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Bowls, pétanque and tenpin

by Lindsay Knight

Lawn bowls from England, pétanque from France and tenpin bowling from the United States – each is considered a thinking person’s game. People of all ages can play, and many people enjoy the thrill of competition as well as the social side of belonging to a club.

Lawn bowls: game, history and organisation

The game

Lawn bowls is played on a large rectangular grass or synthetic surface, called a bowling green, which is divided into parallel playing strips called rinks. The aim is to roll slightly asymmetric balls (bowls) closest to a smaller bowl called the ‘jack’ or ‘kitty’. The game can be played as singles (one player on each side) or in teams of two (pairs), three (triples) or four (fours). At the beginning of a game competitors flip a coin to see who wins the ‘mat’.

Pretty in pink?

Bowls were originally made from the dense wood lignum vitae – hence the term ‘woods’ for bowls. Most bowls are now made from hard plastic composite material, which has also expanded the colour range. It is not uncommon to see bowls in fluorescent hues mingling with traditional black and brown coloured bowls on greens.

The winning ‘skip’ (team captain) chooses the placement of the mat and it becomes the starting point from which all bowlers must bowl. The winner places the mat and rolls the jack to the other end of the green (the ‘end’). After it stops, it is centred on the rink and players take turns to roll their balls from the mat towards the jack. A bowl may curve outside the rink boundary, but must come to rest within it to remain in play. Bowls that fall into the ditch at the green’s end are taken from play, with the exception of those that ‘touch’ the jack beforehand.

After each competitor has delivered all their bowls – four bowls each in singles and pairs; three in triples; and two in fours – the distance of the closest bowls to the jack is measured. The winning team gets as many points or ‘shots’ as it has bowls closer to the jack than the best bowl of the losing team. A game normally lasts 21 ‘ends’ (segments of competition). In a singles game the winner is the first to score 21 shots. In pairs, triples and fours the winner is the team that has scored the most shots after 18 ends of play.

A brown green

With no access to water, the Christchurch club green turned the colour of straw each summer, damaging the playing surface. This was until the club began enlisting the local fire brigade to pump water from the neighbouring East Christchurch School pool to swamp the parched ground.


Bowls originated in ancient Egypt and has been played in England since the 13th century. It waxed and waned in popularity until the mid-19th century, when it experienced a revival, especially in Scotland. The Scots developed flat greens and drew up rules that remain largely unchanged.

Settlers brought the game to New Zealand in the early 1860s. Auckland Bowling Club was formed in 1861 and opened the country’s first green the following year in Grafton. Dunedin followed suit in 1871, Christchurch in 1875 and Wellington in 1886. As the sport became more popular new suburban bowling clubs were formed, especially during the 1890s. Most provincial towns also started bowling clubs. By the early 1900s Gisborne, with a population of just under 5,000 people, boasted three clubs: Gisborne, Kaiti and Whataupoko.

Women were precluded from playing with men and from 1906 began setting up their own clubs and competitions: Kelburn Ladies’ Bowling Club was the first. Generally women did not have their own greens but were allowed to use the men’s greens on weekday afternoons.

Dressing up

In the past bowls had a very strict dress code, especially for women. Carol Wing, president of Bowls New Zealand, recalled ‘Mum wanted me to play but the dress code put me off bowls completely’.1 The starched white dresses had to be a specific length. Some players rebelled against the code and wore brighter colours or floppy hats. The dress code became more relaxed over time, partly to attract more people to the sport.


In 1879 annual matches began between the Dunedin and Christchurch clubs, each taking turns to host. In 1886 the existing 12 clubs formed the New Zealand Bowling Association. A set of rules was agreed to and the first national tournament was held in Dunedin later that year. At a Wellington tournament in 1890 a decision was made to form the Northern Bowling Association of New Zealand, comprising North Island clubs and Nelson and Marlborough. In 1895 Auckland clubs split from the association and created the Auckland Provincial Bowling Association.

In 1913 growing calls for a new national body were heeded when the three separate groups merged to create the Dominion of New Zealand Bowling Association. The association consisted of 17 centres (regions), eight in the North Island and nine in the South, comprising 198 clubs and 10,912 members.

In 1930 the New Zealand Women’s Bowling Association was formed to manage the women’s game. In 1996 the two associations merged into Bowls New Zealand. In 2012 the country was split into three regions: Northern, Central and Southern, covering 27 centres and 610 clubs. It runs the annual national championship tournament.


Lawn bowlers and competitions

Widespread appeal

Bowls was, and is, played by all social classes and ethnicities. It appealed to working men because it was cheap and easy to play and had few social pretensions. The Croatian community, which spawned champions like Ivan Kostanich and Nick Unkovich, was prominent in the game. From the late 20th century Māori players such as Millie Khan and her daughters Jan and Marina, and Raika Gregory have excelled.

