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Tree fellers turn to croquet

The word croquet conjures images of posh 1920s cocktail parties, with preppy gentlemen and giggly ladies in lace, but three Western District tree-fellers are turning that mental picture on its head. Source: The Age

The world number one croquet player spends his days splitting logs and trucking firewood around the state.

Robert Fletcher, 23, who lives on the family sheep farm Dundonnell, near the tiny town of Lismore, is top-ranked in Association Croquet, the longer form of the game.

His brother, workmate and training partner, Mal, 22, is No.2 in Australia, and No.14 in the world.

Older brother Greg, 24, is ranked No.1 in Australia in croquet’s short form, golf croquet.

Next week, while Australians watch the Boxing Day test cricket, all three brothers will compete in the Victorian Open at the state croquet centre at Cairnlea, in Melbourne’s west.

Like our cricketers, the Fletchers travel the globe – from Florida to Egypt to London – to compete. But while cricket’s Steve Smith or Dave Warner rake in more than $1 million a year, the Fletcher brothers earn next to nothing from their sport.

Robert reckons he’s spent thousands of his own money competing this year.

The most prize money he has ever won at a tournament was $2000 in Sydney in March. The Victorian Open winner next week gets $300.

There is little sponsorship, although at the biggest tournaments, croquet associations pay for top players’ airline tickets, hotels and food.

The brothers started playing as children in 2004, when a green keeper offered to teach them for free.

Croquet remains a highly unusual sport: about 9000 players are spread across 285 clubs.

The Lismore club has just 10 members – six of them Robert’s family, including parents David and Cathy.

Robert says country towns are shrinking and fewer people have time to play sport.

“But we’re still going.”

He has never wanted to play team sport like cricket, preferring the ability “to control all the aspects of my performance”.

Robert loves croquet’s chess-like strategies: “You’ve got to be thinking multiple turns ahead,” he said.

He enjoys practising angles as in snooker, mastering the accuracy, driving and putting of golf, and keeping, like elite cricketers, a repertoire of more than 30 different strokes.

He says croquet takes up too much time to play another sport. Ahead of a big tournament, he practises every day.

From February 25 to March 5, Australia will for the first time host the world golf croquet championships at Cairnlea, which Greg Fletcher will compete in.

The Victorian Open is on from December 28 to January 2, at the Victorian Croquet Centre, Cairnlea.