Hunting the jack
Every Saturday in cities and suburbs, small towns and remote country districts, greens are mowed and rolled, mats put out, coins tossed, bowls delivered, scores kept, tea made. Enjoyed in New Zealand by 91,000 players, bowls ranks in popularity ahead of rugby or cricket and is capturing a new generation.
It’s an odd curtsey. Left leg bent, right leg straight back like a guy rope—a common act of obeisance to the slow arc of the bowl as it curves across the surface of the lawn. Nearly 400 years ago John Earle, Bishop of Winchester, noted the gesture: “No anticke,” he wrote, “screwes men’s bodies into such strange flexures.”
At the St Martin’s Bowling Club in Christchurch, Tom Livings is perturbed. He’s lost a player. He checks his list of contacts, and punches a number into his phone.
“He’s probably in the bath,” he says as he waits for an answer. “Or washing the cat. Probably forgotten all about it. I did remind him. Reminded them all. Oh, I could cry.”
It’s after 1 pm and a handful of players are waiting on the green for a mid-week friendly game against the Opawa Bowling Club. There were originally 24 names down for the game. That number dropped to 10, now he’s scratching away to find his fifth.
He goes out to find his team-mates.
“We’ve got all sorts of trouble gathering people. But never mind, we’ll play with what we’ve got, then stop for tea.” He pauses to check his watch. “Around half past two. OK?”
It’s a familiar scene, nostalgic even. A child’s paintbox of green grass, red flowers, sky an impossible summer blue, and the white uniforms of half a dozen figures bending and bowing to the soft click of bowl on bowl. The polite claps and smattering of small talk seem to dissipate in the heat of the afternoon. Beyond the gate the traffic is a sleep-inducing hum. The idea behind the game is straightforward; to deliver the bowl as close as possible to the jack or to knock your opponent’s ball out of proximity. When all the bowls have been played, the players decide who has the closest bowl or bowls to the jack.
But the job is not as easy as it looks. It takes strategy, tactics. This is chess, played out on a Lewis Carroll scale.
“Good work, skip!” someone calls. “By a whisker!”
On the other side of the city at the Burnside Bowling Club, Luke Rhind from Karamea raises his beer and lets out a yell.
“Go Gazza!” he shouts as star player Gary Lawson takes the mat in the men’s fours at the world championships.
The benches are full. TV cameras are busy, the bar is doing a brisk business. At 21, Rhind is a seasoned bowler. His grandparents were bowlers. His Dad was a greenkeeper. Often he’d go and help tamp down the green and clean up the clippings. When he started playing he was 30 years younger than most of the other players. He didn’t get any coaching but “It wasn’t too bad. You got to know all the guys.”
Now he’s involved in Mates in Bowls, one of many initiatives designed by Bowls New Zealand to get more people through the gates of the local bowling club, boost club numbers and knock off a few stereotypes. “It’s just to have a barbie,” says Rhind, “to have a roll-up, see if they like it or not. You meet all kinds of people in this game—builders, law students. That’s the best thing about bowls. Cheap piss is a bonus too.
“A lot of people say bowls is easy, but you have a day at bowls and you’ll be sore the next day. You’re out there all the time, in 30° plus, and the concentration is so high. The green is 36 metres but in the end it comes down to millimetres whether you win or lose. That’s how precise you need to be. It’s all about control.”
Every Saturday, most weekdays, in cities and suburbs, small towns and remote country districts, greens are mowed and rolled, mats put out, coins tossed, bowls delivered, scores kept, tea made. No matter where you are, you do not have to go far to find a yellow sign pointing to one of the 650 bowling clubs scattered throughout the country. Compared with the 600 or so rugby clubs, it would seem the sun is still shining down on a recreational sport played last year by more than 91,000 casual or committed bowls players.
Since 1861, when the Auckland Bowling Club was officially opened next to the Auckland Domain (according to Ivan Agnew’s history Rolling On, the occasion was celebrated with lime juice which, as described by the media of the day, “would have been excellent indeed had it not been carelessly put into whiskey bottles”), bowling clubs have spread like the fine Maniototo weed that makes many of New Zealand’s greens the fastest in the world.
In 1886, New Plymouth bowlers journeyed north to Auckland by steamship for the country’s first interclub game. Forty years later, a New Zealand bowlers’ tour of Great Britain, Ireland, Canada and the US saw the Kiwi team hailed by a member of the Scottish bowling association as “excellent sportsmen and keen, one would almost say superhuman, bowlers”.
After WWII the number of bowling clubs in New Zealand soared, from 416 in 1945 to more than 600—catering for some 45,000 players—15 years later. In New Plymouth the TSB Bowls New Zealand Museum, the only registered bowls museum in the world, is an odd trove of bowls (including those brought to New Zealand from Scotland in 1862 by brewer James Paul, later Mayor of New Plymouth), blazers, callipers, photos and reports, trophies and string measures—more than 8000 artefacts from a movement that now caters to the young, the old, the blind, the deaf, the small rural communities and the urban corporates.
