The Prodigal Son of New Zealand lawn bowls is back after 10 years in the wilderness.
Gary Lawson's recall to the New Zealand team for the Asia-Pacific Championships in June – exactly 10 years since the infamous Asia-Pacific Championships of 2009 that led to his exile – is fattened calf of the Biblical story. But unlike the parable, where the father was always ready for the son's return – it's fair to say the door at Bowls NZ was tightly shut no matter how many times Lawson knocked.
Convinced his fate was sealed – so certain that his long-standing differences with former chief executive Kerry Clark and the wider organisation were irredeemable, Lawson last year announced his retirement.
"I want to say that's it's been a dream but I've woken up and it's time to say goodbye – after I play for Canterbury in a couple of weeks the Gazman is retired - Gems Donna I'm all yours. To the great men I've played for, god thank you so much ... To the people I despise thank you for making me a hard bastard ... To my family and best friends, god I've been a tough trip ah ... sorry."
That Facebook post, if it had been the end, was Lawson's career in a nutshell. A confrontational, aggressive player; a larrikin Kiwi bloke who loved a beer and too often brushed up against the law – the actual law as well as the lawn bowls hierarchy. The so-called bad boy of New Zealand bowls.
Lawson says the retirement decision came when he missed selection for the Commonwealth Games – the first major event in the post-Clark era.
"I was disappointed when I missed out on the 2018 Commonwealth Games team," Lawson tells the Herald on Sunday . "I'd won three New Zealand titles in 12 months and felt my form was pretty good – I felt like I had done enough and it was nine years at that stage since I last played for New Zealand. I felt we needed to bury the hatchet … but it didn't feel like it was going to happen.
"And I didn't want to put the effort in if I couldn't play for New Zealand – to be competitive at the top level you need to put a lot of time into it and I felt like I didn't want to put that effort in if the carrot of New Zealand selection wasn't there. Retiring was a kind of rush of blood but over the next couple of months a few people spoke to me and I thought 'I've got too much offer and playing well so it's a dumb time to do it'."
Rush of blood, dumb thing to do – there he is again, summing up the kind of choices that tend to get him offside with officials.
There's no denying Lawson's image as a bad boy was well-earned. Outside the rink there were three drink-driving offences and another late-night episode involving a taxi driver in Wellington. That led to a highly-publicised court case in which Lawson was found not guilty of an assault charge. But many remember the accusation rather than the acquittal.
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On the green, the incident that led to Lawson's decade as an outcast has morphed into complicated house of mirrors narrative with no certainty around the truth – though on reflection even the worst accusations thrown at Lawson could be interpreted as little more than cunning sportsmanship.
A New Zealand four skipped by Lawson was on its way to beating Thailand in a group match at the Asia-Pacific Championships in Malaysia. After a brief rain delay, New Zealand lost the penultimate end in a manner that suggested they'd done so deliberately.
They went on to lose the match but qualified for post-section play.
The argument for deliberately losing the end – presented as the initial defence of the four – was to help Thailand get a better points differential and help New Zealand avoid Australia in the knock-out stages. They didn't intend to lose the match but Thailand fluked a win off a ricochet.
Either way, the result meant Canada missed out on post-section play and they protested the Kiwi tactics.
The "deliberate loss to get a better draw" argument is not a lot different to the time New Zealand cricket captain Stephen Fleming admitted deliberately losing a tri-series match to South Africa in 1999 in order to try to eliminate Australia from the final. In that instance, Fleming was lauded for his clever thinking. Lawson was flayed.
Leaked reports from a closed-doors hearing suggested Lawson did a plea bargain with Bowls NZ, copping a strong punishments – a six month ban and $5000 fine – as long as his young teammates, including rising star Shannon McIlroy, were still eligible for selection.
While the nub of the investigation was around deliberately losing one end, the story of "match-fixing" in bowls went global and Lawson was forever tarred with that ignominious brush – including a chapter in the book Foul Play: The Dark Arts of Cheating in Sport by Mike Rowbottom.
At the time Lawson was adamant that Bowls NZ chief executive Kerry Clark didn't like him and had it in for him – and didn't hesitate to say so, along with offering other critiques of the organisation.
Like a couple stuck in a bad marriage, Lawson and Bowls NZ co-habited on a domestic level but the romance was gone – and six months turned into nine years of non-communication.
When Clark retired in June 2017, Lawson saw a window open at the previously locked Bowls NZ headquarters but when his hopes were dashed with non-selection for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, Lawson figured he was done – that he'd never back – and announced his retirement.
Gary Lawson is a competitive bugger. He had great success in tennis and rugby but bowls was in his DNA – albeit a DNA that made sure he was too small for rugby to get a real hold of him.
His first taste of bowls was going down to watch his father, Stan, on the weekends.
"While the old fellas were having a few beers, we'd chuck a few down … mum would come and pick us up at 9 o'clock," Lawson recalls.
He was good player as a youngster – earning age-group selection for New Zealand indoor teams – but at the age of 12, tennis lured him away. He played at senior club level and represented Canterbury in age-group contests. "I played at quite a few national tennis events – I never won any of them but was reasonably handy."
Racquets gave way to rucks when he was 18 and he joined the Merivale-Papanui club in Christchurch – eventually playing senior rugby at first five-eighth and fullback.
"I played one year of senior rugby for Merivale-Papanui in 1985 but I was a bit small and got bashed up a bit.
"I like to tell people that in consecutive weeks I marked Wayne Smith, Stephen Bachop, and Greg Coffey – I also played against Steve Hansen – it was a good era of rugby in Canterbury."
