RIGHT ON CUE

In August 2021, Short Story August 20217 MinutesBy Dave McCoidSeptember 28, 2021

And now, a message from our sponsors. ‘If you’re a Dunedin company, don’t challenge Icon Logistics to an intercompany pool or snooker tournament. You’ll all go home penniless and with the shirt missing off your back.’

There’s no question; trucking people are the gift that just keeps on giving. With Neil Whalley, you’ll likely be in one or two states – amazed or laughing. Losing half a day in the cab of a truck listening to his life story, rich enough to fill a book, is easily done.

Just to qualify which Neil Whalley this is, in case there are more, it’s the one who’s our country’s No.3, and for a few weeks some years back, No.1 snooker player. It’s the one who’s the national snooker coach. And it’s the one who has driven trucks throughout the UK and into Europe. There’s only one who meets those credentials, we’d wager.

“I’m going through a sweet patch at the moment. I’ve won my last five ranking tournaments, so I’m back to No.3,” he smiles.

Grant Keen is a true son of Dunners, and Neil kicked things off almost at the city’s global meridian, in the Merseyside hamlet of Newton-le-Willows.

“Cue sports were my thing right from the get-go. A local dentist tried to help me get into the pro circuits, but the practice time and costs just put it out of reach, really.”

“Have you ever got a 147 break?”

“146. Took a pink off the 14th red. I’ve had lots of 100-plus breaks, but 146 was the highest.”

If life’s path meant he wasn’t going to be a professional snooker player, Neil had to find something to earn a living, and that was truck driving.

“I started in the warehousing arm of a firm called Christian Salvesen. They delivered groceries to Marks & Spencer stores. From there, I progressed into driving working in both the tour bus and trucking industries, ending up with the French giant Dentressangle in 2005, a 9000-unit continental haulier which had 1200 wagons based in the UK.

“I worked the channel relay. There were two on the truck, working week about. One would unload and reload in and around Liverpool and Manchester and then take the truck to Leicester, where the other would jump in and take it over the channel via the Euro Tunnel to Calais. The train takes 30 trucks at a time; two lots of 15 with plates (flat deck carriages) between. Trucks drive on and into the wagons via the plates, and then once on the other side, they continue on through and off. Once in Calais, you swap trailers and head straight back to Leicester.

“It was great work. You go hard all week, and then have a day and a half to do your washing and play a bit of snooker with the lads.”

In 2003, a mate who was out in the far-off Antipodes of New Zealand on work experience in Dunedin convinced Neil to come out for a holiday. He came for three weeks between February and March, and did it all again in 2004, 05, and 07; except in 07 he went home, sorted out his affairs, then landed here again in August of the same year, this time permanently.

Neil got a job at Northern Southland Transport Holdings, based out of Dunedin, moving to Toll in 2011 when it brought out the division. In 2012, he changed jobs, moving to Icon Logistics, where he’s been ever since.

“I love it; it’s great. I don’t know a lot about trucks; I’m not a truck buff. But I love to drive them, and I love looking after them. Me and a mate often spend a half-day in the yard at a weekend and just chat and spruce up the trucks.”

The passion for 15 red balls, seven coloured ones, and a cue is as strong as ever, and four years ago, Neil met Stephanie, a cue-sports-mad gal… A match made in heaven. Today, they both follow and play in the tournament circuit.

“I’ve got English Association of Snooker and Billiards qualification, and my International Billiards and Snooker Federation qualification. I went to Qatar with the Seniors a few years back, and I’ve been to China with the Juniors twice. I’m on the board of the New Zealand Snooker and Billiards Association, and I’d planned to go to the UK to gain my international coaches’ licence, but Covid’s dashed that for now. Never mind, you have to earn your pennies in the meantime, and what’s wrong with this, eh?”

What’s wrong indeed, Neil?

Because you’ve all been waiting, let’s end with a Just Truckin’ Around-style vexing question.

“Who’s the greatest of all time, Neil?

“Oh,” he laughs. “If you visit my place, you can’t partake of the hospitality until you’ve paid homage to the man himself – Mr O’Sullivan. Ronnie ‘The Rocket’ O’Sullivan.”

Photo above: Neil Whalley. Making the most of life’s breaks when they come.

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