Think of bowls, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth Games and medals spring to mind. For Team NI through the decades, it has been a highly successful sport.
While the boxers top the rankings with 61 medals, bowls is next on the list with 20, though the latter missed out on podium places four years ago in Australia’s Gold Coast. Given the success of the past, it would be a blow if the same was to happen in 2022.
The Northern Ireland Men’s Pairs team of Martin McHugh and Sam Barkley had a chance to add to the tally at Leamington Spa yesterday but were hammered by Scottish greats Alex Marshall and Paul Foster 25-5 in the bronze medal match.
The duo were disappointed to lose but not disheartened, knowing there is still another chance in the Fours alongside Ian McClure and Adam McKeown to land a medal later in the week.
This is McHugh’s seventh Commonwealth Games having started out in Kuala Lumpur, winning gold with McClure in 1998. McClure is at his sixth Games and Gary Kelly, who beat Ryan Dixon from Norfolk Islands 21-12 in the Singles yesterday, is having his third experience of the multi-sports event.
The other male members of the bowls squad, Barkley and McKeown, are rookies, while all five female players, Megan Devlin (29), Courtney Meneely (27), Shauna O’Neill (22), Ashley Rainey (37) and Chloe Wilson (20), are making their debuts, lowering the average age of previous teams.
Before the Games, high performance coach Neil Booth spoke about the blend of youth and experience in the men’s team and changing the age profile of the women.
McHugh (49) is nothing but positive when relaying where he feels Northern Ireland bowls is at right now.
“I think bowls is the best it’s ever been in Northern Ireland with Neil Booth and Tommy Smith (coach) and the High Performance team and the amount of work that has gone in over the past few years,” said McHugh.
“There are a lot of good players back home that could have been here. We could have sent two teams equally as strong and that is very promising, though the girls who have been given their first opportunity at the Commonwealth Games deserve to be here, as do Sam and Adam.”
On the same topic from a female perspective, Meneely agrees and adds that the experience gained by the rookies here will benefit them in the future.
“It’s the best I’ve ever seen it,” stated Meneely.
“For the five of us it is our first time at the Commonwealth Games and we are thrilled. Our management has given us an amazing opportunity to have started us at such a young age. I think there is a plan in place to give us as much experience as possible and hopefully that will set us up for the next Commonwealth Games.
“We are trying to encourage the younger generation to come through and see bowls as a sport for all ages. I started when I was 11 and the other girls in the team started when they were a young age, and I’m trying to encourage my daughter, who is six, to get into it.”
With the Women’s Triples and Pairs teams still in action, on the prospect of winning medals, Meneely added: “We can definitely win medals. I feel we are pushing for medals and are just as good as the rest of them.”
McHugh believes it has become harder to finish in the top three with standards rising in recent years.
“There are no easy teams here. Each country has moved forward. They have all progressed. I first started in the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and the standard from there to now has risen 100 per cent,” he said.
Asked if this might be his last Games, McHugh stated: “I’m playing well enough and the body is still going. Once the body tells me no then that’ll be it, but I’m happy enough with my inner body and outer body and I want a medal here.”
Despite being crushed by the Scots in the bronze medal encounter, rookie Barkley is relishing his first taste of the big time.
“It has been an unbelievable experience. To get to this level, people dream of this. Fortunately I am here and grasping and loving every moment. Fingers crossed I will be at the Commonwealth Games again,” he stated.