“From the beginning it was a sport played by working classes,” explains Kerry Clark, CEO of Bowls New Zealand, member of the World Bowls Council and former Commonwealth Games bowls champion. “From there it spread through the small town network. This was at a time when transport wasn’t so freely available, when not all families had a car. So you found a bowling club in every suburb. Back then it was recreational rather than sport, and dominated by males.”
Archaeological finds suggest a form of bowls was played in Egypt 3500 years ago. The game we know came from Scotland via England. In 1541, it was banned by Henry VIII for distracting bowmen from archery practice. For three centuries prison sentences of up to two years were imposed on hoi polloi found indulging in a game of bowls. For the titled there was no such ban—in 1588 Sir Francis Drake famously delayed engaging with the approaching Spanish Armada until he had finished his game of bowls at Plymouth Hoe, although he may have been waiting for the tide to turn in his favour.
But bowls survived the ban. In 1908, it was reported that the sport was good for “disorders of the liver and for pains in the loins, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, nervous exhaustion, gout and toothache”. In England, industries such as mines and mills provided bowling greens for their workers. While this was virtually unheard of in New Zealand, one of Christchurch’s earliest flourmills, Wood Bros Ltd, established a bowling green for lunchtime and after-work games for staff and local players in the latter part of the 19th century.
But changing lifestyles, increasing choices and ageing memberships are taking their toll. Over the past two decades, club numbers have been dropping. Members are dying, a range of other sports are on offer and people have less time to commit to club responsibilities. Last year’s tally of bowls players was up by 1500 on the year before, but that was due to the influx of casual players. The number of card-carrying club members dropped by 1000 players. Now 81 per cent of clubs have fewer than a hundred members.
“It is time,” Clark wrote in the 2006-7 Bowls New Zealand annual report, “for some low-membership bowling clubs to accept their ultimate fate and look towards merging with other bowling clubs or compatible organisations for survival.”
Many have done just that. Some have sold up—clubowned land throughout the country is worth an estimated $600 million—and some have amalgamated. Others, however, are embracing new opportunities to introduce inexperienced players to the game.
“Baby boomers are coming into the sports market,” explains South Island community development officer Jim Scott. “And they’re busy. They get their messages through texting or YouTube. They don’t want to take turns making tea or weeding the dahlias or even preparing a weekly draw. They’d prefer to pay someone else to do what club members have happily done for over a century.”
Once games were conducted behind high fences—a barrier to the wind, to prying eyes, to vandals—but the fences are coming down. The play is visible. Signs outside give phone numbers, list open days, advertise rooms for hire.
And where once would-be bowlers had to wait to be invited into a club, or to be introduced by a member, now the plan is to attract more people, and more ages, inside the gates.
Kerry Clark: “We were brought up with the idea that when you become a member you put the mats out and did bar duty. This new age group doesn’t agree with that. They want to come along, play with what’s there, have a drink, have something to eat, then disappear. Then someone else comes along and cleans up. It’s about changing attitudes.”
A range of “give-it-a-go” activities are now being run throughout the country—mufti bowls, fling bowls, twinkle-toe bowls, Christmas bowls, twilight bowls, business house bowls. As well as Mates in Bowls, there’s Kiddiehawks for the under-20s and Crackerjack nights for the uninitiated (the 2002 Australian movie of that name, starring Kiwi actor John Clarke, drummed up huge interest in the game in that country).
In Auckland, the number of social bowls players grew by close to 30 per cent over just two seasons, thanks largely to a club development programme that has put thousands into projects to introduce new—and younger—players to the sport.
“Bowls has that reputation for being an older person’s game but now that’s changing,” says Scott. “A person can play at age six or 86. Look at the average age of the New Zealand team. It’s 27!”
Clark recalls his introduction to bowls as a boy, when his local Cromwell club considered him too young to play.
“Then anyone who was young and interested in bowls was regarded as a freak, as if something was wrong with him. Bowls was regarded as something that was played when you had finished playing everything else. That’s all changing now.”
Bowls is now on the sporting curriculum of secondary schools throughout the country. Each year, a national secondary schools competition is played, and Scott says young players can see a pathway for progressing further.
“They can watch the under 18s and the under 25s compete, they can play against Australia, they can see that the sport is being taken seriously.”
Back at the St Martin’s Bowling Club the afternoon dawdles, yawns, pauses to watch the elliptical path of the weighted ball.
Inside the clubrooms the walls bear testimony to local bowling history. A wooden honours board acts as a solemn roll call of past presidents. Photographs show grave flocks of mostly men, orderly arrangements of striped blazers, white pants, substantial moustaches.
Tea is poured, the biscuits laid out.
“Are the girls coming?”
It is seven years since St Martin’s followed the rest of the country in amalgamating the men’s and women’s clubs, but still the “girls”—none are under 50—are having a cuppa in a separate part of the clubrooms.
At 89 Lucy Livings, Tom’s wife, is a diminutive, bright eyed woman. She’s been a skip (the tactician in the team, directing the other players on where the bowls should finish), coach and umpire, and still she fronts up for a midweek friendly.
