Sports

The Spinoff reviews New Zealand #8: The Bowls Premier League

We review the entire country and culture of New Zealand, one thing at a time. Today: Calum Henderson watches Australasia’s fast and furious new bowls tournament.

The North Shore Events Centre was absolutely going off last night, but not as the result of a Mika Vukona putback dunk to send a Breakers game to overtime or the drawing of a raffle to win a new Weber at the Home & Garden Expo (that’s next weekend). This was for the final of BPL05 – the Bowls Premier League.

The thinking behind the BPL basically seems to be: if bloody darts can haul its way back from the brink of obscurity and get people dancing in the aisles of the Ally Pally, then why can’t we? It’s the T20 cricket of bowls, fast-paced and TV-friendly, and for the first time it was in New Zealand.

I caught a bit of BPL04 late last year while hopelessly trawling the Sky Sport channels on an off-peak sports night. It was held at a bowls club on the Sunshine Coast and everyone there seemed to be in seventh heaven, sinking bright cocktails and tins of XXXX under a massive sun sail and enjoying some high-octane bowls matches between the eight teams – seven from Australia and our own mighty NZ Blackjacks. There were theme nights (the night I watched was Pirate Night) and every team had at least one mascot. The commentators were young jokers who talked so much shit it felt more like they were recording a podcast than commentating a sporting event.

Wayne’s Can Bar at BPL04

Tuning into the first day of the New Zealand edition was like watching a McDonald’s Super Smash game after the KFC Big Bash. Where the Aussies had treated it like a completely new sport, this seemed like the same old bowls awkwardly dressed in youthful new clothes. It was bleak as shit. The NSEC was big and almost empty, nobody seemed to be drinking any kind of beverage except maybe a lukewarm English Breakfast, and the only vibe was the blaring, wildly crowd-inappropriate music, a mix of classic rock (Nirvana, AC DC) and Top 40 bangers (The Weeknd).

But that was Tuesday. By Thursday night the NSEC was more or less full and while still not at Sunshine Coast levels, there seemed to be a good vibe, helped by the fact that the final was a total cracker between the pre-tournament favourite Sydney Lions and hometown heroes the NZ Blackjacks.

Tense times at the NSEC

BPL games are best of three sets, and five ends per set. This means they don’t take that long, maybe an hour or so, and they encourage a lot of aggressive bowling – clear-out piledrivers right down the middle and that. The Blackjacks’ go-to in last night’s nailbiter was men’s singles world champion Shannon McIlroy, who ended up being named the tournament MVP. Games in the BPL are doubles, but each team has three members (at least one female) who can sub in and out. Teams are generally on the younger side – all three members of the Melbourne Roys (the best team name for my money) were under-26.

The 30-year-old McIlroy’s bowls genius wasn’t enough for the Blackjacks as the Lions eventually eased home to win in straight sets. But for a while it looked like he was going to do it, and the whole time I found myself fair glued to the screen. It was as engrossing as any darts match I’ve seen, so good I ended up missing the whole first half of the NRL game I’d been looking forward to watching.

The BPL has a lot going for it – running during the week means it’s a good chance of being the only live sport on the telly, and with two editions in fairly quick succession this summer it’s starting to build an all-important sense of character and personality. There are things it could improve on, like internet presence or hiring a more intuitive DJ (play Petula Clark ‘Downtown’ and that crowd would have been swaying like anything), but overall it is my considered opinion that the BPL05 was GOOD.

GOOD OR BAD? GOOD.

VERDICT: Bowls is cool now