There’s no doubt that the Stoke Bowling Club, located in the southern suburbs of Nelson, is a club on the rise.
The full-playing membership of the club just tips the 100 mark. And if you add in the non-playing membership, there’s close to 150 who call the club home. That’s up 10 or so on the previous year.
It’s a success which many of the 500 clubs throughout New Zealand will look on enviously - if the club could bottle the formula to that success, there would be many takers. Unfortunately, creating a COVID vaccine might be easier.
“One of the things I would put our success down to,” observes Club President, Atholl Campbell, “is that we’re a club with a lot of out-of-towners. They’re members who have chosen to come to Nelson … who are deliberately trying to integrate into the community … and who are wanting to make new friends, and to socialise. They want to enjoy the club and to contribute.”
“We even have a ‘State of Origin’ tournament every year - although this year’s one in April was cancelled because of COVID. The Nelson team is one of the smallest teams on the green.”
Campbell is an out-of-towner himself.
“We came to Nelson 4 years ago,” he says. “We’d sold up in Ashburton and spent 7 years in China – an hour in from Hong Kong. When we came back to New Zealand to retire, we had the freedom to decide where to live. Nelson came up trumps.”
He’s also a ‘doctor’. Not a medical one, but a PhD in education. There’s 3 other doctors in the club, including a medical one (handy) and a microbiologist (very handy in COVID times!).
“Doug (the microbiologist) is our Health & Safety Officer,” says Campbell, “And he was able to explain what we should and shouldn’t do during COVID in language that even a humble bowler can understand. Our COVID management procedures were second-to-none.”
But being a club of Nelson ‘immigrants’ isn’t the only thing that has Stoke on the ascendancy.
“The club has attracted the likes of Shannon McIlroy, Kirsten Edwards and others,” says Campbell, “These elite players know they can come here and get good competition. There’s a group of players at the club who can push the elite players, and beat them on their day.”
The club honours boards are testimony to that. As you would expect, names like ‘S McIlroy’ and ‘K Edwards’ are inscribed in guild. But so are many (and more) John and Jane Does. The presence of elite players hasn’t stopped members from believing they can still win.
It’s also meant that the Stoke Women’s Invitation Singles and the Stoke Men’s Invitation Pairs have become signature events not only on the club calendar, but on the Bowls New Zealand Summer of Bowls Programme.
The two events attract the big names in New Zealand bowls year after year. You only need to browse the event honours boards to understand just how big the tournaments are : with names like Unknovich, Symes, Dickson, Skoglund, and Kernaghan.
But it’s probably a less competitive bowls event (but a more serious commemorative event) that characterises the club culture.
“Anzac Day is a big day at the club,” says Campbell. “We start off with a warming drambuie, followed by an Anzac service, then a tournament where everyone’s dressed in bits and pieces of military mufti. The club catering crew ensures that everyone is sated with more than just Anzac biscuits.
However, the club’s Catering Manager Rhonda Bellis (no relation) may in fact be the secret to the club’s bottleable success.
“We had the Bacardi Bowls here last November,” says Campbell, “The publicans from all around New Zealand were overwhelmed with the spreads put on by Rhonda and her team over the three or four days. It was like a cruise ship. There was food available all day. Even the famous Wakefield pies.”
The food was great. The bonhomie was great. And the dual Don Carter-nurtured maniototo greens just as great. “Our greens are very playable,” says Campbell. “They’re a big reason the elite bowlers come here, and that we attract the tournaments we do. Don does a superb job.”
Despite that, the club is not sitting still.
“Many of our members would like to play winter bowls. And at the moment, they go to other clubs around Nelson in the off-season. So we are going to suggest at the AGM, that we have a committee take a look at other options for the future. That may be here or even at another site like the all-sports centre at Saxton Field down the road.”
“It might involve looking at an artificial green, or even a roof.”
There are some possible future options. But Stoke’s current success means that the club isn’t under any pressure to make quick decisions.
“We just have to get all our ducks in a row” says Campbell. “That not only involves listening to what the club and the members want, but exploring how Sport Nelson and the Nelson City Council can support us. And maybe what other clubs want in Nelson as well.”