He counts Hansen as a good friend, Smith too – despite an unusual introduction. After Lawson's team had been thrashed by Smith's Belfast in a club match where Smith was at his All Blacks-level best, Lawson ventured into the rival dressing room for a beer and to congratulate his opposite No 10, telling him he'd been "brilliant" that day. "He said 'Thanks … what position did you play?'."
"After that I knew I wasn't going to be an All Black so I thought I'd focus on a sport where I could represent New Zealand – and that was bowls."
Lawson's return to bowls in the late-80s coincided with the twilight of his father's career. Stan had won the national singles title in 1968 but lost another final in 1978.
"He was a major part in me playing bowls but he never pushed me – he was always just supportive – I loved going to watch him. I spent many Sundays watching him play with his mates. I always knew it was a sport I'd come back to and a sport I'd like to represent New Zealand in."
Father and son paired up in 1990 for a tilt at another national title for Stan but lost the national pairs final.
Stan died seven years ago. "He had emphysema – he smoked a lot," his son says matter-of-factly.
By the time Stan passed away he'd watched his son rack up a series of national titles, as well two world titles on the same day in 2008, the pairs and fours, in his home town of Christchurch.
Lawson's other sporting passion is horse racing. He's a keen owner and was married to Jude Lawson, a top jockey who suffered serious head injuries in a fall at Rangiora in 2006. It was a testing time for the family – they had a young daughter Gemma – and the marriage didn't survive the trauma of that serious injury, although the pair are still good friends.
Lawson ascribes his multi-sport success to a simple fact: "I just love winning."
Ultra-competitive or a hot-head? Where you stand probably determines what you make of Gary Lawson. He was never the epitome of a genteel lawn bowler.
But he's happy to look at himself in the mirror and understand his own role in making himself an outlaw.
"I've given people some ammunition – I've overdone the partying and made mistakes.
"If I look back on it honestly – if I was the kind of person who said nothing and went with the flow I'd have played more games for New Zealand than anyone else. But the fact is I did things wrong, I was too outspoken, but I also felt the door was shut at Bowls NZ and I was banging my head against a brick wall. Maybe I could have done things differently, but I doubt I would have got different results. In the end I probably only crucified myself.
"It's no secret Kerry Clark and myself didn't see eye to eye and everyone thinks it's a personal thing – but seriously it was never that personal, I just thought he wasn't running the game properly – it was about ideology. If he'd done things right the game would have been more professional and there would have been more money for the players."
Lawson's first inkling of a change in the bias at Bowls NZ came with a phone call from new chief executive Mark Cameron who urged Lawson to reconsider this decision to retire.
"When Gary announced his retirement I don't think even Gary believed himself when he said that – and not many of us did," Cameron says. "We knew he was passionate about lawn bowls – and someone with that level of passion just doesn't give it away. What he needed was just a word to say 'hey mate, there's light at the end of the tunnel, there is a pathway…"
Cameron says it's not his place to relitigate the past but he's adamant Lawson's return to the national lineup for the Asia-Pacific Championships in Australia is based purely on recent performance.
"I can't comment on the previous nine years and I won't. All I can say is that the in past 18 months Gary's won gold in the pairs and fours at 2018 national championships, and at this year's national champs, while he didn't win he was one of the best performers overall, in all disciplines.
"So, it's very hard to deny someone who has performed consistently well through that 18-month period. Selection should ultimately be about performance – whilst you're always aware of culture you're trying to establish you want the best bowlers, the best athletes, to be playing."
And Cameron was careful not to overplay Lawson's comeback – noting Jamie Hill also returns after a 10-year absence. It's perhaps no coincidence that Hill was also part of the Lawson-skipped four at the 2009 Asia-Pacific Championship. But at the same time, Cameron understands Lawson's profile.
"If you were go to people on the street and say 'name me a New Zealand bowler' – I'd say Jo Edwards would be number one, maybe, and Gary would be a close second even though he hasn't played for New Zealand for 10 years. It is a good story – there is a chequered past there and it's not for me to go into those details but the guy absolutely deserves to be out there on the green."
Even before he was picked for New Zealand again, Lawson – after years of criticising the establishment – was glowing in his praise of the new organisation, noting Cameron was a "great communicator who listens to people".
"I hadn't been in the Bowls NZ office in 10 years," Lawson says, "and without wanting to blow smoke up anyone's backside when I walked in there it was a different place, there was a real vibrancy there and the people actually like the game and want it to go better – they want the game to be good. Kerry Clark was there for too long – he was the CEO for 20 years and the game got stale."
Stale is never a word you could apply to Lawson. He might be 54 but feels he's got plenty of years ahead of him, given the new motivation in front of him.
"When I got the call up to the high performance squad in January, it was almost like getting picked for the first time. I started training really hard – I'm working with personal trainer, trying to eat right and look after my body. I'm really confident I'm going to be ready to play well.
"I'm a better player when I'm fit – you make better decisions when you're fit. If you don't prepare well, you don't win – you hear the All Blacks talking about that and it's the same with our game."
And just as you can always be certain of the All Blacks' competitiveness, it's the same for Lawson, who has lost none of his desire to win.
"Am I competitive? I enjoy playing sport but it's always more enjoyable when you win."
Bowls NZ intends to take that competitive spirit and harness it – understanding that passion for winning is part of Lawson's personality, while also accepting its multi-faceted nature.
"Gary will have moments of Gary-ness where he might say the wrong thing and upset somebody," Cameron notes, "but sometimes we have to look beyond that and recognise people for the passion and competitiveness and abilities they bring to a team."