One of the great mysteries of the lawn bowls world is why Kiwis with Croatian roots are so good at the game.
After all, they don’t even play lawn bowls back in Croatia. The nearest equivalent is a game called bocce … which is like pentaque but without the groomed terrain. In Croatia and throughout the Adriatic, bocce seems to be played wherever there’s a spare bit of ground … and whenever there’s a spare bit of time.
Yet Croatians have always been there or thereabouts at our National Championships … right back from when Mark Marinovich and Steve Garelja won the Pairs in 1948. Croations dominated the Men’s Nationals in the 80s and 90s … winning the Singles three times, the Pairs twice and the Fours a whopping 7 times*.
Carlton Cornwall bowler Nick Krajancic has been one of those formidable Dalmatians .. playing Three in the team of Peter Sain, Ivan Zonich and Alf Dickens who won the Fours in Christchurch in 1999.
Nick has come a long way from his birthplace in a small village called Cara on the Island of Korcula, a few kilometres off the coast of Croatia – about midway between Split and Dubrovnik. It’s one of those ‘bucket list’ areas of the Adriatic now, but when Nick was born six months before the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, it was far from the picture postcard backdrop that cruise ships wend their way through today.
“First the Italians came in 1941,” recounts Nick. “They occupied our island. One day in August Italian soldiers surrounded our partisan-allied village arresting 17 men as well as my mother – she wouldn’t tell them where my father was hiding (my father escaped by hiding down in a water well). They took all the men to the cemetery and shot them. My mother spent three weeks in jail before being allowed to return home.
“When the Italians dropped out of the war in 1943, the Germans occupied Korcula. This time my father was caught and taken to a concentration camp. When the war ended in 1945, he returned to the village, but he was terribly emaciated. Just like those pictures you sometimes see of concentration camp prisoners.”
The dinghy “Desanka” in which Nick escaped to Italy in in 1958.
But life was not much better on post-war Korcula under the Communist rule of Yugoslavia. There was little food and clothing.
“About 1958, I made the decision to escape from the island with three friends. One September night we stole a dinghy, and set off on what turned out to be a gruelling 128km sea journey across the Adriatic.
“Without any navigational aids or maps, we landed at the village Vieste on the Monte Gargano Peninsula – the nearest Italian landfall – two-and-a-half days later. It was a rough journey. We ran out of water and food. We were very lucky to survive.”
But they weren’t yet ‘free’.
Just as it is today, claiming refugee status was a fraught undertaking, with the unfortunate possibility of repatriation. After a stint in the Cremona Refugee Camp near Milan, they escaped across the border to France stumbling in to the French village of Menton. From nearby Nice they caught a train to Paris, and by the end of 1959, Nick had been granted political asylum. At the Citroen assembly plant in Paris, he began what was to became a long career in automotive panel work, working on the famous 2CV .
“Algeria’s struggle for independence was making France an unpleasant place to live in,” recalls Nick. “So with the help of a sponsor, I emigrated to Perth, and then moved to Sydney where he worked in the Holden Assembly Plant.”
In Sydney, he met his Kiwi wife-to-be, Maureen.
Nick and Maureen came back to New Zealand in 1960. Nick took up panelbeating roles in Auckland, before settling in for a career at Dominion Motors (which was to become New Zealand Motor Corporation and then Honda).
It was at his workplace at the corner of Broadway and Alpers Avenue where he and his workmate, rugby league player Tony Kriletich, ‘discovered’ bowls … just up the road at the Carlton Bowling Club. “We were invited down to have a drink and have a go,” says Nick, “and it just went on from there.”
Nick loved the game. And still loves the game as much today.
In those 30+ years, he’s collected 17 Club titles, 5 Centre titles and one National title. He’s effectively only ever been at one club – Carlton amalgamated with Cornwall to become his current Carlton Cornwall Club. He’s been on the committee ever since he offered his services 5 years after he started the game – when he thought he might by then have something to offer. He became President of Carlton Cornwall 6 years ago, and stayed in the job for an unprecedented 4 year term. Nick’s now a Life Member.
Meantime his wife Maureen has never played the game. Nor have his 4 kids and 8 grandkids.
That hasn’t stopped Nick from being involved in the game that even at the age of 80; he’s dead keen on getting people involved. “Maureen’s been highly supportive … whether it’s been bowls, running or table tennis.”
“I look down the road at the table tennis stadium on Gillies Avenue,” observes Nick, “When I played competitively 40 years ago, it was all Europeans playing. Now the sport’s dominated by Asians. There’s no reason bowls couldn’t also attract these new ethic communities in Auckland.”
Nick’d be right. After all if it’s good enough for he and his fellow Croatians to pick up a bowl and run with it, then why not other communities as well?
*Croatian New Zealand National title holders
Nick Unkovich (10)
Peter Sain (7)
Ivan Kostanich (3)
Ivan Marsic (2)
Wally Marsic (2)
Nino Vlahovich (1)
Nick Krajancic (1)
Ivan Zonich (1)
Nick Grgicevich (1)