Southland shearer Leon Samuels has scored a surprise but stunning win in one of New Zealand's major competitions, just four weeks out from the 60th Golden Shears.
The 36-year-old Samuels, of Invercargill won the Otago championships open in Balclutha, reaching the five-man final for the first time.
Samuels had just one previous open-class victory to his name, from the West Otago A and P Show in Tapanui in November 2014.
The new champion's previous biggest claims to shearing fame were two world records, a since-broken solo record of 605 ewes in eight hours three years ago, and a tally of 648 in a four-stand lambs record in 2013.
Saturday's win was the first leg of an unofficial Grand Slam for shearing sports, with the Southern Shears in Gore next weekend, and North Island events, the Pahiatua Shears on March 1, and the Golden Shears in Masterton on March 4-7.
The Otago Shears had its usual lineup of top shearers, (despite missing Golden Shears favourite Rowland Smith), with runner-up and three-times former winner Nathan Stratford, also of Invercargill, third-placed defending champion Brett Roberts, of Mataura, and 2017 World Champion and Hawke's Bay shearer John Kirkpatrick, who was fourth and who had won the title five times since his first appearance in the final 20 years ago.
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While having shorn only a minimal number of finals, Samuels had often appealed as a shearer with big potential, and there were signs of taking the chance when he was fourth in last year's New Zealand Circuit final in Te Kuiti, and third in the New Zealand Spring Shears final in October.
The winner on both occasions was Stratford, who last year relinquished the Circuit prize of a UK trip to Samuels who then shore in the heats of the All Nations Championship at the start of the World Championships in France.
The pair travelled north to shear at the Rangitikei Shearing Sports in Marton on February 1, the fourth round of the PGG Wrightson Wool National Circuit, in which both are contenders for places in the final in Masterton, and a shot at a black-singlet place in the 2020-2021 transtasman series.
The true stuff came from the start on Saturday as Samuels was top semi-finals qualifier from a starting pool of 22, who across the field provided a remarkable consistency of quality.
Samuels had fastest time, equal-best board marks of just four penalties across five sheep, and near-best six penalties in the pens.
He was again fastest in the semi-finals over 10 sheep each, but just scraped into the final, in which just 35 seconds separated the first four at the end of the race.
Roberts, who won a Speed Shear on Wednesday night with a slick 14.6secs time at Colac Bay, cutting-out the pen of 20 first in 18min 16.22sec, beating Samuels by five seconds.
Ultimately there was just 1.3pts between the first four, and 24 hours later Samuels was still coming to terms with the result.
"I'm pretty rapt, still a bit in disbelief over it all," he said, before crediting Stratford with a big part in the turn-around.
"I'm putting a bit more time into it," he said.
"Got someone there guiding me in the right direction (Stratty). Hopefully I get to represent my country one day."
Meanwhile, young senior shearer Simon Goss, of Mangamahu, near Whanganui, proved to be a particularly happy traveller, winning at both the Aria Sports in the Central North Island on Waitangi Day (Thursday) and the Otago Championships 48 hours later, taking him to 10 wins in the senior grade this season.
Multiple world and Golden Shears woolhandling champion Joel Henare again made Balclutha his own as he marked the 50th New Zealand Woolhandler of the Year open final with his 11th win in the event.
He first won as a 15-year-old in 2008, winning five in a row before he was next beaten in the event, and has now won the title another six times in a row.
On Saturday he kept out 2019 world teams champion Pagan Karauria, who was runner-up.
It was a big weekend for young Welsh shearers who ventured mainly from the North Island to claim five places in finals, including a junior shearing win to Sam Jones.
Results from the Otago Shearing and Woolhandling Championships at Balclutha on Saturday, February 8, 2020:
Open final (20 sheep): Leon Samuels (Invercargill) 18min 23.84sec, 60.092pts, 1; Nathan Stratford (Invercargill) 18min 51.37sec, 60.8685pts, 2; Brett Roberts (Mataura) 18min 16.22sec, 61.311pts, 3; John Kirkpatrick (Pakipaki) 18min 33.81sec, 61.3905pts, 4; Ethan Pankhurst (Masterton) 19min 45.66sec, 66.133pts, 5.
Senior final (12 sheep): Simon Goss (Mangamahu) 13min 44.9sec, 46.0783pts, 1; Brandon Maguire Ratima (Winton) 14min 17.41sec, 49.1205pts, 2; Elis Ifans (Wales) 14min 23.56sec, 49.7613pts, 3; Chris Malcolm (Winton) 14min 16.68sec, 50.0007pts, 4; Tyson Crown (Mataura) 15min 2.09sec, 52.2712pts, 5.
Intermediate final (6 sheep): Daniel Biggs (Mangamahu) 9min 1521sec, 34.0938pts, 1; Phil Price (Wales) 8min 35.56sec, 34.778pts, 2; Brayden Clifford (Waikaka) 9min 53sec, 35.8167pts, 3; Emlyn Jones (Wales) 9min 58.5sec, 39.425pts, 4; Matt Hunt (Waikaka) 8min 24.66sec, 44.233pts, 5.
Junior final (4 sheep): Sam Jones (Wales) 8min 54.88sec, 32.744pts, 1; Richard Lancaster (England) 8min 58.66sec, 36.183pts, 2; Foonie Waihape (Alexandra) 10min 6.09sec, 40.3045pts, 3; James Wilson (-) 10min 21.53sec, 41.3265pts, 4; Tesni Paewai (Wales) 11min 6.75sec, 45.5875pts, 5.
Open final: Joel Henare (Gisborne) 76.456pts, 1; Pagan Karauria (Alexandra) 90.12pts, 2; Foonie Waihape (Alexandra) 172.162pts, 3; Cherie Peterson (Milton) 178.25pts, 4.
Senior final: Chenelle Hiri (Gore) 80.324pts, 1; Tramon Campbell (Gisborne) 87.244pts, 2; Nicole Petuha (Masterton) 113.032pts, 3; Destiny Paikea (-) 120.57pts, 4.
Junior final: Emma Martin (Wyndham) 73.132pts, 1; Heaven Little (Balclutha) 108.368pts, 2; Georgie Blackman (Rakaia) 122.768pts, 3; Renee Rempala (Waimate) 190.3pts, 4.