Croquet: Eight-time NZ champ still enjoys rapport

By Anendra Singh

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Croquet enticed John Prince to Hastings before other parts of the world beckoned. Photo/File.
Croquet enticed John Prince to Hastings before other parts of the world beckoned. Photo/File.

It's common for people to move from one city to another because of the demands of employment.

For John Prince, of Waipukurau, it was quite the opposite, actually.

Prince moved from Lower Hutt to Hastings in 1972 when in his mid-20s, with wife Sue, because of his love for croquet.

"It was going to be Hastings or Nelson," says Prince, 68, who gravitated to Hawke's Bay because Hastings provided the platform for playing croquet all year round.

No doubt the demands of employment did crop up 18 years later but the then bank officer had no qualms about immigrating south to Christchurch where he kept rekindling the flame for the mallet-and-hoop game.

The eight-time New Zealand Open croquet champion will be competing in the Croquet Hawke's Bay-hosted five-day North Island championship from tomorrow at Marewa Croquet Club at Whitmore Park, Napier.

Te Mata club in Havelock North is the other venue.

The champs has lured eight entries in the Open doubles, 22 in the Open singles and seven in the four-plus singles.

Joining Prince, a singles hopeful, are other elite players who have represented New Zealand in the MacRobertson Shield test series. They include Bay players Tony Stephens and Steve Jones as well as the Wellington pair of Michael Wright and Paul Skinley. Also in the mix are four current NZ test players - captain Aaron Westerby (Auckland), Chris Clarke (Christchurch), and Toby Garrison and Greg Bryant (both of Wellington).

The tournament begins with the Open doubles. The Open singles follow, with the singles four bisques and over, as well as the Open plate.

Marewa club is the HQ this week for the North Island champs as it prepares to host the second round of shield tests from January 5-9 next year.

Te Mata club will host the US v England test.

England are the reigning champions of the MacRobertson Shield and have won it 14 times. The Kiwis and Aussies have won it three times each.

The shield series, involving New Zealand, Australia, England and the United States, will offer fans nail-biting competition.

Its origins go back to 1925 when England played Australia every four years before the Kiwis were invited to join in 1930. The Americans joined the fray in 1993 to make it a four-nation affair.

The competition went into recess for a few years during the two World Wars.

Prince, who returned to the Bay 18 months ago, proudly points out he was captain of the New Zealand team when they won it two out of three times - here in 1979 and in England in 1986.

"I also have the record for representing nine times in the MacRobertson Shield."

The NZ Open record of 13 belongs to Aucklander Bob Jackson with the late Arthur Ross, of Hastings, second on 11.

Prince's love for the sport goes back to when he was still a baby in the pram.

"My mother would often sit in Riddiford gardens in Lower Hutt next to the croquet lawns before setting out on her journey home after a visit to the shops," he says in a website story, emphasising he has no recollection of the outings but "lapped up any attention" from women croquet players.

Not surprisingly Prince, the boy, had "interesting times" with rugby at Boulcott Primary School where a teacher was good friends with All Black triallist Tony Clark, whose brother Bill Clark was an AB flanker.

"Tony inspired us all and Bill often came to the small school to kick the ball around with us," he says, after his mother was admitted to hospital ill and his father was diagnosed with cancer.

Tragically Prince's father died, prompting the youngster to retreat into a self-imposed cocoon.

Prince's love of croquet re-emerged in his early teens.

It was the mother of another AB, Ron Jarden, "the Dan Carter in those days", who initially stoked the fire in Prince.

Jean Jarden, an accomplished croquet player, was among those who helped him hone his skills.

"I started by accident, actually," says Prince who was at a bar overlooking the Naenae Men's Bowling and Croquet Club at the Hospital Grounds when a couple of women, Melba Miller and Muriel Palmer, invited him to have a go.

Ashley Heenan, who in his mid-30s won the NZ Open, was the other notable mentor who employed golf croquet as an introductory tool.

Heenan was inducted into the "World Croquet Hall of Fame" and Prince followed years later.

In Hastings, Prince met Maraekakaho farmers, the late Kathleen and Ron Patullo, who played croquet and introduced him to the magic of a countryside life that he adores.

In 1986 he was named the HB Sportsperson of the Year.

Even though croquet offers longevity, Prince reckons age can be inhibiting.

"They're all getting young as I'm getting older," he says, recounting a time when he mentioned to a player on the greens he had won the NZ Open and the player revealed it was before he was born.

For Prince the biggest reward has been seeing the world and building life-long friends, including retired Prof Bernard Neal, a Wimbledon tennis committee member.

"I ended up being on centre court four times and in the royal box a couple of times," says Prince, once spotting the Duke and Duchess of Kent.

"I had the privilege of seeing [the then] Lady Di sitting not far away, too, once. She was a very, very attractive woman."

Christchurch will stage the first MacRobertson Shield test, NZ v US, from December 30 to January 3, when England play Australia. The final test series is from January 11-15 at Mt Maunganui with England v NZ and US v Australia.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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