Resurrecting bowls’ oldest tournament in New Zealand : The Challenge Cup

April 6, 2023

When the New Plymouth Bowling Club was established way back in 1885, there wasn’t a lot of bowls being played in New Zealand.  In fact, the only other club in the North Island was in Auckland’s Grafton Gully … the Auckland Bowling Club which had been around since 1861.

The New Zealand Bowling Association wasn’t formed until 1886, and the then existing 12 clubs in New Zealand didn’t start playing national competitions until 1891.

But early on, It must’ve quickly become a matter of provincial pride as to who had the ‘best’ bowling club in the North Island.

So the ‘Challenge Cup’ was conceived as a competition between Auckland and New Plymouth, and first played for in New Plymouth in 1886.

That must’ve been a big call.

Travel between Auckland and New Plymouth was by sailing ship … it was a long way to go just for a bowling tournament … and took a long time .. perhaps a week each way.

Overland was out of the question.  There was no State Highway 3.  In fact there was only a horse track between Awakino and Mokau which wasn’t widened to take a horse and cart until 1897.  The first car didn’t make it through until 1905, and even then some of the route required horse-drawn assistance along the beach.

“Despite the difficulties, the Challenge Cup was played for in 1886 and again the following year,” says Patron of the Auckland Bowling Club, Greame Scott.  “It was in Auckland in 1887, and back in New Plymouth in 1888.  New Plymouth won on all three occasions.”

For whatever reasons, the challenges stopped for a few years.  And it wasn’t until 1912, that the idea of playing the challenge was revived again.

“They must’ve been serious,” says Greame.  “Because both clubs contributed £6 towards the creation of a solid silver trophy mounted on a greenstone base.  It’d be worth a few bob today!”

“The trophy was played for in 1913, 1914 and 1915, and on each occasion, New Plymouth won.  Winning three years in a row, meant that New Plymouth retained the trophy.”

Challenges stopped (probably because of the first world war), and the trophy was largely forgotten about.  Until last year.

“We got wind of the Challenge Cup,” says Nenad Rajic, President of the Auckland Bowling Club.  “So we caught up with New Plymouth last year and challenged them for the cup.  They accepted.”

More than one hundred years later, in January this year in New Plymouth, the Challenge Cup was played for once again.

“We flew down to New Plymouth for the weekend with our Four of Phil Robottom (lead), myself at two, Glenn Newton (three) and Leif Selby (skip).  It was a great weekend … the bowls were challenging (we came away with the win) and the hospitality was superb.”

“They had a very competitive team … Graeme Earl (lead), Gordon Brown (two), Basil Newland (three) and skip, Richard Helms.  Unfortunately Basil had to be substituted after the third end by an equally worthy replacement, Tobin Hori.”

However, the win didn’t mean that Auckland lifted the Challenge Cup.

“It’s a bit like the Bledisloe Cup … the current conditions of play mean that we have to win three times in a row,” explains Greame.  “Having said that, the President of the New Plymouth Bowling Club, Grayson McElboney, was gracious enough to allow us to ‘borrow’ the trophy for a while!”

“We’ve also agreed new on-going conditions of play.  It’ll be competed for every second year on a home and away basis … the next challenge will be in Auckland in 2025.”

“It’ll still be Fours … and we’ll still have to win three time in a row to lift the trophy.  But we’ve got one win under our belt now!”