Waikiwi still a force on Southland scene

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Rae Darragh (left) and Jim Stevenson display the Club of the Year Trophy

If you’re a bowler visiting Invercargill, then once you’ve had your fill of Bluff oysters and blue cod, and once you’ve pored over the collections of automobilia at both Bill Richardson’s Transport World and E J Haye’s Hammer Hardware, pop out to the Waikiwi Bowling Club on the northern outskirts of the city.

It’s a beautiful spot … bounded by a council reserve on the northern side which was once home to rugby ground and tennis courts but is now quiet greenspace … by a stand of trees on the eastern and western sides providing both a sheltering calm and a leaf-dropping curse for the bowling green … and on the south side by neighbours that keep very much to themselves in the St John’s Cemetery.

In a city where the wind and weather can be from time to time a little unkind, the Waikiwi Bowling Club provides a haven for bowlers to play the beautiful game.

Waikiwi was established back in 1923.

No one particularly knows why, not even club stalwart Rae Darragh who joined the club back in 1993, and is still playing today at the age of 89.

“Probably we were outside the city boundaries at the time,“ speculates Rae, “And it was probably a case of providing a bowls facility for the surrounding district rather than another bowling club in Invercargill itself.”

Today, almost 100 years later, Waikiwi is regarded as one of the clubs that always makes a nuisance of itself at centre competitions. “I like to think that we’re always amongst the silverware every year,” says Club President, Jim Stevenson, “and this season the Centre also awarded us Club of the Year.”

“We got a great boost when the Makarewa Bowling Club closed up the road last year, and I think they all decided to join our club. They had some great players, so we were thrilled to have them join.”

“Although we perform well in centre comps, the club hasn’t lifted any trophies at national level for a few years, I think the last time was in 2012/2013 when we picked up the New Zealand Club Championship in the Mixed Pairs.”

With a full-playing membership of 34 men and 25 women, and a non-playing membership of 11, mostly men, the club is in a great position to provide excellent bowls competition within the club. “That’s why people come here,” says Jim. “They know that they can join a friendly club, but still get the competition to improve their game.”

Interestingly enough, when the club does look for competition outside the club, it’s just down the road in the same suburb of Waikiwi. No, not at another bowling club, but at the Rowena Jackson Retirement Village. “They have a full-sized artificial green at the village,” says Jim, “And our members enjoy going there to play, and they enjoy coming here.”

That’s quite at odds with many other bowls clubs throughout New Zealand who often treat retirement villages as the enemy … claiming they act as a deterrent for village residents to join bowling clubs. “We take a different view here … anything that promotes the game of bowls is great! We even helped them build their green three or four years ago. The village gave us a nice donation for our time and effort.”

At the end of January every year, the Rowena Jackson Optional Fours has become Waikiwi’s signature tournament. “We have two full greens playing,” says Jim. “At our green at Waikiwi and their green at the village.”

If there’s another ‘signature’ tournament at the club, it is the Harliwich Contracting Invitational Triples at Waitangi weekend, run by Bruce Ross the recently retired Race Director of the Tour of Southland cycling event, and his son-in-law Craig Merrilees.

“It’s an invitation-only event,” says Jim. “But it’s gained a big reputation and the invitees are eager to make the cut for a spot each year. As a bit of an add-on at the end of the day, Bruce and Craig also run a two-bowl singles shoot-out.”

“Other than that, we keep things pretty grounded here at the club,” says Jim. “I don’t think (Mayor) Tim Shadbolt’s ever been here. Norm Jones (the controversial Invercargill MP) was never a member. Nor was Burt Munro. We’ve had a few players from the Southland Stags : Jack Borland, Lenny Wilson, Dave Smeaton to name a few. But we’re just ordinary people who love our bowls.”

Rae Darragh is a bit more effusive than that.

“Bowls is the essence of life,” he claims with a twinkle in his eye.

And for a guy that’s still looking great at 89, he may well know what he’s talking about!

by Rob Davis