World Champion blade shearer Allan Oldfield is not always easy to track down. On the day of this interview we find him at Guide Hill Station, off Braemar Road in the Mackenzie Country. He is in the midst of the blade shearing season where he is often found tucked away somewhere in a high country woolshed. His beat this season has been anywhere from as far north as Lake Taylor, in the Hurunui District to as far south as Glenorchy, on the edge of Lake Wakatipu. His biggest shed is Castleridge up the Hakatere Valley. Here he spends 18 days of hard slog with seven other blade shearers.
We eventually arrive at the station woolshed on the edge of Lake Pukaki after winding our way along the undulating gravel road through a sea of tussock, ever aware of the dominating snow-tipped spine of the South Island before us. We are greeted with the familiar sound of bleating sheep and barking dogs. The utilitarian building sits oddly juxtaposed with the beauty of lake and mountain ranges.
It’s not quite knock-off time so Allan is still bent over, rhythmically defleecing a two-tooth merino with his razor-sharp blades. Observing him, you quickly notice how smoothly he moves – the dance of shearer and sheep, made hundreds of times, is now instinctive. The other six shearers on the board chuck off at Allan. A double world champion he might be, but his newfound celebrity only makes him fair game for extra ribbing. The mood of the shed is light and although the whole team has had a busy day there’s no wavering of the energy level. Today a blade shearing gang is almost a novelty, with only three gangs left working the high country runs. There are still station owners that see the value in paying extra for the slower shearing blades, the extra wool left on the sheep an advantage if bad weather hits through lambing.
When the last sheep is shorn for the day and the blades are put down it is time to relax with a beer. With drink in hand, Allan directs me to a quieter corner of the woolshed so we can talk. Sitting on a wool bale, Allan talks of his journey to becoming the current World Champion Blade Shearer, Teams World Blade Shearing Champion alongside fellow South Cantabrian Tony Dobbs, and the 2020 Rural Sportsman of the Year.
The path to the 18th Golden Shears World Shearing and Woolhandling Championships 2019 in Le Dorat, France was not a straight one for Allan, although his early life did lend itself to becoming a part of the shearing industry. Growing up on a lifestyle block just outside the South Canterbury town of Geraldine, Allan was introduced early to the rudiments of farming. He was also no stranger to the inside of a woolshed, as his father Phil is a shearer. It is fair to say though, that as a young nipper sitting on a wool bale watching his father blade shear, there was no thought of future world fame.
By the age of 12, Allan was earning a bit of money woolhandling. At age 13 he tried the blades. Allan laughs at the memory though. ‘I kind of remember shearing my first sheep with the blades, but my father doesn’t count it because he had to reshear it.’ By 16 he was cycling to a local farm after school to shear the farmers’ small flock of merino. By the end of high school, a deal was struck with his mother – he could go shearing for a year but then he needed to go to university. However, the plan to become a secondary school teacher didn’t stick and Allan, at the time of the Christchurch earthquakes, headed back to the sheds. He was hooked. Just to add to the mix though, in between shearing, Allan became a qualified chef.
Soon after, a move with his partner to Spain opened up machine shearing opportunities in Spain, Ireland and England and blade shearing opportunities in the Falkland Islands, Argentina and Australia. Shearing became Allan’s focus for the next three and half years. Throughout this time Allan began to compete in shows in the UK. Prior to this, he’d already competed in New Zealand. He was just 16 when he first competed at the Waimate Shears. ‘I think it was one of the few times I got last. I would be surprised if I’d blade shorn 100 sheep at that stage. But I kind of enjoyed it. It’s sort of a rush to be up there shearing. So, I kept going. My father was going to a few competitions and I’d just go with him.’
The impetus to aim for a place on the blade shearing team for the 2019 Worlds came after a win in an Irish Open Blade Shearing competition, plus the realisation that his dad had just made the New Zealand team along with Tony Dobbs for the 2017 Worlds in Invercargill and he had beaten his dad on several occasions. ‘I thought, damn, I could have been in the team then. So, I made a point to come home in time for the next qualifying comps.’
Allan competed on the blade shearing circuit where he and Tony Dobbs battled for first and second place in every competition. The veteran, Tony, won the circuit in the end and Allan came second. ‘It was good because we were confident winners … nobody could have taken the spots from us … we were first and second in every single show.’ Allan recalls it felt good to know they had ‘the right team’.
When the Worlds came around eight months later Allan was ready. He’d left New Zealand early for Europe which gave him a chance to shear similar sheep to what he was about to face in the Worlds. And then a win in the Lochearnhead shearing competition in Scotland gave him an extra confidence boost. Even so, ‘pretty nerve-wracking’ is how Allan describes putting on the black singlet with the silver fern for the first time. Four days of competitions culminated in the finals. It had taken time to settle and Allan didn’t feel he was shearing his best in the heats and semis, but as history shows he was in form on the day that counts. His shear in the teams was clean but he lacked the pace, although coupled with Tony having an ‘exceptional shear’ they came out ‘pretty confident’ they’d done a good job and it gave Allan the confidence boost he needed for the final.
Allan tackled the individual final as he does every other competition, hardest sheep first. With the worst behind him he could start to wind it up. By his third sheep he was a full sheep ahead of second place. His father, as coach, was in the pen giving him a bit of advice. He remembers as he went in for his fourth sheep his father said, ‘You’ve got them now, just do a tidy job.’ By the time Allan was shearing his last side his father was already celebrating, as he could see the other shearers’ work. Allan finished the final with nothing left in reserve.
Prizegiving was two hours later. Allan had an anxious wait for the results, although Tony, with years of experience behind him, was ‘pretty confident’ of their team win. Allan allowed a flicker of hope for the individual title. He was ecstatic when he and Tony won the teams title and even more so when he made sense of the French commentator’s pronunciation calling his name as the winner. ‘I thought, wow it’s actually happened.’ His partner, father and brother all celebrated with him. The wins were especially sweet with the South African blade shearers not having been beaten in 25 years. At just 28 years old, Allan had beaten the older more experienced shearers. Allan admits to feeling the emotion as he stood while the New Zealand national anthem played. There was a bit of the impostor syndrome mixed in; ‘Should I be the one standing up here while the anthem is playing?’
Post-title celebrations in no way reflected the enormity of his wins. Ruefully, Allan recalls his celebratory dinner was Nutella on toast and a beer – by the time the official proceedings had finished all the restaurants in town were shut.
A year since the Worlds, life is a little more mundane for Allan. Despite the pandemic he’s still preparing to defend his titles in Scotland in 2022 and is working diligently to further hone his skills. While he does the legwork Allan has recognised that in order to succeed it is best ‘not to let anything stress you out too much. It’s just not worth it’. The laughter of the rest of the shearing gang brings us back to the immediacy of the woolshed. It’s time for Allan to grab another well-earned beer and relax.
Words Ruth Entwistle Low / Images Mark Low