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Para bowls history

After the success at the World Bowls Championships in Australia where the men picked up medals in each of the four disciplines for the first time ever and the ladies came back with a bronze in the triples, Irish bowls made history when they participated in their first ever para test matches.

A squad of 10 players travelled to Solihull to tackle England in the event which saw the Irish bowlers acquit themselves well and showed they can compete on the international stage.
Disability bowls coach Ian McClure, a double Commonwealth Games gold medallist, hopes the trip to the West Midlands was the first step in getting para bowlers to major tournaments with the objective over the next couple of years to get a team ready for hopefully the next Commonwealth Games and World Championships.
We spoke to Ian about his role and the para bowls set-up in Ireland.

BI: Tell me how you became involved as a disability bowls coach?
IM: Chris Mulholland and I have been involved in this area of disability bowls for a number of years now, especially working with those persons with a visual impairment. The Irish Bowls Federation has identified a ‘disability gap’ from our inaugural Club Engagement Survey 2021 in terms of club provision and membership. Furthermore, we are the only country within the UK, not to have representation at the Commonwealth Games or at the World Outdoor Championships. Considering our standing as a major player on the ‘global stage’, we need to have a plan in place to address this priority area.
Subsequently, the new IBF strategy A Sport For All 2023-2026 highlights our ambitions in this arena.
BI: How did it feel to be leading an Irish team in the first para bowls test match?
IM: Chris and I were appointed team managers for this inaugural test match against Disability Bowls England at Solihull IBC. After a series of open days across Ireland and assessment opportunities we finally settled upon our para team which consisted of four visually impaired and six physically disabled players from across Ireland. Our team was a real mixture of genders and abilities. For example, Paul Smyth has been capped 48 times for the Ireland’s senior men’s international side and on the other side of the coin we had three or four players who had been bowling for less than 12 months! For both Chris and I, it was a tremendous honour to be involved leading this Irish team and I must say very rewarding. It has been a long road to get to this point and we are now only at the beginning of a great journey. Saying all this, Steve Watson, Sue Davies and Judy Platter from DBE were fantastic to work in partnership with and nothing was ever too much trouble, which once again epitomises the fantastic goodwill within our sport. Other thanks are due to Sport NI, Belfast City Council, the Irish Bowls Federation, Irish Lawn Bowls and our shirt sponsor Elite SporT.ie

BI: What was your involvement at the test matches?
IM: We had a team of 10 players. However, within the para space you need plenty of additional support. Therefore, we had a support team of eight which included management, coaches, wheelchair pushers and directors for our visually impaired players. It was a really great learning curve for us both on and off the green. A few note pads were used during the weekend! Our high performance coach, Neil Booth, and Irish men’s assistant team manager Tommy Smith were also in attendance and this helps to transmit a positive message. My role at the test event was very hands on, co-ordination of team activities, coaching and general dogs body! It certainly was different for me.

BI: Tell me about the disability hubs which have been set up in Ireland?
IM: Approximately two years ago, the IBF commissioned a research piece to help identify best practice within the ‘PARA Space’ and to consider our geographical situation. As part of this research, we conducted in depth interviews qualitative interviews with key stakeholders including:
• Bowls Australia
• Bowls England
• Bowls Scotland
• Bowls Wales
• Disability Bowls England
• International Disability Bowls
• Disability NI

This provided us with a tremendous insight into this arena and helped us develop our evidence led action plan. We now have established two disability hubs (Belfast and Causeway) which meet on a weekly basis and are focussed on introducing new participants to our sport with a strong emphasis on social interaction.
To have a sustainable para model, it is vital that our grassroots hubs work in tandem with high performance.

BI: How have you got people involved?
IM: Developing partnerships has been key to recruiting new participants and breaking down barriers especially after COVID-19. Thankfully, we have a strong alliance with the RNIB across NI and this has proved to be mutually beneficial. We also have had a series of open/taster days at four venues across Ireland, However, there remains so much work to be done.

BI: What is the next step in getting para bowlers in Ireland to other tournaments?
IM: We have another test match scheduled for early May against Bowls Scotland at Northfield in Ayr.
So, we have not rested on our laurels and are determined to push ahead. It certainly is xciting times ahead for Irish bowls.

BI: Going forward, what is the ultimate aim for the future?
IM: The ultimate aims are to build a more positive, accessible and inclusive sports culture providing more opportunities for people with disabilities; increase participation levels at grassroots and high performance level; club integration is paramount to the success of our programme; having athletes represent Northern Ireland and Ireland at prestigious international events with a ‘one team’ ethos
in evidence.

Caption: The Irish team at Solihull IBC

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