Driven McIlroy seeks singles redemption
Shannon McIlroy could justifiably lay claim to being New Zealand's oldest 25-year-old.
In a bowls context, he's been well and truly hauled through the wringer over the years and, on current evidence at least, appears no worse for the experience.
First selected for the New Zealand men's senior side as a 19-year-old, McIlroy has since been dropped, reselected, dropped again and is now about to embark on the biggest campaign of his career at November's world bowls championships in Adelaide.
He's been lauded as one of the game's brightest young stars, enjoyed some extraordinary success and also suffered the derision of public scrutiny following a well-documented scandal at the 2009 Asia Pacific tournament in Kuala Lumpur.
Yet through it all he has emerged with his reputation and game remarkably intact and with an unremitting self-confidence that suggests his best days may still be ahead of him.
He's among a stable of rich talent in Nelson and where New Zealand selection is concerned, representative team-mates Val Smith and Jo Edwards have commanded more regular attention as virtual selection certainties.
He has followed a much different route, despite constant acknowledgement from both officialdom and his peers that the kid can indeed play.
Despite his relative youth, the Stoke club member has been playing bowls for about 20 years after being introduced to the game by his father Boon as a 5-year-old in his hometown Gisborne.
Two decades of exposure to varying degrees of acclaim, disappointment, success and failure have moulded him into the player he hopes will become New Zealand's next world singles champion.
He made his New Zealand senior debut at the 2007 Asia Pacific championships in Christchurch, winning a silver medal as part of the men's four.
But he missed selection for the following year's world championships, also in Christchurch, where Smith won gold in the women's singles and again with Edwards in the pairs.
After competing at various trans-Tasman, Asia Pacific, Eight Nations and Six Nations tournaments and the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, he will be treading new ground at his first world championships event in November.
He's obviously excited at the prospect, with selection in his preferred singles discipline adding to the anticipation.
He'll also lead the men's pair alongside Richard Girvan.
"I'd like to think that if I keep playing well I could be the singles player for the next 20 years," McIlroy says.
"And that's what I want, I want to play singles all the time. That's where I seem to play at my best and there's something about that certain discipline that I really seem to like.
"Everything's on me, I don't need to rely on a team-mate or someone else. I seem to like that extra bit of pressure, it just goes part and parcel with the way I play really."
He's had to accept various setbacks during his career.
He understood the reasoning behind New Zealand head coach Dave Edwards' decision to bring back the more experienced Gary Lawson and Russell Meyer for the 2008 world championships campaign in Christchurch.
Andrew Todd was also named as lead in the four.
Although at McIlroy's expense, it was ultimately hard to argue with the results as Lawson and Meyer won gold in the men's pairs and again as part of the men's four.
McIlroy said he also had "a bit of a vibe" that his name would be missing from last year's New Zealand team to contest the Asia Pacific event in Adelaide.
An in-form Shaun Scott took the coveted singles berth, with Danny Delany and Richard Girvan selected in the pair.
"In my head space I'm just thinking, well obviously I've missed out on this one, I've just got to show that the next time I get an outing that I'm the man for the job.
"Sometimes maybe I feel like, are they trying to test me?
"It works for some players in all different types of sports, because I know for sure that when I missed out on the 2008 world champs, when I came back I was just more hungry when I played and the results the next season went from not too bad to right up there."
His form certainly blossomed during 2008, McIlroy backing up his 2006 win at the prestigious North East Valley Invitation singles event in Dunedin by claiming the 2008 title, the equally coveted Stoke Invitation singles crown and the national under-26 title.
He'd also progress to the semifinals of the 2009 Australian Open, where he lost to eventual champion, Australian international Brett Wilkie.
Then came the biggest reality check of his career when, in August 2009, he unwittingly became involved in a controversy that would haunt him for the next eight months.
It was during the Asia Pacific championships in Kuala Lumpur that the Gary Lawson-skipped New Zealand four of Jamie Hill, Shayne Sincock and McIlroy were charged with throwing a qualifying match against Thailand.
Canada complained to the World Bowls body, claiming New Zealand deliberately lost the section game ahead of the playoffs.
They were eventually found guilty as charged and in announcing the punishments, Bowls New Zealand chairman John Carter said the judicial committee stated that the misconduct was a deliberate breach of the rules and involved a lack of sportsmanship.
Lawson was fined $5000 and suspended for six months, while his team-mates were each fined $1000 but escaped suspension.
Now, three years on, McIlroy can finally discuss the issue with some degree of detachment. He says that while initially oblivious to what was unfolding at the time, as part of the team he felt obliged to support Lawson's decision.
He wasn't prepared, though, for the media storm that followed.
"All the stuff that happened afterwards in the media, for me personally it was like 'far out, is this really happening?' Mum rang me up and said 'your name's all over the news, you guys are throwing games' and I said 'no, it's not like that at all'. But all that media stuff, it was like, whoa, this is serious.
"For me, it made me feel like I really didn't want to go down to my local club that much because people would just come straight up to you and start talking about it."
McIlroy missed out on an Eight Nations event in India straight after the Asia Pacifics as the judicial process took its course. He admits to some genuine anxiety at the time as other players stepped up and performed in his absence.
"[New Zealand] played well [in India] and I was sort of scratching my head thinking, 'am I going to make the Commonwealth Games team if I get through [the judicial process]'?
"These guys came back with gold medals. Richard Collett and Danny Delany won the pairs gold and Andrew Kelly, Gary Girvan and Andrew Todd got a silver [in the triples]. Kelly came in and played quite well.
"It was a hard time, it was very difficult. It took a long [judicial] process to get to the bottom of it, but I'm glad that [the selectors] believed enough in me to give me another chance."
Apart from last year's Asia Pacific non-selection, his career has continued to flourish, notwithstanding his part in a disappointing team performance at the 2010 Commonwealth Games where Val Smith brought home the team's only medal, a silver in the women's singles.
As part of the men's triple, McIlroy saysthat a combination of a tough New Zealand draw, difficult greens, extreme heat and what he described simply as unusually bad luck were partly responsible for the team's poor returns.
"That was a funny sort of campaign because we beat all the good teams and then lost to the minnows.
"So after that campaign, I really wanted to play the world champs because it's an event I haven't played yet.
"So that became the focus, the Asia Pacifics and trans-Tasman were all the little goals before the big one."
Reaching the final of last year's Australian Open, where he lost to another Australian international, Leif Selby, and captaining the Nelson representative men's team to the Lion Foundation Bowls New Zealand national intercentre title were other significant steps in his evolution.
He says an important part of that process has been the realisation of the national selectors that he was best suited to singles or skipping, not as a lead.
"The strength of my game is converting and you don't get a chance to do that when you lead. Lead's quite a specialist job, you just draw, draw, draw. My forte in bowls, when I'm a bit under pressure, is trying to convert, change heads and driving."
Through it all, he's always adhered to some basic principles and a dogged fighting spirit.
"There's been so many times when I've been down and out ... and people are [saying] 'oh, he's going to lose', then they come back an hour later and the game's still going and I'm right back in it.
"I think on the mental side of things, where I have an edge over a lot of people is that fightback, the determination to want to keep winning when things aren't going too flash. [And] I've never stopped working on my delivery and technique, I'm always conscious of how that's all feeling."
He gets married to his fiancee Amy Brenton in January and considering her own burgeoning career as both a Nelson and New Zealand Development team representative, McIlroy anticipates some intriguing possibilities further down the line.
"The next world bowls might see Amy in there."
- © Fairfax NZ News