Commonwealth Games carrot attracts top field
With the added incentive of selection for next year's Commonwealth Games, this season's national bowls championships has attracted a glamorous field when the event starts in Dunedin on Saturday.
All of the 14 internationals who took part in the Eight-Nations event in Scotland in August are in the field. And with only five men and five women being selected for Glasgow, it's not hard to understand why all 14, and plenty of other fringe players, are heading to the championships.
It is the first time for many years that the championships, which remain the pinnacle of bowls in New Zealand, have attracted such a uniform attendance from the upper echelon for the event.
That feature more than offsets the small decrease on last season's championship in Taranaki.
The women start with singles on Saturday, and a new champion will be found, after New Plymouth's Val McEldowney was a late withdrawal from the field of 132.
All of the seven current New Zealand reps rate chances in the singles. Dunsandel's Sandra Keith will be looking to make it three titles in as many years. She won the singles two years ago and combined with Serena Matthews to take the pairs 12 months ago. Their defence of that title starts on Sunday.
United's Jo Edwards, who continues to win distinctions galore, and Mandy Boyd, who has now relocated to Burnside, face three potentially tricky qualifying games in the singles, including the evergreen 1988 winner, Judy Howat (The Park Kilbirne).
Val Smith (United) has had a mortgage on the singles spot in the New Zealand side and has enjoyed plenty of success in the role. But an elusive national singles title is yet to fall her way. Smith will continue her outstanding partnership with Edwards in the pairs and fours.
The men start with pairs on Saturday, while 280 are in the singles, including reigning champion Shaun Scott (North East Valley), which gets underway on Monday.
Havelock's Ali Forsyth, back for his annual sojourn from Australia, impressively captured the pairs title last season. With Matt Gallop not competing this year, Forsyth's aligns with the 1998 fours winner, Andre Smith.
While well out of the frame for New Zealand selection, Gary Lawson, returns to the championships, playing under the banner of Wellington's Victoria club.
Somewhat surprisingly, given that Lawson has not played since the Stoke singles in early November, he is red-hot favourite with the TAB for all three disciplines.
In the pairs, Lawson will skip Wilton's Ben King. King first made his name in Dunedin as a highly accomplished lead in the 1990s, but since then has evolved into a more than useful skip himself.
Lawson and King will be joined by Stoke's Shannon McIlroy and Onehunga's Dan Delany in the fours. Delany will miss the first week of the championships.
Other prominent pairings include the 2012 champions Blake Signal and Alvin Gardiner, Andrew Kelly and Michael Kernaghan, Peter Belliss and Lance Tasker, Richard Girvan and Chris Le Lievre, and McIlroy, who will skip Lance Pascoe.
The finals of the singles and pairs will be held at Taieri on January 4. The fours start the following day and will conclude on January 9.