Long jour­ney to Aus­tralian ti­tle

The Weekly Advertiser Horsham - - Ag LIfe - BY SARAH SCULLY

Glenisla’s Ken French was a teenager in search of pocket money when he first picked up a pair of blade shears.

His father Jack, who ran cor­riedales on his pic­turesque prop­erty over­look­ing the Grampians, told Ken he could have the wool off his dead sheep – pro­vided he was will­ing to shear them.

“I had an old pair of shears and they didn’t cut,” Mr French said.

“My neigh­bour out the back, Arthur An­der­son – who a lot of peo­ple around Hor­sham would re­mem­ber – was an old-time blade shearer.

“I told him I was hav­ing trou­ble and he got my shears go­ing for me and told me a few things about it. “That’s how I got started.” Mr French had no idea his lit­tle money-mak­ing en­deav­our would set him on a path to be­com­ing the one of the best in his field.

Late last month he was crowned Aus­tralia’s cham­pion blade shearer for 2017 at the Na­tional Shear­ing and Wool Han­dling Cham­pi­onships in Bendigo.

He de­feated eight-time blade shear­ing cham­pion John Dalla of Wa­rooka, South Aus­tralia.

Mr French, 57, was thrilled to win his first cham­pi­onship.

“Johnny has been the Aus­tralian cham­pion since he’s been 19 and no one’s got near him,” he said.

“One year he was telling me he was get­ting a bit sick of it. He wasn’t re­ally en­joy­ing it be­cause he was fin­ish­ing that far ahead of ev­ery­one else.

“I’m a bit un­com­fort­able talk­ing about it, but I am pretty happy about get­ting it.

“I only beat him by 0.7 of one point, but I still beat him.”

Mr French and Mr Dalla have com­peted along­side each other at internatio­nal com­pe­ti­tions as Sports Shear Aus­tralia’s blade shear­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

“Johnny has helped me a lot, be­cause I’ve been trav­el­ling with him,” Mr French said.

“He’s been to a cou­ple of world cham­pi­onships be­fore the ones I went to, as well as the ones with me.”

Mr French said mak­ing the Aus­tralian team in 2014 al­lowed him ac­cess to the ‘guns’.

“The best shear­ers in the world are all New Zealan­ders and South Africans,” he said.

“They’ve taken me un­der their wing and they’ve given me lots of coach­ing. It’s been un­be­liev­able.

“I’ve ac­tu­ally got a fair bit bet­ter in the past three or four years.

“I sup­pose I have been try­ing. I’m obliged to now be­cause Sports Shear has in­vested a bit in me – they sent me to Ire­land as well as New Zealand about four times.

“So I’ve been try­ing and I’ve been learn­ing and it’s been pay­ing off.”

The Bendigo Show also fea­tured a trans-tas­man chal­lenge be­tween Aus­tralia and New Zealand’s top shear­ers and wool han­dlers.

“New Zealand has al­ways been way, way in front but we’ve been get­ting closer and closer to them,” Mr French said.

“At Bendigo, we got we’ve ever been.

“They won, but there was only seven points be­tween us.

“They also had an open blade shear­ing the clos­est com­pe­ti­tion at Bendigo. Be­cause all the New Zealan­ders were there they went in it too.”

Mr French added the open ti­tle to his na­tional one. “I couldn’t be­lieve it,” he said. “Prob­a­bly no one cares about that com­pe­ti­tion, but to me it prob­a­bly means more than the Aus­tralian cham­pi­onship be­cause I had to beat the Ki­wis as well.”

Jug­gling act

Mr French fits in com­pe­ti­tions around a busy life on the farm, where he runs about 4000 sheep.

He also blade shears around the district.

Mr French is a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion farmer. His father was a builder and, ac­cord­ing to Mr French, was ‘no help what­so­ever’ when it came to learn­ing to shear.

“Dad gave up build­ing when the met­ric sys­tem came in, about 1974,” he said.

“He said he wasn’t in­ter­ested in met­ric mea­sure­ments, be­cause feet and inches were good enough.

“So, he gave up build­ing and bought a farm here at Glenisla with my grand­fa­ther. He knew noth­ing about farm­ing or about sheep. He had to learn from scratch.

“He would’ve been about 42 or 43 at the time. We learnt to ma­chine shear at the same time.”

Mr French said al­though he first picked up a pair of blades at 14 or 15, he was 30 be­fore he used them to make a liv­ing.

His first foray into com­pe­ti­tion was the re­sult of a mate com­ing across an ad­ver­tise­ment in a news­pa­per.

“The ad said prizes would be paid in gold and my mate’s eyes lit up,” Mr French said.

“He rang me up and said, ‘you can blade shear, can’t ya?’ and I said, ‘well I can get it off ’em’ – I wouldn’t call my­self a shearer’. stud sheep

He said, ‘we’re go­ing to Hay and I’m your man­ager’.”

Mr French said while the road trip was en­joy­able, he suf­fered food poi­son­ing the morn­ing of the com­pe­ti­tion.

“I was vom­it­ing away and I was sick as a dog,” he said.

“I only shore one sheep and I gapped my shears. Some­how I still came sec­ond. They paid the win­ner in gold. He got about $900 in one and two-dol­lar coins – the weight of his fleece. I got sil­ver in fives and tens and I got $100.

“That was my first comp and it’s prob­a­bly the one I re­mem­ber most.”

Mr French com­peted sev­eral times, but started tak­ing it ‘half se­ri­ously’ at Eden­hope Show in 2009.

“I went over to watch John Ni­cholls, who was in the Aus­tralian team at the time,” he said.

“Richie Fos­ter was over there at the same show. Richie was keen as mus­tard on blade shear­ing. He said he wanted to or­gan­ise a heap of comps and have a cir­cuit.

“So I got in­volved to help Richie’s cir­cuit get go­ing.

“Through that I got into show shear­ing and ended up get­ting into all sorts of things with­out re­ally in­tend­ing to.”

Fol­low­ing his suc­cess in Bendigo, Mr French has won the right to rep­re­sent Sports Shear Aus­tralia for the next 12 months.

The team’s next internatio­nal event will be the Golden Shears in New Zealand in March.

SHEAR TAL­ENT: Ken French is Aus­tralia’s new blade shear­ing cham­pion. Pic­tures: PAUL CARRACHER

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