Bowls: Young Maori players defy bowls' staid image

Shannon McIlroy, the Gisborne teenager who created one of the big talking points at this week's national bowls championships by doing so well in the singles, is already eyeing a semi-professional career in Australia.

McIlroy, who left Lytton High School at the end of last year and who turned 18 last Wednesday, says he has been signed to join the Mulgrave Hills club in Queensland where as well as playing he will work in the clubhouse bar and do a business studies course.

Mulgrave is the club where the former New Zealand singles and pairs champion Brian Baldwin is now a leading player.

The prodigious talent of McIlroy, which has been nurtured through Bowls New Zealand's collegiate development system, won't be lost to this country.

"I'll always be a Kiwi and will be coming back to play in events like the nationals," he says.

The national secondary schools champion for the past three years, McIlroy was noted by the Australians when he won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth youth games late last year.

In making the quarter-finals at the national singles McIlroy made history and upstaged some of the outstanding players who in the past have achieved remarkable deeds as youngsters.

But when they were winning their national honours Phil Skoglund snr, Kerry Clark, Rowan Brassey, Gary Lawson and in more recent years Justin Goodwin and Jamie Hill were all in their 20s.

McIlroy is already a relative veteran in the sport.

He jokes that he has long since quit junior ranks, having first played the game when he accompanied his dad to his local Gisborne club when he was seven or eight.

And he points out that teenagers excelling in bowls is not uncommon in Australia. "One of the guys I've played against is only 16 but has been playing since he was four," he says.

McIlroy, however, does not subscribe to any view that the game is undergoing a youth takeover. "Some things still only come with experience," he says. "The big thing about bowls is that it is a game for all ages."

Not that McIlroy has made bowls his only sport, up until now at least.

"Rugby's the national sport and I've played a lot of rugby and touch," he says.

He is, indeed, the second cousin of another two of Gisborne's recent sporting products, the Gear brothers - Rico, an All Black three-quarters last year, and Hosea.

McIlroy was in the Lytton High School first XV for three years as either a fullback or first five-eighths.

McIlroy is half-Maori and typifies a the booming involvement in top-level bowls of Maori.

Besides McIlroy there have been the Khan sisters, Jan and Marina, Manawatu's Desire Lambert, a niece of the All Black prop of the 1970s, Kent, South Canterbury's Matu Frankum, Bay of Plenty's Mina Paul and Pere Paul and Mark Hall, Kerry Chapman and Northlander Rihai Whaikawa who did well in the singles, too.

"It's good that Maori are playing and showing we can play other sports besides rugby and league," McIlroy says.

"Bowls is not only a good game for people of all ages but also for all people."

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