Matthews, Nick Willis progress to 1500m final

MARK GEENTY
Last updated 06:48 02/08/2014
Nick Willis
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ

INTO THE FINAL: Nick Willis of New Zealand won the first heat of the men's 1500m, qualifying automatically for the final. Willis will be joined by compatriot Julian Matthews in the medal race.

Jake Robertson
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ Zoom
Jake Robertson was on track in the final of the men's 1000m before running out of steam late in the race.

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It was the biggest occasion of his athletics career but it didn't faze the forgotten man of New Zealand's athletics squad.

Julian Matthews responded to the noise of a full house at Hampden Park to run a quicker time than compatriot Nick Willis and qualify alongside his track hero for the Commonwealth Games 1500m final.

The Nelson runner snuck into tomorrow's 1500m race for medals (6.35am NZT) as one of the fastest losers in heat two, clocking 3min 40.33sec in finishing fifth. It was a contrasting progression to Willis who controlled heat one to win in 3:40.76 in a highly impressive performance, easing up before the line to stamp his credentials for a third Commonwealth Games medal.

The only disappointment for New Zealand was Zane Robertson, the 5000m bronze medallist, who took the early lead and was one-two with Willis with a lap to go, before fading to seventh. His time of 3:43.02 wasn't enough to see him through.

Matthews, 26, was ecstatic to qualify, having twice dipped under the B standard of 3:38.80 to make the New Zealand team for his first big international meet.

"My gameplan was to stick on the rail because I had one of the slowest PBs heading into the race. I knew I had to keep as much energy as I could for the last 400m and it just worked out perfectly. I got an awesome run behind the two Kenyans," Matthews said.

Gold medal favourite Ronald Kwemoi (Kenya) won heat two in 3:39.90 and Matthews was just pipped for fourth which would have meant automatic qualification. His time was comfortably good enough.

Matthews' previous biggest event was the NCAA finals when at Providence College in the US, but this 44,000-strong crowd was something else.

"That was nothing like this. This is just insane, the crowd is absolutely fantastic and they cheer for everyone which really gets you going."

Nerves were an issue for Matthews after entering the athletes village on July 22 and waiting an age for his event as a host of other New Zealanders completed theirs. "I'm exhausted from keeping all my nerves at bay but I'm just so happy."

Now it's a dream final for Matthews alongside Willis, who last month broke his own New Zealand 1500m record with a scorching 3:29.91 in Monaco.

"He's got so much on me I'm not even going to get in there," when asked if he could give Willis a run for his money.

"He's a pretty special guy and an amazing New Zealand athlete. He's in top form and hopefully he can pull off another win but I'll be there on his heels."

It couldn't have gone much better for Willis who looped the field after one lap to end up second alongside Robertson. He took over inside the final lap and was in control, looking around and saving energy to ensure he had the field covered. He clocked 3:40.76, just 0.03sec ahead of Australian Jeff Riseley and Kenyan James Magut, another leading contender for the gold.

Willis declined to comment on his heat run and dashed past to warm down.

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