There may still be a general perception that bowls is a sport for retired folk, but in reality that is far from the truth.

The selection of three bowlers aged under 23 in the New Zealand women's team at the 2014 Commonwealth Games was a clear sign of the changing face of the game. Nationwide there is an increase in younger bowlers that is crucial to the sport's future.

It is not an old person's sport. It might be seen as that, but it definitely is not.

In Tauranga the Gate Pa Bowling Club has been the driving force behind encouraging school students to take up bowls over the last decade.

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That dedication from club coaches Peter Smale and Stan Brown is paying off, with some outstanding performances from young bowlers who learned their craft on the immaculate Gate Pa greens, across the road from Tauranga's iconic Battle of Gate Pa site.

Stefan McCartain, 19, won the New Zealand Under-21 Kittyhawks singles title at the nationals held in Christchurch over Easter weekend. Anthony Ouellet, 14, from Tauranga Boys' College won the BOP Secondary Schools singles title and the Top Overall Lawn Bowl Champion trophy, while Jordan Gilby, 14, (lead) and Dannika Worthington, 14, (skip) from Tauranga Girls' College finished runners-up in the pairs competition against older opponents.

McCartain and other young Gate Pa members Andre Hudson, Nathan Arlidge, Nick Tomsett, Bevan Coleman and Alex Reed have been selected to play for Bay of Plenty rep teams this season.

McCartain hopes his national title will be a key step to reaching his goals.

"It means a lot because the under-21 Kittyhawks is the pathway to the under-25 Blackjacks development team. So that is my goal for next season - to keep winning centre stuff or try my best to - and I want to make that team by the end of next season," he said.

McCartain got into bowls at Tauranga Boys' after a serious knee injury ended his soccer playing days.

"Gate Pa's helped me a lot. Obviously with Stan [Brown] coming over from South Africa as an international coach, he has helped me just strengthen my game, taught me a lot more about the mental side and how your behaviour says a lot about how you play. So keep calm, playing the percentage shots.

"I pretty much wouldn't be here today without Gate Pa's support over the last six years through the coaches."


For Ouellet, the support from Gate Pa members has also been a huge help in his development.

"There are so many friendly people here at Gate Pa. They are so supportive, with the small things and the big things. Stan knows a lot and just loves the game. He likes to bring juniors here for the future," he said.

New Zealand under-21 Kittyhawks singles title winner Stefan McCartain practises at the Gate Pa club. Photo/John Borren
New Zealand under-21 Kittyhawks singles title winner Stefan McCartain practises at the Gate Pa club. Photo/John Borren

"It is not a sport on the rise at Tauranga Boys' but we are trying to fix that, obviously."

Tauranga Girls' student Worthington said the mental challenge of the sport was what she loved most about bowls.

"It is not a physical sport but it is a good way to relax with the stress of being at school and the stress of other sports and everything else. It is very competitive as well and you get to meet so many new people. It is not an old person's sport. It might be seen as that, but it definitely is not."

NEARLY 10 years ago club stalwart Peter Smale realised the untapped potential of recruiting bowlers from nearby Tauranga Girls' and Tauranga Boys' Colleges, with Aquinas College a little further up the road.

"We got lucky early on with Cameron Higgins and Nick Tomsett who won the New Zealand secondary schoolboys' lawn bowls pairs title. Cameron won it again the following year with a new partner [Thomas Eminson] so it was the first time it has been won back-to-back by a school," Smale said.

"The next year Taylor Duncan and Nathan Arlidge made the final and nearly made it three titles back-to-back for Tauranga Boys' and there have been others come through as well.

"I started coaching Stefan [McCartain] when he was Year 10 at Tauranga Boys' and he was like most of these kids that just show so much potential straight away basically. It is a natural thing for them but it is just whether they want to apply themselves to the sport.

"A lot of young ones think it is an old person's game but when they get here and start getting involved they realise it is a very technical game and there is a lot to it. You need to be reasonably fit to play it as well."

When renowned coach Stan Brown arrived from South Africa seven years ago, the impetus really kicked in for the youth development programme.

"The success we have had means we are making a huge impact on bowls in this area. Everyone is taking a good look and saying those youngsters from here are really creaming it," Brown said.

"Gate Pa is just a block away from girls' college and we haven't attracted enough yet but now these two young girls [Jordan and Dannika] are going to be champions.

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"The boys' college has been good with [teacher] Andrew Ferguson in charge, who has been getting the boys here. Once we have got them here, to coach them is no problem. We are available every Friday afternoon from 3 o'clock until 5.30 and if youngsters want to come from other schools that's great."

MEMBERSHIP numbers at many bowling clubs have dropped in recent times, with Gate Pa no exception.

The rapid expansion of retirement villages with their own bowling greens has hit the clubs hard, but Gate Pa is not sitting back waiting for the inevitable.

Brown said the club decided to be pro-active about attracting new members.

"We thought it is better to look into our own future so we are making the decision 'what is going to happen. This could really become a club for young people, for the under-35s, and a real asset to the community."