‘Totally Driven’: Dawson fires on all cylinders in national pairs
The Bowls England National Championships offered just about everything to the large audiences of spectators and supporters, but the highlight of many memorable matches was the men’s pairs final. Described by many of its enthralled viewers as “the best final to ever grace the greens of Leamington”, it saw two of the country’s top skips in strategic combat. John Rednall catches up with Leicestershire and England’s Joe Dawson.
Essex’s prolific national title winner, Ed Morris and his partner, Steve Gunnell held match and title lie on more than one occasion only to be denied by the most astonishingly accurate drive from the Leicestershire ace.
The match had everything: well set up heads from the leads, pinpoint drawing to save and to add, delightful trails and some of the best conversion shots you could ever see. Emotions ran as fast as Dawson’s trophy-clinching drive and it was indeed a shame that either pair had to lose. Morris had to admit that it would take time to come to terms with the disappointment of holding game with one bowl to come, while Nick Wardle and Joe Dawson could hardly express their delight at lifting the men’s pairs championship at their first attempt.
Reflecting on becoming national champions, Joe told me: “This is our first year playing together as Nick has only just joined Kingscroft from New Lount, but he has played in my county rink for ten years. Nick is very passionate about the sport; he only leads and has done so for many years for Leicestershire. He leads very well and tactically, he gives me the opportunity to play my style of game, the freedom to play the shots most partners wouldn’t support and he brings out the best in my ability.”
Had they anticipated a successful run? Had they thought about winning the much-coveted title when they set foot on the early season greens in their county pairs?
“I had a thought that Nick and I would be capable of winning the national title at some point in the future but never imagined it would be in our first year together. Throughout the early rounds, we dominated games and had been consistent throughout; we looked comfortable until Leamington and then things definitely got harder. The final was probably the most challenging and mentally draining game I’ve ever been in. The standard from both pairs was extremely high and I imagine it was as intense for the crowd to watch as it was to play in.”
I asked Joe what went through his mind as he stood on the mat, match lie down with one bowl left.
“I knew what I had to do and had been very successful and consistent with my driving throughout Leamington. I was just telling myself not to miss. I made up my mind to try to flick the opponents’ shot bowl off the jack. As soon as it left my hand, I knew I was close.”
I have witnessed Joe’s exceptional drive in the Balcomb Trophy a few years ago when he saved the match with a total wipeout, and at England trials and I have to say that I fully endorsed the international selectors to pick him straight in at skip in what would have been his England debut year. To me, Joe is one of those rarities whose touch play is equally as good as his power-play. He can draw equally as well as he can drive. He has the versatility of a world-class skip and plays like many of the top Scottish skips: fearless and confident. He has a presence and aura on the rink and the stature that reflects his local rugby-playing career.
Joe continued: “It was amazing to be selected to skip for England back in 2018 and I was gutted just after Covid struck that the format of international bowls changed but I am thankful to have kept my spot in the new format and was able to compete up in Scotland earlier this year. You get less injuries in bowls than rugby……unless you’re on the receiving end of one of my drives!”
Where did the drawing ability come from? And has the big drive become his trademark?
Joe explained: “I used to play front end at my club for many years, and even more at county level before moving up the order. I am also a firm believer that everyone should learn the basics of the game and play front end for many years. Things at grass roots level in clubs have definitely changed since I started and you see so many new players going straight to the back-end when they are definitely not ready. As far as my driving becoming a trademark, it’s definitely a shot I’m known for. I do practise it a lot in roll ups, but mainly indoors as outdoor ditches don’t last very long!”
So what is the secret of his expertise with the full-blooded drive?
“I try not to overthink it; I always pick a spot before even approaching the mat. Sometimes, I try to calm the pace down a bit for consistency and it’s not so often that I go full out.”
ALL FIRED UP
Love it or loathe it, the high velocity firing shot is an essential feature in the repertoire of any player. The all-time greats, past and current have perfected the drive and I have been fortunate, (or unfortunate) to play against some of the best power players in the sport. I remember playing against New Zealand’s Peter Bellis in the 1989 Indoor World Singles on television. Not only did he fire my bowls off the jack but actually struck one of my bowls so hard it leapt off the portable rink and hid itself under the scaffolding of the tiered seating in the auditorium. Another trademark power-player, Andy Walters cut my inch short front toucher off the jack to win the final of the Bowls England national singles at Worthing in the last year that the finals were held there.
I remember watching Robert Newman and Andy Thomson MBE practising their firing technique at open jacks in our Commonwealth Games training and it was amazing how many bare jacks they hit, such was the precision of their technique.
Some say firing should be banned and spoils the sport, however, I remember the gasps of excitement when the legendary David Bryant CEB raised his bowling arm to its firing stance. The gasps were similar at Leamington and, in my opinion, the game was enhanced by killed ends instead of re-spots.
In my humble opinion, if we are to make the sport more ‘dynamic’ and more appealing to newcomers and to spectators; if we want to draw crowds and create the buzz of excitement around the greens, we need noise, enthusiasm, emotion and colour. Many of the various team kits were nicely flamboyant this year at Leamington and team events saw enormous levels of enthusiasm, motivation, encouragement and high decibel celebrations: all features that make the sport exciting and dynamic. The Aviva marketing looked stunning around the greens; the venue looked sporty and modern. Well done, Bowls England. Many people found the music during play a positive feature and was almost as popular as the food on offer in the fan zone.
At Potters and at some football matches we have pyrotechnics to hype up the atmosphere and introduce the players as they take to the arena. Maybe that will come outdoors and the unfairly stayed, serene but very negatively-stereotypical image of our sport will change for the better. But we don’t need to waste money on pyrotechnics; surely we have our own metaphorical fireworks on the rink as jacks go flying up into the air and out of the rink. The tension rises, the crowd gasps in anticipation and bowls go everywhere. Spectators love it!
‘Dawson’s Drives’ became a feature on social media and rightfully so. We are far more likely to recruit juniors and adults if we showcase the full repertoire of shots and emotions.
AIMS, AMBITIONS AND ASPIRATIONS
I asked Joe what his aspirations are for the future?
He replied: “After narrowly missing out on the Bowls England national singles three times, I would finally love to get over the line and I would love to represent England at higher international levels in the future. I definitely give a 100% in every game.
Outdoors can be challenging sometimes with ever-changing weather and some of the bad greens can be testing but I always try to overcome the obstacles.”
Joe has been the greenkeeper at Kingscroft for about eight years and having played on that green, I know how brilliant it is. He is gradually taking on more greens and would love to work full time as a greenkeeper.
Joe has recently become husband to Rhea and has a bowling stepson.
He fully appreciates the support he receives from his family, friends, clubmates and Leicestershire colleagues.
The future looks good for this highly-talented player. More titles will certainly Joe’s way….. and not just because he can drive well. He is the whole package.
Caption: Joe Dawson. Credit: Bowls England/My Sports Photography
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