Living in Australia has made Black Sox pitcher Nik Hayes even more determined to win his third world softball gold medal for New Zealand.
The 30-year-old right-hander showed no favours toward his new Australian neighbours when he hurled 10 strikeouts and gave up just three hits in the Black Sox's morale-boosting 2-1 win over Australia at the Zeister Slot tournament in Holland last weekend.
The Zeist series was the Black Sox's last serious hit-out before they launch their campaign for a record eighth world title in Prague this week.
Hayes said his passion for pulling on the black jersey has not dimmed since moving last year to the Gold Coast, where he and his wife own a gym franchise.
The Marlborough softball product – who made his name with Hutt Valley – has been commuting to play for Auckland United to keep his Black Sox dream alive.
He said it had been hard to get competitive softball in Queensland during the summer "because it's too hot then and most of the leagues are played in winter", but he had been turning out for a Gold Coast team before linking up with the Black Sox.
Hayes said his move was a lifestyle decision, not a softball one. After holidaying on the Gold Coast for many years, he and his wife decided they would like "to have 30 to 35 degree days" after dwelling in "wet, windy Wellington".
Living in Australia is the longterm plan, but Hayes still wants to play for the Black Sox as long as he can, with the 2021 world championship in Auckland a potential goal.
The Prague world championships – the first held in Europe – will double as a Hayes family reunion. Wife Sam and daughters Avhiaa and Miia have come over from the Gold Coast along with his Blenheim-based parents, Colin and Ali. Younger brother Dylan Hayes, a professional rugby player in France, will also be there.
This will be Hayes' fourth world championships, but he is still feeling some tension ahead of the tournament. "To me, that's a good thing. If you say you aren't nervous before a world series, you are probably kidding yourself. You've got to have fire in your belly. I get nervous before a club game. If you don't, you've lost that passion for the game."
Hayes still has the passion - to the point where he's not slow to remind his teammates and coach that he should be allowed to bat in a Black Sox game. While he's a handy hitter at club and provincial level, he is unlikely to make a plate appearance in Prague - he's too valuable on the mound.
Hayes began his world series career as a young closer (a pitcher brought in for the latter innings to hold onto a lead) when the Black Sox won the 2013 world title in Auckland. He soon became a starter but in the 2017 final, he came on in relief to spell starter Josh Pettett as the Black Sox beat Australia for the gold medal.
"To be honest, I will take any role," Hayes said. "I am probably a stage of my career that it doesn't really matter if I start or if I close.
Hayes said all three pitchers – himself, Pettett and rookie Daniel Chapman "want to be number one", but were all willing to support each other. As the senior man, he hopes to use his experience to "help out" his younger colleagues and thinks, longer term, Chapman "has got all the talent to be the best in the world".
Prague proved a happy hunting ground last year for Hayes, who hurled the Black Sox to a 5-1 win over Japan in the final, and snared 35 strikeouts across three games.
"The week prior to the Intercontinental Cup I went to the ISCs [International Softball Congress tournament in America] and didn't perform that well, so I was a little bit nervous coming into Prague. But I found a little form and got some rhythm going."
Hayes believes the experience of playing in Prague could give the Black Sox a potential advantage over rivals such as Canada and Venezuela who did not play in the Intercontinental Cup.
But he said competition would be tough with the standard of international softball growing by the year.
AT A GLANCE
The 16th men's world softball championships will be held in Prague from June 13 to 23.
The NZ Black Sox start their title defence against the Czech Republic at 5.30am Friday (NZ time).