Bowling on the Central Plateau

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From left : Peter Sarelius (President), Val Duncan (Life Member), Allan Hodges

There’s nothing better than Taupo on a bright, sunny winter’s day.

The whole town is built like a spectator stand … positioned to enjoy the clear, sparkling lake, backdropped by the snowcapped mountains of Ruapehu, Ngaruahoe and Tongariro.  The lake foreshore beckons the public to gaze and recreate … with parking pull-offs and walkways … and the hole-in-one tease that seems to have been a part of the Taupo lakefront forever.

The foreshore’s also home to the Taupo Bowling Club, enviously sited adjacent to the town centre and fast-flowing Waikato River outflow.  It’s the only lawn bowls show in town (Lakeland closed a number of years ago).

Which makes Taupo the largest town in New Zealand with only one bowling club.

You would think that status might cause the club to take itself for granted.  But quite the opposite.  It’s a club that’s not only well-presented - with a commercial venue-sized pavilion overlooking two greens (one weed and one artificial) – but has a business ethic focused on ensuring that Taupoites can enjoy the best lawn bowls facilities today, tomorrow, and into the future.

There couldn’t be a better managed bowling club in New Zealand.

But that was something the club had to work at.

Years ago, like many bowling clubs throughout New Zealand, Taupo had a large membership (300+) backed up by a waiting list of eager anticipants.  That all changed in the 80s and 90s when numerous new competitive leisure options emerged - like new shopping options (weekend trading), new entertainment options (Sunday opening), ‘new’ sports and more.

“We made the decision to futureproof ourselves,” says club stalwart, Allan Hodges.  “We recognised that with a shrinking subscription income, we needed to develop the club as a business so that lawn bowls could continue.”

“We spilt the governance of the club,” says Allan.  “The match committee, the coaches, the umpires and the selectors were left to continue to run the sport of bowls at the club.  And a committee was formed to run the business and develop the income of the club.”

From all accounts, it’s worked a treat.  Although the signage out the front of the bowling club … it’s the Harcourts Taupo Bowling Club .. gives some inkling of controversy along the way.

“We realised that local brandowners were interested in the exposure they could get at the club,” says Allan, “So we packaged up naming rights not only for the pavilion, but for the greens as well.  It wasn’t popular with some in the club at the time!”

But that wasn’t all.

“We’ve got a great venue here,” he says, “So we have actively promoted it for weddings, for milestone birthdays, for anniversaries, even for funeral wakes.  We can provide just the venue … or catering as well … and liquor licensing too.  Many of those that hire the venue for an event also want their guests to be able to try their hand at bowls as well.”

Allan is keen to capitalise on every opportunity.

“The club’s also bought 32 sets of bowls,“ he says.  “We want anyone who comes in off the street to be able to have a go.  Our green fees are only $5 a pop.  And we only charge $10 to use a set of bowls.  15 isn’t much to give a sport a go … and to find out whether you’re keen on it or not.”

These may sound like ad hoc initiatives, but they aren’t.

“Early in the piece we developed a strategic plan,” says Allan, “So we knew where we were going and wouldn’t just be behoven to the whims of every new annual club administration.  If the members want the plan to change, it needs to be done by the AGM.”

But the business of business is still just a means to an end.  It’s focused on bowls.

“We’re still all about having a flourishing club both for competitive bowlers and social bowlers,” observes Club President Peter Sarelius.  “We have 80+ full-playing members who love their bowls plus 12 or so social members who simply enjoy the bowling club.”

The annual signature tournament at Taupo is the Blue Ribbon Fours.

“it’s held in early April,” says Peter.  “Although, this year because of COVID, it was cancelled.  It’s a mixed fours … and we fill both greens … including teams from Hawkes Bay, Tauranga and Rotorua.  People keep coming back year after year because we put on a wrap-around event … bowls, catering, entertainment, hospitality … the works.”

But just because Taupo Bowling Club is located in a traditional New Zealand summer holiday spot, don’t take that to mean that the bowls is all pretty leisurely as well.

“We like to think we’re very competitive,” says Peter.  “Wendy Green and Lynette McIntosh have won a national pairs title on behalf of the club.  And I would rank us in the top 5 in the Bay of Plenty Centre when it comes to centre tournaments.  Tauranga and Rotorua know we’re a club to be reckoned with.”

“Unfortunately, because we’re a bit out of the way, and because we don’t have two greens with the same surface, we don’t get to host the Centre tournaments we would like.”

Club Life Member Val Duncan has been a big part of that Centre success.  She’s belonged to the club since 1984, and was the first woman in the club not only to win a centre title, but to win a gold star as well.

“Our greenkeeper, Dave Jones, is the one to watch these days,” Val says, “He’s making waves not only at club level, but at centre level as well.  In fact, he’s a Bay of Plenty rep.  Plus, on top of that, he does a marvellous job looking after the greens.”

Val would know.  When she was President, she got the lawnmower out and took responsibility for mowing all the green surrounds and the roadside berm for a couple of years.

“That’s been the strength of the club,” she says.  “There’s always been a willing group of volunteers to do what needed to be done.”

“We don’t just talk about doing things,” Allan adds. “We walk the walk … literally.  We’ve visited every business in town to encourage them to join our business house bowls comp.  Every Monday night in February, we had both greens full.”

~Rob Davis