Farmers prayers for rain across the scorched Wairarapa countryside were on hold today as the 48th Golden Shears international shearing and woolhandling championships started in Masterton.

With about 5000 sheep to be kept dry and transported in and out of the stadium which has been home to the event since it was first held in 1961, organisers said that while rain was desperately needed on most of their farms at home it could wait.

"About 9pm...10pm, on Saturday...any time after that," said Laurie Keats, farmer and shearer still known to shear the odd ewe, more than 50 years after he and a group of fellow Young Farmers Club members made the first moves founding what quickly became the biggest shearing competition in the world.

He is one of more than 200 people who put their on lives on hold each year to keep the championships going.

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According to the forecasters, they will get their wish, with temperatures in the town expected to top 25degC on each day.

The winner of the Golden Shears open shearing final on Saturday night will be one of the two shearers, joined by a second shearer from the New Zealand championships in Te Kuiti at the end of March, with the single goal of wrestling the world title off Australian gun Shannon Warnest.

Both woolhandlers will be chosen from a trial at the Golden Shears, with the top competitors from separate series in the North and South islands.

Despite the competitiveness, it will be a surprise if there is a new Golden Shears open shearing champion, with the victor on Saturday night expected to come from Te Kuiti veteran David Fagan, Napier pair John Kirkpatrick and Dion King, and South Taranaki farmer and current champion Paul Avery.

Consistent veteran placegetter, occasional district show winner, and world record holder Dean Ball, of Te Kuiti, looms as the "outsider," but most other interest in the open will centre on who else reaches the six-man final.

World champion woolhandler Joanne Kumeroa, of Wanganui, has plenty of competition for her place in the NZ team, with both the standard and depth the greatest ever been, according to woolhandling competition stalwart Mavis Mullins.

Among other leading contenders are Gina Nathan, of Alexandra, Tia Potae, from Milton but now based at Kihikihi, Veronica (Ronnie) Goss, of Kimbolton, Taihape schoolteacher Sheree Alabaster, Keryn Herbert, of Te Awamutu, and Angelique Gage, of Christchurch, and a wave of younger competitors including Gisborne teenager Joel Henare.

- NZPA