Last Friday, at the Richmond Bowling club in Nelson, a familiar figure took centre stage.
The greens were almost deserted, as a lot of members take a winter break, but those with a keen eye would have noticed bowls royalty in their midst.
Jo Edwards, generally recognized as New Zealand’s greatest female bowler, was back in her hometown after more than three and a half years being based across the Tasman.
Edwards and husband Dave had already planned to return this year, but the coronavirus situation accelerated their move.
“We were looking at coming home at the end of the year but this Covid thing kind hit and we thought ‘well, bugger it, let’s just get home’,” said Edwards.
Going to Australia was a unique opportunity. With the large amount of competitions and year round season Edwards could devote herself almost full time to bowls while Dave was employed as bowls development manager and coach at Club Pine Rivers, 30 kilometres north of Brisbane.
“It was a chance to give bowls a real good crack,” said Edwards. “The population over there allows for the general club bowler to be bloody good. At tournaments that meant you had to be at your best all the time. You can play 12 months of the year and the greens are a bit slower, so it’s a different kind of game, with all shots in play”
Edwards developed her game significantly, especially in the high profile Queensland Premier League.
“You had to be at the top of your game every Saturday for 10 or 11 weeks,” said Edwards. “There are so many different surfaces and you are preparing yourself all day. Lot of professionalism is needed and you had to in top form to compete.”
Life in the Sunshine state was agreeable, though the climate could be a challenge.
“It’s beautiful weather and everything but the summer was a bit too hot,” laughed Edwards. “You are going from air con room to air con room and sleeping at night was a bit tricky. And I missed the seasons, the changing of the seasons.”
But overall it was a highly positive experience for the couple. It was something they had both wanted to do for a while and the “stars had aligned” for them to give it a crack.
But Edwards is also happy to be back in her beloved Nelson, even if the journey was convoluted, as they spent two weeks in mandatory quarantine in Auckland.
Jo plays a bowl in international competition.
It was relatively smooth – she paid special tribute to the “fantastic staff” at the Pullman hotel – but had its challenges, especially towards the end.
“We both had a good mindset heading into it and anyway – you had to do it,” said Edwards. “The people looking after us were lovely and the food was great. And for the first 10 days we were allowed to go for a walk in the park for 45 minutes. But then that news article hit about a member of the public being in the middle of a walking group, so it stopped.”
The hotel rooftop was opened up as an option for some fresh air instead, but it just wasn’t the same.
“The last four days dragged a bit,” said Edwards. “But it was okay. We had cards, books, games and movies. But the day tended to revolve around three knocks on the door with food!”
The last fortnight has been full of “life admin”, as they settle back into Nelson. It’s been her home since she was five years old, apart from a stint in Christchurch (2006-2011) during Dave’s tenure as national coach at Bowls New Zealand.
That means Edwards has become somewhat of a local hero, albeit a reluctant one, as people want to acknowledge the queen of the green.
“My husband used to point it out a - I was a bit oblivious to it,” said Edwards, though one episode at the Stoke New World a few years ago has stuck in her mind.
“There was a young guy 50 metres away, waving at me,” said Edwards. “I’m looking around, thinking, who is he waving to? He came up and said, you don’t know me but I have followed your career, your bowls and what you have done for Nelson has been unbelievable’. You are just going to get your mushrooms out of the bin and you think ‘holy shit, it’s quite amazing’.
You don’t realise the impact that you have maybe. You don’t do it for that reason but it’s quite nice.”
On another occasion, in the wake of a Commonwealth Games triumph, a teller at her local BNZ bank had an unusual inquiry.
“She asked me ‘I don’t suppose you are wearing your gold medal,” laughed Edwards. “I looked down inside my sweater and said ‘oh bugger, I took it off when I had a shower this morning’.”
Her bowl at Richmond last Friday was the first time on the green since mid-March, a rare hiatus for Edwards, who made her national debut in 2001 and has accumulated a staggering 646 caps since
“It’s been my longest break, by a long stretch,” said Edwards. “I can’t lie, it has been nice. You need to put a lot of time in to be at the top – and fair enough you should have to put that time in – but I have been doing it for 20 years.
So it has been good, though I said to my husband last week, I need to get back into it soon.”
The couple are both looking for part time work (“that would be ideal”) while Edwards is also assessing her club options, having represented Nelson and United in the past.
“I haven’t joined one yet,” said Edwards. “Obviously there is not a lot played here in winter, so taking some time to work that out.”
Having the double world champion and three time Commonwealth gold medallist back on the local scene is a boost for the sport, and Edwards is content to be home.
“We enjoyed our time, our little adventure over there,” said Edwards. “But it’s another chapter in our lives coming back to Nelson, with old friends and a lot of family close by. The thought of coming home put a smile on our faces and now we are back it’s definitely the right decision.
So let the next chapter begin.”