Road bowling in Ireland needs more meaningful competitions

Ireland in 1954 was a very different place to the Ireland of today, yet we are still using the same blueprint to conduct our national bowling championships
Road bowling in Ireland needs more meaningful competitions

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE: Young boys enjoy a game of road bowling in an Irish country lane in the 1940s. We are still using the same blueprint for our national bowling championships as we did in 1954. Pic: Three Lions/Getty Images

Ireland in 1954 was a very different place to the Ireland of today, yet we are still using the same blueprint to conduct our national bowling championships.

Rural electrification was more or less where the national broadband rollout is today. Bowling itself was primarily played on roads that were not tarred. The emergence of the new hard surfaced super-highways, to many afficionados, seemed certain to end road bowling. It survived and thrived of course and went through a new golden age, the age of Mick Barry. He in his way did for bowling in Ireland what Tiger Woods did for golf globally.

At 68 perhaps it’s time to offer a graceful retirement to the venerable old championship, or at the very least to consider a new role for it. Normally this type of reflection is associated with December rather than October, but as the bowling calendar has been accelerated two months this year, now might be the moment to at least consider a new road for the elite levels of bowling.

It is no surprise that the founders of Ból-Chumann na hÉireann looked to the GAA when they were designing their championships. The concept of Munster, Ulster and All-Ireland championships were highly successful and resonated with the public. Back then the GAA operated a straight knockout system. A relatively small number of counties prospered and many others had infrequent, sporadic or no success at all.

When we look back at the championship of 2022, a very small number of the senior men had a meaningful season. Approximately half lose each year in the first score, by round two only a quarter are still standing. At least one recent former champion got no day out at all. For the rest of the year some players got more competition, but some got virtually none.

Elite women bowlers had even fewer days in the sun. Some of the lucky men and men won places on the Irish team, so that helped a little. Very few fully open competitions were available to elite bowlers. Even back in his heyday, Mick Barry complained too about not having enough chances to compete. He only managed several big competitions most years as he was the best and could win his way through championship on a regular basis.

Maybe bowling needs to acknowledge that it is more like golf, tennis, athletics, boxing, cycling and even formula one than it is to team based sports like hurling and football. Could it introduce a system that better reflects the need to give individual elite players more opportunities to play in meaningful competitions? Could it have a points or a ranking system, like Formula One?

Both the Netherlands and Germany have what they term the Champions Tour. Here their elite bowlers take part in a predetermined series of competitions, through which they accumulate points. The person with the highest points is deemed the national champion.

Like in Formula One, there is a great prestige in winning individual rounds. A bit like winning a stage in Tour de France. In the end there is only one winner of the war, but several winners of individual battles and above all else every player is guaranteed a full calendar of activities. In horse and greyhound racing the competitions themselves are graded. There is no reason why bowling could not adopt a similar system.

Already there are a whole range of really excellent competitions that could be graded. The current provincial and national championships could be allocated points that reflect their prestige and standing. Every elite player should be guaranteed a minimum number of graded competitions each year. Like the Dutch and Germans do, each player could select say their top seven or ten results to decide their national ranking.

However bad the situation is for the elite men, elite women have even less opportunities to compete and to improve. We have an exciting generation of young bowlers that advanced to a very high level during Covid-19. Now is the time to seize the moment, to shake up the championship structure, give them opportunities to take on the older generation and give the sporting public a chance to see road bowling at its best.

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