Rob Cross fought back superbly to defeat newly crowned World Matchplay champion Nathan Aspinall 8-7 and claim the New Zealand Darts Masters title in Hamilton on Saturday.
Cross also overcame reigning champion Gerwyn Price on his way to clinching his second World Series of Darts title, which ends his two-year wait for a televised crown.
The 2018 World Champion was also forced to recover from 5-2 down to stun Aspinall in an enthralling finale at the GLOBOX Arena, denying the Stockport star back-to-back televised titles.
Cross almost kicked off proceedings with back-to-back 12-darters, but after missing multiple darts to double his lead, he gave Aspinall an early lifeline which the Stockport star duly exploited.
The pair then traded three consecutive breaks of throw in a topsy-turvy spell, before Aspinall stretched his lead to 5-2 with legs of 14 and 13 darts – aided by 171 set-up shots in consecutive legs.
Cross responded by winning four of the next five legs in 12, 14, 13 and 14 darts to cut the gap to 5-6, and he then levelled at six apiece with a crucial 64 outshot, after Aspinall missed one dart at tops for 7-5.
The pendulum swung once again as Aspinall broke to move a leg away from victory, but Cross wasn’t to be denied, following up a 14-dart skin-saver with an 88 combination in the decider to complete the comeback.
“To win this title is absolutely amazing,” reflected Cross, a Brisbane Darts Masters champion back in 2018.
“At the moment, every chance you give Nathan he normally takes, but he let me off a little bit later in the game, after I missed some opportunities early on.
“The standard is so high, so when you can win [a title] when you’ve not been at your best, it speaks volumes about where my game is.
“It’s all memories. When I pack up eventually, I will look back and see what I’ve won and remember the great moments and people along the way.”
Earlier in the night, Cross won through another last-leg decider in his quarter-final clash against newcomer Jonny Tata, who dumped out two-time World Champion Peter Wright in Friday’s first round.
The 32-year-old then ended Price’s unbeaten record in New Zealand, converting three ton-plus checkouts to celebrate a superb 7-3 success against the top seed.
Cross crashed in a clinical 120 combination and a brace of 124 finishes to prevail, defying four 180s and a 99 average from Price to register his first victory over the Welshman since October 2019.
Aspinall, meanwhile, eased through to the last four with a 6-1 rout of Haupai Puha, who was unable to emulate the performance that saw him dispatch Dimitri Van den Bergh in Friday’s first round.
The world number five then produced his highest televised average in an extraordinary semi-final victory against World Champion Michael Smith, who crashed out despite averaging 107.
Smith kicked off the contest with a trio of 12-dart holds, only for Aspinall to reel off the last five legs in 13, 15, 11, 11 and 13 darts to close out a 7-3 win with a staggering 110.22 average.
“It’s been another fantastic tournament for myself,” said Aspinall, who was appearing in another big stage final – less than a fortnight since his World Matchplay heroics.
“I’m still on cloud nine. I’m number five in the world and I’m getting opportunities like this. What an amazing arena, what an amazing country and I can’t wait to get back here next year.
“It does hurt to lose. Rob let me off in the beginning and I punished him for that. I shouldn’t lose the match from 5-2 up, but this is darts.
“Fair play to Rob. He played some fantastic darts after the break. I wanted to win, I thought I was going to win, but he put me under so much pressure at the end there, and he deserved to win.”
The evening’s opening quarter-final saw Price power past Danny Noppert, with the Welshman reeling off five consecutive legs and landing 122 and 132 finishes on the bull to triumph with a 105 average.
Elsewhere, Smith survived three match darts in his last eight victory over Australia’s number one Damon Heta, who had fought back from 5-3 down to force a last-leg shoot-out.
Following Cross’ success in Hamilton, the sport’s stars will cross the Tasman Sea to Australia for the second leg of the World Series’ Oceanic double-header.
The PalmerBet NSW Darts Masters will be held at the WIN Entertainment Centre in Wollongong on August 11-12.
2023 NZ Darts Masters
GLOBOX Arena, Hamilton
Saturday August 5
Gerwyn Price 6-1 Danny Noppert
Rob Cross 6-5 Jonny Tata
Michael Smith 6-5 Damon Heta
Nathan Aspinall 6-1 Haupai Puha
Rob Cross 7-3 Gerwyn Price
Nathan Aspinall 7-3 Michael Smith
Rob Cross 8-7 Nathan Aspinall