The women of chalk and baize

Tauranga’s Nita Clarkson at the table. Photo: Daniel Hines.

She’s been in love with cue sports since she was a nipper and stood on a box to play eight ball.

“I have four brothers and a sister so there was always lots of competition on the family pool table,” says Nita Clarkson of Tauranga.

“And if you wanted part of the action you just had to get up there and compete.”

That’s where the cueist probably developed the edge that took her all the way to the final of the recent Women’s Oceania final at the Tauranga Citizens’ Club – a haven for snooker and billiards in this city.

Ok, Nita disappointingly got white-washed in the final – three frames to zip - by Aucklander Kimberley Cullen. But snooker, as a whole, took great heart from that match. “It was the first time since 2012 we had an all New Zealand final in the women’s event,” says Dave Judd, a delighted secretary of the New Zealand Snooker and Billiard Association. And they whipped the Australians 4-2 in the test. Job done.

And the 16-strong field for the women’s event was the strongest for many, many years. “It tells us the women’s game has been resurrected,” says Dave. “And, internationally, to the point the women have their own professional tour in Europe.”

And last week as Tauranga slow-cooked in a fierce 30 degrees Celsius, Nita Clarkson and her Australian mate Carlie Tait were appropriately swaddled in white shirts and waist coats – formal attire for snooker tournament play.

“I learned the same as Nita, as a child,” says the Sydneysider, Carlie. “My Dad got me interested and then it became a way of escaping high school, just go to the local RSL club and play. And the better I got the more involved I became.”

Nita says we are naturally drawn to sport for which we have a natural talent. “Whatever that sport may be – could be rugby, could be eight ball. You fall in love with that game and you watch and listen and learn from the best.”

Even though Nita watches ‘the best’ on TV, like Judd Trump and John Higgins at the Crucible in Sheffield, a shrine for the world game, she draws her inspiration closer to home.

“Yes, my brother, George Elvin. I admire him. He’s the current Bay of Plenty champion and one of the top cue sports people in the country. He is very, very strong.” And she was proud and grateful to have George alongside at the Cits Club as she made the Oceania final.

Nita is continuing a family dynasty because uncle Rob Elvin is president of New Zealand Snooker and Billiards Masters. Thumb through the records and Rob Elvin is a name that surfaces regularly – like the time he scored a tournament high of 71 in Christchurch four years ago.

Both Carlie and Nita talk of the sisterhood that is women’s snooker. “It’s a small tight knit group, but like an extended family,” says Carlie. “We are very supportive, we look out for each other.” But that beat ‘em, bash ‘em trans-Tasman rivalry kicks in once they have chalked their cues.

Nita was on the table practising for three or four hours a day, every day for month leading up to the Oceania tournament. “You don’t practise to lose. And everyone at the top of their game is very competitive.” She says people tell her she is so sure of herself when she goes to the table. “It’s about knowing your skills and that comes with practise.”

But not for Carlie. “Solo practise is not my favourite thing to do.” 

However, in the subdued light and the hushed and very proper ambience of the Cits Club snooker arena, the women’s game is flourishing.

“Don’t be scared,” says Carlie. “Snooker looks intimidating and that holds a lot of women back. They think they’re not good enough and never take that first step. But it’s an enjoyable, challenging and very rewarding game played by great people.”

And you are spared the heat of the midday sun.