Darts: Haupai Puha out to do New Zealand proud in world championship debut

NZ darts exponent Haupai Puha
NZ darts exponent Haupai Puha. Photo credit: PDC

Kiwi darts star Haupai Puha can't wait to represent his country and inspire a new generation of New Zealand arrowsmiths, when he makes his Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) world championship debut.

Puha will become the 14th New Zealander to compete at the prestigious world champs, when he faces Mickey Mansell in his first round game on Saturday morning (NZ time), with the winner to face world No.32 Ricky Evans - the fastest thrower in the world - in a last-64 match.

While this will be Puha's first time competing on the famous Alexandra Palace stage, Northern Ireland's Mansell has competed on it five times over the last decade, failing to register a single win. One of those losses came against six-time NZ national champion Preston Ridd.

A joiner by trade, Mansell may not have flourished on the big stage, but his PDC career has spanned more than 10 years and he currently sits 59th in world rankings, with one pro tour title to his name, accumulating £57,500 (NZ$109,000) prizemoney over the last two years.

The left-handed thrower is by no means an easybeat, but things certainly could have been more difficult for Puha, who has faced some unique challenges as a result of COVID-19.

Puha, 35, tells Newshub he’s confident of achieving something special on the sports' biggest stage, although his main goal is to make his family and culture proud.

"Most definitely, it's a friendly draw," says Puha. "I'm not taking anything away from them, as they are pros, but I think it's a little easier in the sense that I'm not having to play the top seeds and their aura that comes with it.

"At the end of the day, it's an honour and privilege to represent my family, my culture and my country.

"I hope I can inspire, not only our next generation, but anyone to not only set goals, but to crush them as well."

The context of this year's world championships has changed so much as a result of COVID-19. At first, the tournament was to be played without fans - like most of the year - but a drop in alert levels meant 1000 socially distanced spectators can attend each session, down from the usual 3500.

But a day before the opening night of the tournament, London moved to tier-three COVID-19 restrictions - forcing the PDC to move the first half of the tournament behind closed doors again, although fans attended day one before the rules came into affect.

That means Puha's match against Mansell - and if he wins, against Evans - will be behind closed doors.

While disappointed not to play in front of a crowd, Puha won't let that affect him and hamper the experience of competing against the world's best.

If he wins those matches, he could face world No.1 Michael Van Gerwen in the third round in front of a crowd - the furtherest a Kiwi has gone in the tournament.

Cody Harris
Cody Harris. Photo credit: PDC

The only Kiwi to reach the second round since the PDC allowed 96 entries was Cody Harris in 2018, when he beat Germany’s Martin Schindler, before falling to Wales' Jamie Lewis.

"Obviously, everyone is to win the trophy, but I just want to focus on my first match to start off with, as I cant get too far ahead of myself," says Puha, who works as a roofer throughout New Zealand.

After representing New Zealand at last month's World Cup of Darts in Austria - alongside Harris - and the challenges of returning home, Puha chose to remain in Europe, after learning of his qualification while overseas.

He was only informed of his world champs qualification just days before flying out to the World Cup, which sent his life into a bit of a spin.

Since coronavirus impacted the globe, darts' elite - like most athletes - have been undergoing continual testing, with a handful of positive tests that have robbed players of opportunities and Puha isn't willing to risk anything before the biggest sporting event of his life.

Since arriving in the United Kingdom, he's stayed with experienced Aussie James Bailey, who will compete at the tournament for the second time, and the pair have put in the hard yards practicing, with not much else to do.

"I've been working alot on my doubles," says Puha. "Staying with James has been awesome, as it's great to practice with someone with his quality.

"It makes our practice more realistic and given us the edge needed to be prepared for this week.

"Other than practice, it's been quite boring. All we do is sleep, eat, Netflix, practice and more eating."

But Puha could be in for more practice, sleeping, eating and TV watching after the world champs, as he can’t get back into New Zealand until February, due to the country's voucher system, where you must secure a spot in managed isolation, before securing a plane ticket.

Stuck on the other side of the world, he’s away from his wife and three kids, whom he video-calls at least twice a day.

While he will be away from his family for a little longer, he will likely compete at the PDC's Qualifying School in January in a bid to become New Zealand’s first professional player on the tour.

Regardless of what happens, Puha is confident that everything he's achieved since taking darts seriously five years ago will serve him in good stead, before one of the biggest moments in his life.

"I don't think you can top playing for your country in the World Cup, but it's up there," says Puha.