Shearers have universally given-up several thousand dollars of prizes to support the family of a fallen mate who was killed in a road crash the day before the King Country competition he helped revive.

The spontaneity following the Sunday morning death of popular Piopio shearer James Ritchie on the way home from a wedding came at a Speedshear on Monday night at the Aria Cosmopolitan Club, between Te Kuiti and Taumarunui.

More than 40 shearers competed in the two grades of the Speedshear which attracted possibly its biggest crowd on the eve of the annual Waitangi Day Aria Shearing Sports championships.

The procession of goodwill started with the prizegiving for the Senior event, won by Welsh shearer Ilan Jones, and continued through that for the Open event, which had a $1000 first prize, won by Jack Fagan, of Te Kuiti.


A 31-year-old father-of-two, Mr Ritchie died when the ute he was driving rolled on Oparure Rd, west of Te Kuiti, soon after 4.15am on Sunday, as he, partner Nadia Sisley and another couple headed home from a wedding.
The other three were all injured and taken to hospital, but have since been discharged.

Shearing Sports New Zealand delegate and 1985 Golden Shears Open champion Paul Grainger, who was at the wedding, who lives near where the crash happened and who officiated at last night's prizegiving said the shearing fraternity was devastated by the tragedy.

He said some may have thought of cancelling the Speedshear, but he said: "I think it was what everyone needed."

It brought them together, just as had the pre-speedshear crutching to prepare the sheep for the night.

Born in Balclutha on August 31, 1987, James Ritchie learnt to shear from a young age as a boy around Naracoorte in South Australia while travelling with parents Dean Ritchie and Carlene Wihongi, his father said.

He went to Rochedale State High School while living in Brisbane but soon embarked on the lifestyle of a travelling shearer, being based in Hawke's Bay for some time but settling over the last 10 years in King Country, working for such contractors as Mark Barrowcliff, of Piopio, and Neil Fagan, of Te Kuiti.

Not a regular competition shearer, he proved up to the class when he was at the shows, a highlight being two months in 2007 when he was sixth in the Golden Shears Senior final in Masterton and third in the New Zealand championships Senior final in Te Kuiti, both won by Marlborough shearer Angus Moore.

From Piopio's Mokau Kohunui Marae, his father, who has spent 30 years shearing in Australia, spoke of the modesty of his son, highlighted by a phone call he received on the first Saturday afternoon of March 2007.

He was driving to work with former Golden Shears Open finalist John Ruki in a woolshed near Deniliquin, NSW, about 720km southwest of Sydney, and James told him he had himself reached a final at the famed Masterton championships.

"It wasn't a good line, I could hardly hear him, but he was in the changing room just about to go up for the final," Mr Ritchie said. "I didn't even know he was show shearing."

"I was so proud of my boy, and to be with John Ruki at the time when he told me. John had been there and done that."

His mother said he had played rugby league for club and school in Australia, and might have gone further in the sport had it not been for the commitment to shearing.

In the King Country he played rugby for Waitete, the club of late All Black great Sir Colin Meads and where his casket was taken for a short time before being taken to Mokau Kohunui.

At almost 1.9 metres, he played at prop and had 21 matches for national provincial side Heartland Championship side King King Country.

He was also thought to have been planning to play for Piopio this year, and also to be thinking of doing more competitions, in October travelled the 420km to Carterton to compete at the Wairarapa A and P Show, and finished third to driver Jack Fagan.

He would also have competed at the Monday-night speedshear, and today at the Aria sports, where his next most recent Open final was in 2015, fourth in one of the last finals won by shearing great David Fagan, with the runner-up 2012 World champion Gavin Mutch and third Te Kuiti shearer Mark Grainger, who was detoured around the crash scene as he drove to work on Sunday and only learnt of the tragedy in a smoko or lunch break later in the day.

Also survived by older sister Carla and younger brother Robert, seven-year-old daughter Summer, and son Coby, aged 1, James Ritchie's tangi is being held at Mokau Kohunui Marae, Piopio, with the final service on Friday, starting at 11am.