Top sheep shearers flock to world championships: Richard Smith sees the star clippers get to grips with their subject

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THERE were cat calls from the 500 spectators as David Fagan sauntered on stage in his work gear - a black vest, double-skinned denim jeans and leather moccasins.

Then the 32-year-old living legend set about the task of winning the World Sheep Shearing Championships for the third successive time.

The New Zealander faced 25 rivals from 13 countries - but they seemed resigned to defeat before the contest had even begun yesterday at the Royal Welsh Show in Builth Wells. After all, it was Fagan who sheared 702 ewes in nine hours to set the current world record.

The championship judge John Murphy, from Co Wicklow, admitted: 'Fagan is the best world champion there ever was - the Pele of sheep shearing. But everyone is there to be beaten.

'I think sheep shearing is the greatest sport in the world - they should introduce it at the Olympic Games. They are far better athletes than the footballers in the World Cup, who don't lose as much sweat as these boys.'

Most men would love to shave as fast as Fagan can shear a sheep. In the first round he was awesome, polishing off six ewes in 4 minutes 17 seconds - almost a minute faster than the Welsh champion, Wyn Jones.

The sheep farmer's son from Te Kuiti near Hamilton, stays in practice by shearing 40,000 sheep a year and he was offering few crumbs of comfort for his rivals. 'This is one sport where there is no substitute for experience and I'm probably at my peak now,' Fagan said. 'There are a hell of a lot of guys with incredible ability but they don't have the mental strength to carry it through. Choosing the right comb is very important - with certain breeds you use a rounded tooth so it doesn't pick up the skin but when the wool is dense you need a finer tooth.'

Marks are divided between speed and the quality of the shearer's work. The ultimate sin is to draw blood - that can lead to disqualification.

Teams from the US, Switzerland, South Africa and Norway are among competitors. First prize at today's final, when the six qualifiers will each shear 20 ewes and lambs, is pounds 1,000.

Seeking to provide an upset is Australia's champion, Philip Pretlove, who wears a distinctive pair of braces and the words 'mum's worry' tattooed on his shoulder.

His speedy form certainly caught the commentator's eye: 'Look at him go - he loves these woolies. Just a flick around the tail.'

To reach the world finals Pretlove had to beat off opposition from 15,000 rivals who care for 150 million sheep down under.

'Competing here is the ultimate and the trick is to relax because the animal knows if you are tight and nervous,' Pretlove, 36, said.

Top professional shearers travel all over the world for their work and earn about pounds 40,000 a year.

England team member Alan Derryman, 36, who was third in the 1988 world championships, prefers to stay at home on his farm in Honiton, Devon.

He said: ''I can't see anyone other than David Fagan winning unless there is a major disaster - he is just a class apart.'

(Photograph omitted)