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Will bowls ever be fully integrated?

Not in my lifetime and probably not within anyone’s’ lifetime that is reading this. Why? Simple really, the sport just can’t reconcile itself to the fact that we can all play bowls as equals (writes David Corkill).

We have altogether far too many national governing bodies and differing county associations and the complexities are immense. This I can understand and it’s just a step too far for many if we are being honest about it.
For financial reasons, it does make sense. Having one clearly identified entity to administrate a country’s funding is simple and much easier for those that are handing out the money. But that is as far as it goes, or is it?
The NI Private Greens Association I play in during the summer months has for some years now allowed women, who are affiliated to the women’s association, to play in league matches and Irish Cup fixtures. This has not always gone down well in certain quarters, but it is essential if some clubs are to survive.
I can think of several clubs which would disappear or at the very least be close to closing if this was not the case. One or two need at least four or five women to play in what is seen as the men’s domain. If they couldn’t, those teams just wouldn’t be able to field 16 players.
What is important is for everyone to be aware of the potential of club closures if we don’t open the door a bit and change rules to enable survival by making the sport more open.
However, the reversal, that is men playing in women’s leagues, is of course, a little more complicated. Allowing men to play in the women’s teams has tested the little grey cells somewhat more as there are restrictions to this, and they are rather more stringent.
No point in going into those rules any further as they could change any time, but for now, they are not a mirror image of the rules attached to women in men’s teams. So, all is not equal even with the door opening to help clubs.
The next problem is how far can the sport go to enable integration to be fully achieved.
National and British Isles Championships are, for many bowlers, the very pinnacle of achievement. The chances of those being open to all will not happen. At least for now. Eventually, it could be tested but there are many that will fight it to the end to make sure it doesn’t, and they will have support for taking that stance.
Yes, the sport can be played on equal terms, but the history of women’s bowls shows it has been held back by the insistence of weekday leagues. This intransigent attitude has had a detrimental effect on recruitment and retention of women bowlers for decades. This is no doubt due to many social factors and probably a lack of foresight going back many years, but it needed to be changed to a cohesive scale at the highest level to enable those who couldn’t play mid-week to compete at the highest level at weekends. Of course, hindsight is 20-20 vision. But the decline in numbers over the years was a big warning and now I feel the train has left the station on that one.
I appreciate a certain amount of movement has taken place regarding evening bowls leagues but that has been localised and piecemeal at best. It needed to be much more formal and done with a degree of investment with a view to the future. As it is there are parts of the British Isles where women’s bowls is suffering to a point that some believe it will struggle to exist in the not too distant future. So, the move for women to play in men’s leagues could well be a saviour in more ways than one.
With this development established in Ireland, I am led to believe Wales have made moves in the same direction.
The next step may be to introduce a mixed British Isles Fours Championships. If all the home countries were to sign up, it could be the first step in the right direction.
There are many aspects to any real amalgamation and that is to ensure everyone is treated fairly and in an equitable manner. If women are playing in what was previously men’s leagues, they must be afforded the same consideration even if they are less in number.
It’s essential to have clear and transparent procedures in place for bowlers and clubs to be treated equally. It is probably a minefield of potential litigiousness for any bowls association and not every eventuality can be foreseen but I have no doubt bigger minds than mine are addressing the expanding issue of an integrated bowls world.
And change is often driven by necessity. Bowls as a sport is coming to a stage in its history that without a seismic shift in attitude and direction, clubs and numbers within will continue to suffer.

Caption: The Bowls England Tony Allcock Trophy is a mixed Over 55 competition, but will other competitions ever be open?
Credit: Bowls England/My Sports Photography

FOOTNOTE: Views expressed by David Corkill do not necessarily represent those of the team at Bowls International.

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