Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Darts: Kiwi shocks champ

Dark horse Rob Szabo was at odds of 250-1 but caused a few nervous flutterings.

Sixteen-times world champion Phil Taylor, left, is congratulated by New Zealander Rob Szabo. Photo / Getty Images
Sixteen-times world champion Phil Taylor, left, is congratulated by New Zealander Rob Szabo. Photo / Getty Images

Rob Szabo will bank 6000 ($11,832) after his stunning effort at the PDC World Championships yesterday, dwarfing any prize money received previously by the New Zealand amateur player.

The Wellington builder captivated the darts world by pushing 16-times world champion and 6 million man ($11.8m) Phil "The Power" Taylor to the limit, taking the first set and an early break in the second before losing 3-1.

Szabo, ranked 162 in the world, was a 250-1 outsider before the match, said to be the greatest head-to-head odds offered in the history of darts.

Darts is far from lucrative in New Zealand - some of Szabo's previous prize money has been as low as $50 for various New Zealand regional events. The 49-year-old had to pay his own expenses, including accommodation, for his trip to England, though the national association covered his flight to Europe.

Szabo qualified for the PDC World Championships by winning an arduous New Zealand play-off.

Twelve winners of regional tournaments, plus the next four best by ranking, engaged in a day-long shoot-out, with Szabo coming out on top. The qualification system was rejigged this year to ensure the best possible representative was found after 2012 qualifier Dave Harrington was eliminated in less than 10 minutes at last year's World Darts Championships.

After taking up the sport in his early 20s, Szabo took a break from the game to concentrate on starting a family. He returned to the board in his late 30s and has been a solid performer in recent years. He beat Australian No 1 (and world-ranked professional) Simon Whitlock in a tournament across the Tasman this year and reached the last 72 of a world championship event.

The huge interest in Szabo's match is expected to provide a massive fillip for the sport.

"This is immense," says Duncan Ellis of Capital Area Darts. "What Rob has done ... it's like Zimbabwe taking on the All Blacks and losing in the last second. We have had players reach the last 64 of this tournament before but nothing as big as this. He took on a legend like Phil Taylor and made him sweat ... made him really work for the win."

"It will definitely spark interest," says New Zealand Darts Council director Edwin Eden. "People can relate to a Kiwi doing so well and we will get a lot of people wanting to play the game."

Eden estimates there are around 10,000 to 15,000 regular players in New Zealand and the Szabo cliffhanger is a timely boost.

"The sport has been trying to tidy up its image," says Eden. "People will watch that and think 'that looks like fun - it's not a drinking game'. Lawn bowlers and indoor bowlers drink a lot more than us and it's good that people can see darts as a serious sport now."

Ellis adds that the publicity generated by Szabo's efforts will help New Zealand's case for direct entry into the lucrative annual tournament at London's Alexandra Palace. Currently the New Zealand qualifier has to face a preliminary round - Szabo beat Ian Moss prior to facing Taylor - before they can participate in the tournament proper. Australia gets direct entry.

- Herald on Sunday

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