Many players pick up the sport when they’re reaching or past middle age, having retired from playing more physically active games like rugby or netball. Yet it has always appealed to young people too. Starting with 20-year old Phil Skoglund in 1958, there have been many national champions in their 20s. Shannon McIlroy was in his teens when he won the national fours champions in 2006.

A genteel pursuit

In the early 1900s Wellington’s Thorndon Bowling Club admitted that it had not ‘as a general rule, specifically sought for distinction in match playing, members showing a disposition rather to forgather in pleasant social communion day by day on their own green.’1

Elite competitions and players

While the vast majority of players are social players, the minority of elite players are extremely competitive. New Zealand’s elite players have been among the world’s best. The biggest impetus to the international development of bowls was the men’s early inclusion in the Empire (later Commonwealth) Games. Jim Pirrett (1950) and Ian Dickison (1986) were Commonwealth men's singles gold medallists. Catherine Portas (1994) and Joanna Edwards (2014 and 2018) later won gold medals in women's singles events. New Zealand bowlers also won Commonwealth Games gold medals in men's pairs (1938, 1950, 1958 and 1962) and fours (1938 and 1974) and women's pairs (1990 and 2002).

Bitter-sweet victory

At the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games Millie Khan won the women’s singles silver medal. But her achievement proved bitter-sweet. She played in the final unaware that earlier in the day her infant grandson had died in the venue’s car-park.

Though the Commonwealth Games are still important, the world championships, which were introduced in 1966 for men and in 1973 for women, have become the greater priority. New Zealand has successfully hosted three world championships, in 1973, 1988 and 2008, and enjoyed triumphs on the green. For instance, Bill O’Neill, Gordon Jolly, Ron Buchan and Norm Lash won the world fours in 1966. Elsie Wilkie won the women’s singles in 1973 and again in 1977, while Gary Lawson, Russell Meyer, Richard Girvan and Andrew Todd, won the fours world title at Christchurch, in 2008.


The professionalisation of New Zealand bowls began in the 1980s, but it has been difficult to sustain because of the country’s small size. The sport relies on government funding through Sport New Zealand and some leading players, such as Peter Belliss, moved overseas, especially to Australia which had greater resources. Finding the right selection balance for national squads has been controversial, with some criticising the process for favouring young athletic players over older ones with greater ability and experience.

Falling membership

At the peak of the sport’s popularity between the 1960s and 1980s there were more than 60,000 registered male bowlers alone. In 2012 the total for both male and female registered players was 44,000. As with other New Zealand sports, bowls has been affected by changing employment and recreational patterns, such as weekend work and expanded shopping hours.

With fewer people picking up the sport, many clubs have merged or closed. The sport has also suffered from being stereotyped as a pursuit for older people. Bowls New Zealand has tried to counter this image and the falling numbers by recruiting new talent in secondary schools and encouraging clubs to cater for casual players at twilight ‘crackerjack’ promotions.


Indoor bowls

The game

Indoor bowls is a miniature version of lawn bowls. It is played on a green woollen or synthetic mat about 6.7 metres long and 1.8 metres wide. As with lawn bowls the object of the game is to get your own bowls closer to the jack than your competitor’s and score points.

Games are played in singles, or teams of two, three or four. The toss of a coin determines which player or team begins first and delivers the jack to begin an end. Bowlers cannot touch the mat when delivering a bowl. They kneel at its end and deliver their bowls from a bowling square painted on the mat's base. Games are played for a set length of time or a set number of ends. The side with the most points at the conclusion of play wins.

Weather stoppage

It’s unusual for indoor bowls to be affected by the weather, but this happened at the 1972 finals in Invercargill, when play was interrupted after hail began falling through the venue’s roof and onto the finals mat. The next day all play was abandoned when overnight heavy rain flooded the hall and many mats were found floating.

History and organisation

Indoor bowls was introduced to New Zealand from England by an Aucklander, John Jenkins, in 1908. Its New Zealand origins were in friendly societies or lodges and later with church groups. In 1948 Wellingtonian George Welch spearheaded the formation of the New Zealand Indoor Bowls Federation and since 1950 there have been national championships, in which both men and women compete on even terms. Indoor bowls’ popularity reached a peak in the 1970s and at the 1977 nationals there were 3,050 singles entries, 1700 pairs and 835 triples. However, as with lawn bowls, there has been a decline in membership, for the same socio-economic and employment reasons.


Outstanding players have been Sen Smith of Auckland, who qualified for his gold star by winning five national titles in 1989, Grant L’Ami of Otago, who achieved the feat in 2002, and Paul Psaila, of Auckland, in 2006. There are many involved in both forms of bowls and several outstanding lawn bowlers have started in the indoor game. One was Gary Lawson, who won a national indoor title.

