Darts: Haupai Puha determined to capitalise on late World Cup of Darts call-up for New Zealand

Kiwi darts ace Haupai Puha hopes to make the most of an unlikely opportunity, after he was confirmed to represent New Zealand for the second consecutive year at the World Cup of Darts.

Puha will again team up with Cody Harris at the 32-nation tournament, hoping to improve on their quarter-final run in 2019, when they were eliminated by Japan.

Ranked No. 1 in the country, Puha's selection is warranted, but strict coronavirus travel restrictions meant New Zealand's place in the tournament was in doubt.

The Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) will likely have a full line-up for the rescheduled and relocated tournament, schedule for November 7-9 (NZ time), with socially distanced fans in attendance. 

Harris is based in Germany, so there are no issues for him, but Puha must travel from Auckland and spend more than 26 hours on a plane before arriving. 

"I wasn't sure if we were taking a team or not, but I got a message from Cody, confirming our place," 'Hopes' tells Newshub. 

"With how the world is at the moment and isolation, I wasn't sure if I could leave. I had to look at what steps I could take for it to happen, but so far, everything is going to plan."

Players from other countries will also travel to Europe, but none face the same challenges as Puha, and the 35-year-old is determined to make the most of his opportunity on the big stage. 

"A good finish will be pleasing, but all I can do is prepare as well as I can.

"There won't be as much sightseeing, there will be lots of sitting in the motel, getting rest and throwing at the board. It won't be the same, but we want to be a professional one day, so this is what you have to do to get on that stage.

"I still haven't watched the replay of the Japan game. I was disappointed with how I played, but hopefully, I can do better this time." 

Puha isn't worried about catching the virus before the tournament, as the PDC has implemented strict measures to ensure player safety. 

Two-time world champion Adrian Lewis and former Auckland Darts Masters representative Stephen Bunting both tested positive for COVID-19 before this weekend's World Darts Grand Prix, and were ruled out of the tournament. 

PDC chief executive Matthew Porter is pleased to see New Zealand contest the tournament, which has been one of the toughest to organise during his time with the organisation. 

"We're on course to get all 32 nations to Austria in November, which will be a fantastic achievement for the sport, given the circumstances that we've had this year," says Porter. 

"We moved the event to Austria at the end of May and the regulations in that country have been relaxed enough for us to stage our first TV event with a crowd for six months during September at the World Series of Darts Finals.

"We can now look ahead to the World Cup and it will be fantastic to see players from around the world - including New Zealand, but also from America, South Africa and Asia - all travelling to compete in Austria.

"There have been travel restrictions in many countries and especially in New Zealand, so it's great that Haupai Puha will be able to travel to partner Cody Harris, who has been based in Germany throughout this year.

Haupai Puha and Cody Harris celebrate their win over South Africa at the 2019 World Cup of Darts.
Haupai Puha and Cody Harris celebrate their win over South Africa at the 2019 World Cup of Darts. Photo credit: PDC

"They made great progress as a pair in 2019 by reaching the quarter-finals and I'm sure they'll both be eager to build on that next month."

While Puha has committed to playing at the World Cup, he may jeopardise his chances of qualifying for the world darts championship in December. 

The world event is the sport's biggest tournament, with one spot guaranteed for a New Zealander through a DartPlayers NZ top-16 qualifier. 

The qualifier usually takes place earlier in the year, but lockdowns and other factors have seen it postponed, with no date yet confirmed. 

With the world champs due to start on December 19, just over two months remain to stage the qualifier and Puha will be out of action for most of November, after travelling overseas and isolating for two weeks upon return.

Puha could still compete at the qualifier, but the possible dates are limited. 

New Zealand has been represented at the world darts championship since 2006. 

As it stands, the 2021 tournament is expected to take place behind closed doors, although PDC chairman Barry Hearn is examining options that would enable a crowd to attend, with a final decision due early next month. 

The pandemic has also put Puha's dreams of playing on the PDC tour on hold for at least another year. 

Puha has targeted the 2021 Q-School in January, hoping to become the first Kiwi to earn a tour card.

"I wouldn't dare to give it a go while Europe is like this," Puha tells Newshub. "It was the goal to go in January, but it's not going to happen." 

New Zealand's lockdown restrictions and travel between regions have limited the number of darts tournaments played this year, but Puha has helped keep the sport going by running webcam tournaments.

Haupai Puha.
Haupai Puha. Photo credit: Photosport

The events have attracted plenty of interest, with new and old faces giving it a go from the comfort of their own homes. 

"There were new names and faces," says Puha. "People just want to play the top guys in New Zealand, when they would have never got the chance otherwise. 

"It's good to have guys like Bernie [Smith] back - he was pretty happy staying in his garage." 

Puha has also found himself competing in overseas livestream tournaments against some of the world's best players

In one tournament, he beat three PDC players, including Aussie duo Simon Whitlock and Damon Heta, along with England's Ross Smith in the final. 

"Playing those guys, you have to pick your game up. It's good to see your numbers and how they compare to the pros."

Puha also has a message for NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. 

"Jacinda, can you make isolation shorter," he says jokingly. "The hardest part of the decision to go is the two weeks' isolation.

"I don't have to isolate when I go, but I do when I get back. I still don't know what I'll do, I'm going to go crazy doing nothing."