When it comes to lawn bowls in New Zealand, there’s no doubt that Taranaki punches above its weight.
There are 21 clubs in the Taranaki Centre, or something like 4.5% of the clubs in New Zealand. Yet Taranaki only accounts for some 2.5% of the country’s population.
But it’s not only playing numbers. The Taranaki Men’s Open held in January every year since 1903, still remains the tournament on the New Zealand lawn bowls calendar attracting the most participants. More than the Nationals. Even with numbers dropping off a little, 160 men’s fours still fought it out in Taranaki in 2020, including 9 teams from Australia. Other centres can only look on enviously at these Open numbers.
And on top of all that, the Taranaki Open still sticks to 25-end games. Other feckless tournaments have caved into pressure for a shorter game from presumably ‘time poor’ or shorter attention-spanned bowlers.
Centre Executive Peter Scott revels in the 25-end challenge. “The game doesn’t start until the 20th end,” he teases. “I reminded Bowls New Zealand Chief Executive Mark Cameron of that when he and his Riverhead team of first year bowlers (G Collins, M Nielsen and J Aufai) were there or thereabouts at the 20th end. The pressure must have got to them – they dropped a five and went on to lose the game 29-20.”
Peter speaks passionately about the game. Like others in Taranaki. Maybe there’s something in the water in Taranaki that empassions bowlers. The province certainly sports people who are dedicated to the success of bowls.
Not only people like Peter, but people like Centre Chair Grant Hassall, the walking bowls encyclopaedia. And people like Whananaki-born Taranaki immigrant Neville Elliott, who has recently retired from his Centre duties.
Neville started playing bowls over 30 years ago, at Mangakino … one of those settlements on the Waikato River purpose-built for the ‘river rats’ constructing the Maraetai Dam … part of the stairway of dams on the Waikato.
It wasn’t until 1988, that he moved back to Taranaki … firstly playing out of the New Plymouth Club and then out of the Paritutu Bowling Club.
“I found I loved the admin side, just as much, if not more, than actually playing bowls,” says Neville. “That’s not to say I was hopeless at bowls …. I won a few club titles and a few centre titles … it’s just that looking after the game tickled my fancy more.”
That’s not surprising. Among the many other hats Neville had worn in his day jobs had been as a General Foods rep touring the route trade in his Bedford truck, squeezing as many Bluebird chips onto the dairy and superette shelves as he could. Neville loved dealing with people. “I was rep of the year in 1986. They even got me to speak at the General Foods sales conference to share a few secrets!”
That was all before they made Neville redundant. There were big changes happening at the time in the FMCG industry. But new doors opened for Neville … firstly as a motel proprietor with his wife Robynne and then as a supermarket manager in Inglewood.
The upbeat manner which made Neville a star rep, a welcoming motelier and an unflappable supermarket manager, also made him a fabulous contributor on the Taranaki Centre Executive. “We’ve been putting on over 100 new bowlers in the Centre every year,” he says, “but unfortunately, we’re losing the same number off the other end. We need to do better.”
It’s an upbeat manner that continues, despite the fact that 5 years ago Neville was diagnosed with the big C. “I had a brain tumour removed. Then in 2019, 50% of my liver removed. Recently they’ve told me I have a shadow on my fifth rib. It’s no good moaning about it … I just have to play the cards I’ve been dealt.” Neville’s got plenty to be grumpy about, yet he’s so refreshingly positive to be around.
It’s not only an outlook his wife Robynne, his two kids and his six grandkids enjoy. But all other bowlers and people from the Naki enjoy as well.
Thanks for everything, Neville.
by Rob Davis