple.

I should have mentioned that Paul loved his sport. He was a massive tennis fan and could be found watching every one of Federer's matches. He also loved a flutter on the horses and I was delighted to be able to take him to Epsom in 2010 for an evening's racing that he thoroughly enjoyed. Jenny has posted a picture (taken by our friend Michael Wright) from the evening on her Facebook page and John has posted several older pictures of Paul on his.

Paddy Chapman, a world champion from this generation, adds this

How does one start when trying to describe Paul? One of a kind. He dedicated his entire life to the betterment of croquet. In his own right as a player, one of the very best that NZ has ever seen. A huge inspiration to NZ players, including myself as a left-handed Solomon grip player at the time - just like Paul. His influence can be clearly seen all around NZ and especially in Wellington, with many players adopting a style of play similar to his own.

Note the head bandanna and wrist bands, worn by a player who always intended to look like a fashion player on the court and off.
My wife Miranda learnt much of her croquet from Paul at the Wellington club when she was very young, and remembers fondly when Paul volunteered (more like insisted) to play with her in the club doubles competition despite her only having a few weeks of experience at the game - they duly won the event. After only 6 lessons, he took her under his wing and gave her a game of handicap singles every weekend for the whole croquet season.

Off the lawn is where I have my fondest memories of Paul. I spent many an evening with him at tournaments, often sitting on the deck late into the night with a drink in hand, recounting stories of tournaments past. Paul had quite a way with words, and in his own inimitable style he could make a 4-ball break sound like a dramatic novel. A wonderful person who would do anything for anyone.

Miranda and I will miss him terribly. What a huge loss to NZ croquet and in particular to the WMCC.

Arohanui to Paul, thoughts with his sister Irene and family, and may he rest in peace.

And Stephen Mulliner comments for the World Croquet Federation

What sad news about Paul after a long and courageous battle against ill-health.

I first met Paul in Sydney on the eve of the 1982 MacRobertson Shield series at the welcome function. I can still recall the intense excitement, in the pre-internet era, of being able to put faces to names and actually talk to the great players I had heard so much about. Of the New Zealand team, Paul and Joe Hogan stood out because of their youth.

Paul's mother was Maori, with high status in her tribe. Paul was very proud of his heritage and very close to his sister Irene, who is a lovely woman. He never made anything of being gay, it wasn't a secret. He seemed perfectly comfortable with it. He owned a house at one stage, and had both male and female flatmates. He worked in clothing retail and pubs.

--John Prince

On a practice day just before the Tests began, I had the chance to play Paul in a friendly one-handed game of GC at the Manly club near Sydney Harbour. I was thoroughly trounced and did not do much better when we played one-handed AC.

His Solomon-based style was unique at the time with a huge backswing. During our friendlies, I noticed that his white socks had brown patches over the inner aspect of his ankle bones and asked why. "Dried blood" was the laconic reply, "sometimes my swing veers a bit!". Ouch!

He was an early example of a player who trusted his swing completely. I can still see him poised to take a long roquet against William Prichard and me at the old Hutt Road courts in Adelaide in the second 1982 Test. He was shooting from 20 yards at our balls joined up in a corner and would give away a break if he missed. The mallet went back to well above the horizontal with Paul's eyes glued to his ball. It then seemed to be dropped onto the ball and Paul remained motionless, eyes still focused on the spot vacated by his ball. Then came a click as the roquet was made. Only then did he look up.

His long croquet strokes were even more impressive, especially on a fast court, with the mallet dropped onto the striker's ball in such a way that both balls would almost always find their target positions. I recall being struck by how many very short straight rushes he seemed to get.

I last played him in the 2010 Mac at Nottingham when he beat me with two typically elegant triples and play that seemed to be as good as ever. The second triple was started by Paul making hoop 5 off partner and then stroking a rush to 2 feet due south of 4-back with an escape ball waiting.

RIP to one of the true ornaments of the game.

Stephen Mulliner

Finally, Graham Beale shares some personal recollections

This is truly sad news. Paul was a great friend and a remarkable croquet player. I first met Paul at the 1983 NZ Open and he was to me, as a young player, already a legend, having been part of the famous MacRobertson winning team of 1979.

In 2012, Paul Skinley's stance in Australia's World Championship in Adelaide was not yet affected by the tumors that would cause his death nine years later.

I had the great honour of being a teammate with Paul in the 1986 NZ MacRob team, which toured the UK for seemingly months on end (those were the days). Paul was my roommate at every hotel on the tour and I vividly remember one particular incident when we went up to our room only to find it had just a double bed. Paul marched down to the hotelier and quipped "We are a close team, but not that close!"

As others have stated, Paul's playing style was unique and he really was the Earl of Elegance. With his exaggerated backswing and precise croquet strokes, he was able to achieve anything on the croquet lawn and played aggressive and flowing croquet. His partnership in Macrob doubles with Bob Jackson was legendary - I have not seen a stronger combination. What their opponents probably did not realise was that Paul and Bob were competing more with each other than they were with the opposition - perhaps that is what made them so difficult to beat!

Paul played an enormous amount of croquet and whenever at a tournament he would be accompanied by his toy frogs, one of whom was named 'Herbie' after the NZ croquet legend and friend of Paul's, Herbert Ford (John Prince could tell some stories about him). You always knew that if you had the frogs watching from the sideline you were in for a tough match. Paul was famously deaf ("...but only in one ear, Bealey") and so I learned that if playing doubles with him (which we did in test matches and NZ tournaments), it paid to sit on his 'good side', otherwise a protracted explanation to him of what shot we should take and what our next move could be, would be completely wasted.

Paul and other members of the Wellington croquet elite would often stay with us during tournaments in Christchurch and it was never a dull moment at the end of a day's play, as Paul would regale us with tales of croquet battles far and wide. Paul was a lovely person, a dear friend and a passionate lover of croquet, He will be sorely missed.

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