The Pt Chev Pirates (green) and Stokes Valley Vipers strategise (image: Madeleine Chapman)

The Spinoff reviews New Zealand #74: Watching lawn bowls

There’s a new game in town and it’s bloody good fun to watch. Madeleine Chapman reviews Bowls3Five at New Lynn Bowling Club.

This month, for perhaps the first time in their storied existence, New Lynn Bowling Club received a noise complaint. It wouldn’t have been too long after 10pm – and maybe earlier than that – when the call was put through. The culprits? Easy listening music, sung by the likes of Elton John and Kenny Rogers, playing too loud while the six best club teams in the country competed in lawn bowls. I know I am biased and privileged because I can sleep through anything but that is maybe the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.

Kenny Rogers and slow-moving activities is the shortest route to my young, old heart, so I went along last week to experience the rowdiness myself.

Lawn bowls accompanied by music is new, part of an attempt to youthenise (is youthenise a hack joke?) the sport and gain new members to what is so commonly known as a boring sport. The new format is called Bowls3Five (teams of three, five ends per set, three sets at most) and is essentially the Twenty20 format of lawn bowls for those without the patience or legs for the multi-hour games.

Playing lawn bowls while getting drunk is always fun but turns out so is watching lawn bowls while getting drunk. My night out on the New Lynn green had everything you need: a seat, cheap drinks, surprisingly good food, and all the music you’ve ever heard your mum play while cleaning the house. Oh, and bowls.

“I haven’t quite figured it out yet.”

That’s my sister, sitting next to me and being paid to watch. I figured the paid crowd would be a secret but when the small group arrived, NZ Bowls President Jeanette Sinclair leaned over and announced “it’s called a rent-a-crowd”. I wondered what the hell I was doing there for free.

A very cool DJ (image: Madeleine Chapman)

The crowd was rented because Bowls3Five is being broadcast live on Sky every Tuesday and Wednesday night this month, a first for the sport and something Sinclair had no hesitation in accepting. “It was a no-brainer for us on the board. Lawns Bowls needs that TV coverage,” she said, as ‘Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)’ played in the background.

On the green, the Stokes Valley Vipers were losing to the Pt Chevalier Pirates in a gripping tie-break end. But all the talk had been about the Gore Rams, who were unbeaten and seemingly unbeatable. They were playing next and I couldn’t wait to see what a champion bowls team looked like. Turns out, very young.

The Gore Rams, with an average age of 20, are the young stars on the bowling scene. They’re the clear favourites to take home the $15,000 prize money at the end of the month. After dismantling the Stoke Thunder in two sets, they sat down at the next table for a beer. Team captain Sheldon Bagrie-Howley (23) is acutely aware of the age difference but has himself been playing for over a decade. “I was ten and playing everything so good old Nana told me to try out bowls. I went to my first tournament and won about $300 in the hand so I thought yep, this is me.”

Bagrie-Howley and the Rams are very, very good. Which means I of course watched them and wondered how many hours of bowling it would take for me to be accepted on their team. How hard could lawn bowls be? Having played socially the week before, I can answer that question. It’s very hard.

Sheldon Bagrie-Howley sends one (image: Madeleine Chapman)

I asked if his team felt intimidated by the older players, particularly the likes of ex-All Black Grizz Wylie, whose team mate was sporting a black eye and joked (but maybe he was serious) that it had come from Grizz the night before. “The reception is actually really good. The old fellas like Grizz respect us and it’s a level playing field.”

As for drinking on the job, it just comes with the territory. “Sometimes you go out and get absolutely on the chop the night before and still play your best. It’s almost like you’re more relaxed and there’s less worrying.” Much like cricket and rugby, a beer or two or ten after your match is part of the sport. It’s also a sport most often viewed with a beverage in hand, making it the sedate equivalent of going to the races, just with far less animal cruelty.

So if you’re keen for a drink and a feed after work this month, head down to New Lynn Bowling Club and get just that. There may be some bowls happening in the background too.

Verdict: The DJ wore sunglasses at night and played ‘Lucille’ by Kenny Rogers. What more do you want?

Good or bad: Supremely good.

Sign up to watch Bowls3Five live here or watch on Sky Sport 2 every Tuesday and Wednesday from 7pm.

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