The showdown between young blade Sam Mackrill and veteran gun Jason Wingfield will be one of the most watched events of the 2018 Sports Shear Victoria state finals.
The shearing auditorium at Bendigo's Prince of Wales Showground is expected to be packed to the rafters in support of the local lad who was edged out of top spot on the Victorian team by just one point last year.
Mackrill, who hails from Nanneella near Rochester, started shearing full-time at age 15 and became one of the youngest shearers ever to make the state team two years ago.
Now aged 22, he goes into this year's final, 13 points ahead of his nearest rival and 22 points up on Wingfield.
But, the young man, who was born the year Wingfield – a two-time national champion who has represented Australia 10 times - made his first state final, is not taking anything for granted.
“I have got around him a couple of times, but not often though. Jason would have the upper hand. He has the better strike rate. To be the best you have to compete with the best.”
In the sheds last summer Mackrill achieved a new personal best shearing 506 sheep in an eight-hour day, but prides himself on maintaining quality both at work and in competition.
Both men are extremely competitive but quite different in their show preparation. Mackrill relies largely on his work and footy for fitness. He pays a lot of attention to preparing his combs for smooth running so he doesn't nick skin while Wingfield – who as legend has it started his career shearing the family dog at age five – runs and practises kinesiology for mental balance.
But the individual sheep also play their part as Noel Clarke, president of Northern Shears which runs the first of the 17 shows that make up the Victorian circuit as well as hosting the state final, explains.
“No sheep is the same, that's why it is so difficult. The shearer has got to change his position or the gear he is using for the sheep at hand,” Mr Clarke said.
And don't be fooled by that old ballad. “Just because you are the fastest doesn't mean you are the winner.
“Last year Jason finished virtually a sheep in front of Sam, but Sam's quality was better and when the points were all added up there was hardly anything in it at all.”
More than 70 shearers and about 30 wool handlers will compete across the Australian Sheep and Wool Show beginning with the blade shearing at 10am on Friday, July 20 and culminating in the state finals on Sunday.
They will shear their way through over 500 sheep in a competition supported by about 80 volunteers.
In the Open Shear event competitors will get though 15 to 16 sheep each in under 20 minutes while the wool handlers will pick up, skirt, roll and run five fleeces, losing a point every 20 seconds it takes.
Sophie Huf, a one-time national champion, will hoping to make the state team in the open wool event for the sixth time. The mum of one from Hawkesdale, near Hamilton, placed fourth in the last World Shearing and Woolhandling Championships less than a year after her son's birth and would dearly like to win through again to make the national team heading to France in 2019.
Competing in New Zealand was an eye-opener. “In New Zealand shearing and wool handling is recognised as a national sport and funded like rugby, cricket, tennis and golf,” she said.
“It's huge. The big competitions are televised and competitors get a lot more funding and support.
“There is really celebrity status for shearing and wool handling, whereas here it is barely recognised. Most people don't even know what it is.”
Huf's rivals for the requisite spot on the Victorian team are all women with only five points the difference between them.
“It used to be a male-dominated event, but the wool handling is well and truly female-dominated now,” she said. “That is represented in the sheds as well. “Without being sexist women generally do have a good eye for detail, which is very much required within the job. It is also something more suited to a woman's body type.
“Of course shearing is able to be done by women, but they are really fighting an uphill battle with strength whereas the wool handling side of things is definitely more suited to the female structure.”