Cutting it fine

by Doug Laing / 24 February, 2007

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For Rodney Sutton, shearing more than 720 sheep is all in a day's record-breaking.

Benneydale pub rocks - and it's only Wednesday night, when most of the patrons should be thinking of work at five in the morning.

Everybody's talking about Rodney Sutton, from Porangahau, who on this day, January 31, 2007, has just completed one of the most amazing feats in shearing: a new world solo strongwool ewe-shearing record of 721 in nine hours. (In fact, he did 727, but stringent judging saw six rejected.)

No one else had even tried to break the record since Darin Forde, of Tuatapere, shore 720 in a day 10 years earlier. And Sutton's feat completed the double for shearing's most revered records: three weeks before, Napier Golden Shears champion Dion King set a new mark of 866 lambs in a day - in the same shed, 7km up the road at Mangapehi.

King's here today, as are 1961 Golden Shears original John Hough, up from Rakaia, and the King Country's own hero, multiple Golden Shears winner David Fagan, who needs no introduction to the crowd.

And he ain't getting one, just like the nine or 10 other world record-holders or Golden Shears open champions present. The relatively low-profile Sutton has completely stolen the show.

"Yes, fairly unobtrusive, isn't he?" says World Shearing Records Society secretary Hugh McCarroll.

Sutton, 40 on Waitangi Day, prepared for this day for a long time. But rain, a boon for Mangapehi farmer John Fagan (himself a former Golden Shears champion and record-holder), had edged the Finn-Romney-cross flock's condition precariously close to impractical limits for this feat of strength and endurance.

The laid-back Sutton reveals later that he almost called it off; he and partner Kristene had sold the house, hadn't been home for a fortnight and would have to be out by the 9th, still with no new digs arranged.

Set to go, finally, with a flock weighing around 50kg each, Sutton was looking at dragging out about 36 tonnes during the day. That's at least 14 bales' worth. He needed to shear an average of 20.03 sheep per quarter-hour to beat Forde's average of 20: 161 in two hours from 5.00am to breakfast, the rest in 1hr 45min runs from 8.00-9.45, 10.15-noon, 1.00pm-2.45, and 3.15 to knock-off at 5.00.

The average is less than 44.94 seconds a sheep, with catching time and comb, cutter and handpiece changes included.

Sutton's bleary-eyed dawn audience of 150 see 160 shorn in the first two hours, though the judges reject two, putting him slightly behind. But with successive 1hr 45min runs of 140, 142 and 140, Sutton, with more than 250 spectators now packing the shed, starts the final run with 141 to go.

A drop or two of blood shows that at least one more will miss the count, and it goes to the wire. Chief judge Peter Artridge, from Australia, watches the clock ticking to five as Sutton dispatches record-equalling No 720 with four seconds to spare, and catches the one he needs to set the new mark.

The crowd goes ballistic, as former top shearer Koro Mullins announces: "We have a new world record!"

There's a spontaneous haka, with Sutton joined by some workmates and Ngati Kere whanau from back home. Reporoa contractor Jeff Dorset puts on 10 dozen, the sweaty Sutton hugs 18-year-old daughter and rousie Laura, up from Geraldine, and grub's up, including crays galore ... in a shed that seems further from the coast than anywhere in New Zealand.

Sutton, who once did a 12-hour cycling enduro around Taupo, obliges his first request from (absent) media by leaping up into cellphone range atop the bales, to talk briefly to Newstalk ZB.

Forde says Sutton deserves the acclaim, but chuckles that he, in what has been a near-gladiatorial North v South rivalry, has still done the most in a run, 161 in two hours and 143 in one-and-threequarters.

And those behind Sutton? To name a few: David Fagan (call him event manager); Dion King, among the army of helpers lining up the ewes in the pen; Justin Bell, Sutton's "second", at his ear all day keeping him up to the mark; woolhandler Tina Rimene, champion in her own right.

They've all rallied to back their man, who says modestly: "I'm just the guy out front ... you guys did all the work."

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