Disabled players

Both lawn and indoor bowls are popular among people with disabilities. The New Zealand Blind Lawn Bowling Association represents players who are blind and sponsors teams to the World Championships, held every four years. A sister body is the New Zealand Blind and Visually Impaired Indoor Bowls Federation. Lawn and indoor bowls comprise two of the six sports played at the annual New Zealand Deaf Games. The New Zealand Deaf Sports Association supports players to compete in international competitions such as the World Deaf Lawn Bowls Championship.


The game

Pétanque can be played on most hard outside surfaces, but pétanque courts or pistes usually have flat, crushed-lime or shell surfaces. The game is played by two teams of one (singles), two (doubles) or three (triples) players. The aim is to throw metal balls (boules) as close as possible to the ‘jack’, a small wooden ball. The first team is chosen by tossing a coin. The first player draws a 35–50 centimetre circle on the ground, from where the boules are thrown. The player throws the jack between 6 and 10 metres away and then throws the first boule. A player in the second team then tries to throw their boule nearer to the jack. The boule that lies nearest to the jack leads.

The losing team then throws their boules until it gets a leading boule, often by knocking the leading boule away. When the teams have no more boules – three boules each in singles and doubles and two each in triples – the points are counted. The winning team gets as many points as it has boules closer to the jack than the best of the losing team. A player from the winning team then throws the jack from where it had landed and a new game starts until one of the team gets 13 points.

Calder’s zen moment

National MP Cam Calder became a pétanque player while studying medicine in Europe. On returning to New Zealand in the early 1990s he began a boule importing business. He helped found Pétanque New Zealand and was a New Zealand representative in the 1995 world championships. He said, ‘Sometimes you take great pleasure out of a clean caro, when your ball lands on the opponent’s ball and displaces it … It’s almost a zen moment.’1


Pétanque originated in southern France in 1907. It derived from the ancient game of boules or bacci, which had been played in Mediterranean countries for centuries. Pétanque arrived in New Zealand in the early 1990s, when enthusiasts and importers of boules began promoting the sport. The first pétanque tournament was held in Devonport, Auckland, in 1992 and led to increased public interest and participation in the game. It particularly appealed to the ‘café set’ – urbane professionals – with the places such as wineries putting down pétanque courts to entice custom. As with lawn bowls and indoor bowls, the game’s more sedate pace attracts older people, but it is played by people of all ages.


In 1993 Pétanque New Zealand was formed as the national governing body for the sport. Clubs soon formed around the country and in 2012 there were 45 affiliated clubs. A national championship tournament is held annually. Among the leading champion players in the early 2000s have been Georgio Vakauta and Andre Noel.


Tenpin bowling

Tenpin bowling is an indoor game in which a player bowls a large ball down a wooden or synthetic lane bordered on each side by a gutter. At the far end are 10 pins, and the bowler attempts to knock down or skittle as many of the pins as possible.

A commercial activity

The distant origin of the game was the long-standing British pastime of skittles, which was occasionally played in colonial New Zealand. The modern form of tenpin bowling originated in the United States, which developed the technology that made the game popular. Automatic pin-setting came in during the 1950s and computerised scoring in the 1980s. Since an indoor rink using such technology is expensive, all tenpin bowling alleys in New Zealand are businesses. They began in the 1960s and in 2012 there were about 30 commercial alleys, with eight in Auckland, five in the Wellington urban area, three in Christchurch and an alley in most major provincial centres.

Tenpin Ed

When the first tenpin bowling alley opened in Britain in 1960, mountaineer Edmund Hillary was invited to bowl the first balls. By 2010 there were 322 bowling alleys in Britain and world-wide tenpin bowling was the second most popular sport in terms of participation after football.

Bowling alleys are primarily commercial entertainments (a game cost about $12.00 in 2012 for an adult) and the alleys invariably offer food, alcoholic drinks and sometimes other commercial attractions such as gaming machines and video games. Since tenpin bowling can be played by men and women, young and old, it is a popular group pastime. Tenpin bowling is a common attraction for birthdays or corporate functions.


Most people who play tenpin bowling do so as a relaxing and informal night-out, but there are competitions. Most alleys organise social leagues for weekly competitions. There are also more serious competitors. In 2012 there was a national bowling tour with eight stops around the country and a final. There were also more than a dozen other tournaments usually for singles, doubles and teams. The tournaments, under the auspices of Tenpin Bowling New Zealand, include competitions for seniors (aged 50 and over), youth (aged 20 and under) and juniors (aged 18 and under), and also for women.

New Zealand tenpin bowlers also compete in international competitions in Australia and Asia, but with little notable success. The sport was included in the 1998 Commonwealth Games, but not since. However five Commonwealth Tenpin Bowling Championships have been held subsequently and the sixth will be held in Auckland in February 2013. New Zealand’s best result was a share of the bronze by Jason Waters and Craig Nevatt in the men’s doubles at the 2006 championship in Melbourne.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Lindsay Knight, 'Bowls, pétanque and tenpin', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Lindsay Knight, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013, updated 1 o Hānuere 2015