“When I was coaching, the first thing I ever said to a new girl was, ‘Have you played any ball game?’ If she said yes, I knew I had someone who I could teach to play bowls. If she said no, I knew I had a job on my hands.”
Long before she tried her hand at bowls, Lucy was a practised hand at the billiards table. Now she sips her tea, finding her way back to another past altogether.
“During the war”—Lucy is English—“we used to play billiards in the air-raid shelters. Bowls is no different really, except you don’t have to hold a cue.”
The conversation goes from air raids to shingles to the raising of the retirement age (a killer for bowls) to some rather alarming suggestions on population control.
“Yes,” says Lucy, heading out into the sun, “the world’s in a terrible state.”
The club is a refuge from all that. There are games two to three times a week. On Saturdays, members may congregate at the bar before heading off in their separate directions—the prices are low, the comradeship close. In cities, as in rural areas, the bowling club is a mainstay for the local community.
Take Thornbury, a small Southland town just north of Riverton (the further south you go, I’m told, the better the greens and the stronger the clubs). With a membership of just 29, the Thornbury Bowling Club remains a social stronghold for the small community, a venue for weddings, anniversaries and “big O” birthdays. There are weekly bowling practices and interclub games. In winter, the old potbelly stove is fired up in the original clubrooms so indoor bowls can be played on cold Southland afternoons. On ANZAC Day people gather at the club gates to honour the names of fallen soldiers.
“We’re a traditional farming community,” says vice-president Roseanne O’Connell. “Over the last few years we’ve lost our post office and our store. All we have left is a hotel, a school and a bowling club. And we want to hold on to it. It’s wonderful for old people and for people who are a wee bit lonely, like widows. They say it saves their lives. The men look after the greens and the surrounds on a roster basis, the women look after the clubrooms.”
If you want comradeship, says Roseanne, it’s there. If you want “the top stuff”, that’s there too.
The high standard of this country’s top stuff was evident back at the World Bowls Championships in Christchurch, where 28 countries competed for titles in men’s and women’s fours, triples, pairs and singles. The New Zealand Black Jacks team (including player of the tournament and twice gold medallist Gary Lawson) topped the medal table with four golds and two bronzes—an impressive scorecard that many attribute to a high-performance programme involving fitness training, nutritional advice and sports psychology.
“It was a huge commitment by the players,” says national coach Dave Edwards. “Three months pretty much full time. We gave them some reimbursement but we’re not a professional sport. A couple resigned from their jobs so they could attend. Many players had to rely on others to run their houses while they were away, but that’s how keen they were. They grabbed the opportunity with both hands. They’re athletes nowadays.”
For Nelson’s Val Smith, winner of two gold medals in the singles and pairs, it was vital training.
“Traditionally New Zealand has always done quite well in bowls but it’s about getting that extra edge. How can you be better than the rest? What do we need to dominate the world in the sport of bowls?”
Smith has been hooked on bowls since she first gave it a go as part of an all-rounders sports competition at the age of 27.
“I couldn’t get over the challenge. It’s not just about getting every bowl as close to the jack as you can. It takes strategy and concentration. The bowl has to be in just the right place.”
While the physical side of the game can be picked up quickly, she says, “the mental side you never stop learning. You need a good deal of motivation, but the big thing is dealing with emotion. With a more physical sport, if you’re feeling frustrated or angry you can get rid of those feelings on the field and you can still be a valuable player. But with bowls you have to mentally work through it.”
And the hardest part of that?
“For me it’s self-belief. You have to trust yourself. You have to tell yourself you’ve done all the hard work. Then, when you’re out there, it’s all in the feel of the ball. If you’ve got your technique right, that’s when you feel what you’re doing.”
There are further challenges for bowls in New Zealand increasing the network of coaches, extending high-performance programmes and development squads to the regions, encouraging more women into the administrative ranks of the sport and getting better at identifying new talent.
But for many clubs in cities and towns around the country the challenge is just to hold on to what they’ve got.
“The beauty of bowls,” says Smith, “is that it’s the type of sport where you could never be bigger than the game. It’s such a fickle sport—any player on the day, no matter how many medals you’ve won, can be beaten by an average player on their day. And to be successful, you really need social players. It’s about keeping you grounded.”
Back at St Martins the cups and saucers are washed and dried in a small and spotless kitchen, accompanied by good-hearted banter over the lack of chocolate biscuits. Tonight is Crackerjack night. The greens will be noisy with casual players keen to give the game a go, to have a beer, a laugh, a get-together with friends. Then they’ll leave, perhaps a little chagrined that controlling the roll of the bowl was harder than expected, not stopping to bond over the dishes, and probably not returning to weed the dahlias.
“There’s a tendency for everyone to work like ants,” muses Tom Livings. “And that’s completely ruined social life in New Zealand.”
He puts on his wide-brimmed hat and goes out to finish the afternoon play while others head home for the day.
“Alright, might see you next week. Might not.”