Commonwealth Games debutant Matthew Flapper on the mind games of lawn bowls. By Richard Cooke.


On a roll: Matthew Flapper, 35, lawn bowler

Matt Flapper started playing competitive lawn bowls while he was still at high school. He makes his debut for the Australian Commonwealth Games team in Glasgow this month. 

Richard Cooke Why lawn bowls?

Matthew Flapper I tried all sports as a kid, and my father played lawn bowls at a club outside Ballarat. We used to get off the school bus just outside the bowling club and wait for him to finish work. He’d rock up at the bowling club and start throwing a few down as practice. As time went by we thought, “Well, no point just sitting there without a game.” I think I was about 11 or 12, and it just went from there. 

RC People think lawn bowls is a relaxing game, but I’m guessing it’s not like that at the top level.

MF No, it gets pretty intense. Since the younger people have come into the sport there’s a lot more excitement and I think it’s brought a new level to the game. In the old days, I suppose it was pretty relaxed and stress free, go about your business and play the game and whatever happens, happens. But there are a lot more strategies involved these days and it’s a lot more professional. 

RC Is one of those strategies sledging?

MF You’d be surprised. You maintain sportsmanship as much as you can, but the odd sledge enters every now and then, and if you can get a slight advantage, you certainly take that.

RC So mental disintegration plays a part?

MF It does and you learn a lot about it as you progress through the sport. 

RC What’s an example of a classic lawn bowling sledge?

MF That’s a hard one to say on the spot, but just anything in relation to the way your opponent might be performing. You might play a bowl and then half a minute later your opponent has to bowl, and he might just drop the line in there, “Geez, the wind got up on that one” or “It’s not as wide as it was in last end down on that side.” Just playing mind games, I suppose, and sowing a seed in the opposition’s head. You’ve just dropped that little bit of sledge in there.

RC You’ve had an unusual road to Glasgow. Not only are you debuting in your mid-30s, but you also dropped a lot of weight on the way.

MF Yeah, I did. A few years ago I tipped the scales at 155 kilos and I was still playing representative bowls. And when you stand on a scale at 155 kilos, you think there’s something you’ve got to do about it. I was struggling to get through bowls matches back then. They say bowls isn’t very active or a tiring game, but I can assure you, day in and day out, when you’re competing on your feet all day, there’s a bit of wear and tear. I was struggling with bad knees and ankles and heel spurs. I needed to do something if I was going to continue playing at that level. My wife and I went and saw this weight-loss consultant, and pretty much from that moment we walked through the door, it was a change of life for us. I ended up dropping 63 kilos.

RC Bowls is one of the only sports where male players report to a female captain.

MF Yeah, it probably is, actually. And that’s a good thing. No matter whether it’s Commonwealth Games, World Bowls or a Trans Tasman series against New Zealand, there’s one designated Australian captain and, at the moment, that’s Lynsey Clarke from Queensland. You’ve got, say, 10 people in the open squad who travel to the games, and each one has their own capabilities as far as leadership and experience. It all works well together.

RC Does it bother you that bowls is still seen as a bit of a novelty sport, or do you revel in that?

MF It’s not something that we probably enjoy – we’d like to have people go watch it, and want to watch on television. It’s getting better. 

RC But you still encounter that attitude.

MF I had it all when I was a young bloke. I was one of the only ones in the school who played lawn bowls. Every bit of success that you had, the school wanted to tell the rest of the school about it. And people said, “Are you embarrassed?” I’d say, “I’m not embarrassed, why would I be embarrassed? I’m successful at something.” And everyone thought, “This is such an easy game, there’s not much skill, there’s not much effort goes into that.” But then I used to say, “Okay, how about one night you come and have a roll up with me and see how you go?” And as soon as they’re out there, they realise how challenging it is, that it’s a lot harder than they thought. 

RC So, you really took them to school?

MF I did. I got them out there and had a go with them. I tell you what, a lot of them probably play bowls now.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 19, 2014 as "On a roll".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

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