Matt Heath: The indignity of a lawn bowls injury


“Bones heal, chicks dig scars,” – Lance Murdoch.

Some injuries earn you respect. Evel Knievel’s crushed pelvis attempting to jump the fountains at Ceasar Palace, Charles Upham’s shoulder injury fighting the Nazis in Crete and who could forget Buck Shelford’s downstairs destruction in Nantes. Other injuries aren’t so heroic, such as straining my back playing lawn bowls in central Auckland last weekend.

You don’t have to be a badass athlete to succeed at lawn bowls.There are, of course, badasses who play. Take Grizz Wyllie and Sir Francis Drake.

In 1588, Drake delayed launching the English fleet to counter the invading Spanish because he was playing lawn bowls. Legend has it, he calmly stated: “There will be time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards.”

Badass or not, bowls is all about focus and skill. That’s why I didn’t take safety into account when I entered the Year One Tournament at the Balmoral Bowling Club last weekend. There was no stretching, binding or liniment. I didn’t bring a masseuse. Ending up at the Auckland Radiology Group came as a big surprise.

In my defence, I played for five hours that day. By 2.30pm, I’d performed 200 ball release lunges, made four trips to the bar, slammed three bangers and applied sun lotion twice.

All this put severe pressure on my spine. After losing in the semi, something didn’t feel right between lumbars L3 and L4. I had to act fast, so I downed two more beers, a cup of tea, another sausage, a chocolate chip biscuit and called an Uber.

Something clicked in my lower back as I climbed out of the cab. I screamed the c-word and hobbled up the stairs to bed. I’m still walking around like a 150-year-old man a week later.

In an attempt to get healthy, I’ve been to the doctor, gobbled painkillers and mounted an investigation into how many people get injured playing lawn bowls. I was hoping to find out the game is more dangerous than we think. Spoiler: it isn’t.

According to Sports Medicine Australia, lawn bowls is a precision sport and a great way for people to develop their skills and coordination. Despite the sport being non-contact, injuries can and do occur. In 2016, 37 people were admitted to hospitals while eight people visited emergency departments for lawn bowls-related injuries. Common causes of injuries are falls, overexertion, repetitive bowling movements and being struck by a bowl. Some players fall backwards over bowls, step forward into the ditch; or deliver a bowl with incorrect balance. Most injuries happen to players over 75.

It would seem I am not alone in injuring myself on the greens. However, I may be the youngest person to do it for a while.

There’s plenty to love about lawn bowls. It’s skilful, fun, and the beer is cheap. It’s also a great beginner’s sport. Anyone can roll a ball 30 metres. Consistency is the hard part. You can roll up straight away and then spend a lifetime improving.

In recent years (when not shut down by Covid restrictions), social bowls has grown in New Zealand, bringing younger people into the game. In Australia, it’s huge, with 500,000 registered players and many more casual rollers.

Its success has a lot to do with the social nature of the sport. You have time to chat with your opponent while you play. You have even more time to chat with them at the bar afterwards. Most clubs have excellent volunteers and members to show you the ropes and make you feel welcome. There are so many great clubs around New Zealand. Everyone should give it a go.

The X-rays came back, and my spine is fine. Just a pulled muscle. Probably during one of my heroic match-winning flukes. My recovery won’t take long, but the shame of ending up bedridden after a lawn bowls incident may linger. I should shut up and not tell anyone.

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