It may not have been the biggest crowd ever at the arrival hall at Hanan Airport, but it was certainly the loudest and the most enthusiastic. They were there to welcome home the team that had distinguished themselves by acquiring the largest haul of medals for one code – lawn bowls – at any Pacific Games. The island’s lawn bowlers came home with one bronze, one silver and one gold.
The bronze was won by the men’s triple of Mark Blumsky, Dalton Tagelagi and Norman Mitimeti. The silver came from the women’s fours of Lia Liumaihetau, Pilena Motufoou, Pauline Blumsky and Joy Peyroux. The gold was won by the women’s triple of Christine Ioane, Pauline Blumsky and Joy Peyroux.
The airport welcome was planned by club president Des Hipa and other members of the executive of Niue Lawn Bowls.
Passengers who came on the Monday flight may have been surprised to see the arrival hall packed with people singing with an island string band. But it soon became clear that the welcome was for a group of very special people – a dead give-away were several large banners in addition to bouquets and kahoa maile.
As each returning participant at the Games came through the door, a loud cheer would come from the crowd as family and friends rushed forward with kahoa. As team golf walked through the doors they received a rousing welcome from the crowd.
And then came the moment that the crowd was waiting for. As the victorious lawn bowlers walked through the door, the singers and the string band were momentarily drowned out by a rousing cheer from the crowd. The scene was chaotic, but chaotic in the nicest possible way. Family and friends were eager to capture the moment with cell-phone cameras. Somewhere in there is Esther Pavihi of TV Niue and her camera crew.
From the airport the festivities moved to the Lawn Bowls clubhouse, conveniently located less than a kilometre from the airport. Island Pride band members Albert Hekesi and Glen Jackson were there to provide the music. In typical island-fashion the request to ‘bring a plate’ had turned into a veritable island feast.
But first, the formalities. To the accompaniment of the national anthem, the flag on Niue and of Niue Lawn Bowls were hoisted on the flag pole. A short prayer was delivered by Assemblyman Michael Jackson before the festivities continued in the clubhouse. Two weeks prior, when the team were about to depart from the airport Michael who happened to be in the vicinity was asked to say a prayer. Club president Des Hipa felt it was only appropriate that Mike should be part of the welcoming festivities.
Before offering the prayer Mike told the gathering that in 2002, he as the editor of the only newspaper on the island, received a call from the BBC, first to confirm that Niue does not have a lawn bowling green at that time and secondly to advise him that if this was the case, then the Niue Bowlers were to be excluded from the Manchester Commonwealth Games. We didn’t and we were.
Meantime back in the clubhouse, members, friends and relatives were being regaled by Stanley Tafatu on the lonely world of a singles bowler. Stan was part of the team from Niue Lawn Bowls to participate in Asia Pacific tournament in Australia prior to the Apia Games. Although Niue came away from those Games without a medal, Stan Tafatu played well enough to qualify for the World Cup.
Pauline Blumsky spoke on behalf of the ladies and gave a very personal and often humorous account of the pressures she faced as a single bowler in the Asia Pacific tournament. The highlight in Apia was obviously the winning of the gold medal in the final play with the host Samoa. To get to the finals, Niue had to beat the Cook Islands by a good margin to have a chance in the semi-finals. Having defeated the Cooks, Niue then came up against the experienced Fijians; they have been at this game over several decades; Niue, barely five years. Despite a strong challenge, Niue’s team of Christine Ioane, Pauline Blumsky and Joy Peyroux held on to beat Fiji.
And then came the finals – this was the big one against hosts Samoa. Early in the game, Niue appeared to be struggling to find their form; the flow was not there. It was up to Skip Christine to bring the team together and to re-ignite the fire in the belly; this was no afternoon game at Fonuakula; this was for a gold medal; this is the moment they had sacrificed for and toiled over those long months before Apia. A silver medal was not going to do it.
Up on the stands, surrounded by sea of strong Samoa supporters, team managers Bill Motufoou and Mele Kaulima were finding it hard to breath. Lia Liumaihetau and Pilena Motufoou were in danger of chewing their fingers to the bones. Beth, the teams liaison and driver, was very very quietly cheering for the girls who have become almost part of her family. Go Niue. Niue ki mua.
And then it was time to play the final end. The referees consulted and came to the same conclusion. With only one end left to play and with Niue at 22 and Samoa 5, it was not possible for Samoa to win. The gold medal for the women’s triple in lawn bowls is now Niue’s Gold.
The captain of Niue Lawn Bowls gave a brief summary of the estimated cost of sending our bowlers to Samoa. The total cost was approximately $140,000. Each bowler must bring to the table $6,000. How were they able to do this for a small club? By fund-raising amongst the members, friends and families and through the generous assistance from: Niue Tourism, Niue Chamber of Commerce, Niue Government, Niue Rentals of Stan and Teu Kalauni and Hio Cafe of Tony and Vicky.
Short History of Niue Bowls
Niue Lawn Bowls was not created until December 2013 but the actual use of the greens did not start until the middle of 2014, according to President Des Hipa. So how was it possible for Niue to have participated in some of the previous games before 2013. The answer to that was simple: through Niueans living in New Zealand.
As far back as 2003, Niue won a bronze medal at the Fiji Games. The recipient was Elizabeth Rereti who was third in the women’s singles. In 2007 with the Games in Samoa, the Niue lawn bowls team were all NZ residents. In 2009 at the Mini Games in Rarotonga, once again Elizabeth Rereti was victorious in the women’s singles by winning Niue’s first gold medal. In 2010 in the Commonwealth Games in India, Niue’s bowlers were all from New Zealand.
Wind the clock back a little to 2002 when Niue’s bowlers were denied access to the Commonwealth Games in Manchester because according to World Bowls, to qualify for competition at that international level, the island needed a bowling green of its own.
In 2004, with the island rebuilding after the devastation by cyclone Heta, the then President of Niue Sports Des Hipa approached Niue Golf Club to turn the old and un-used tennis courts to a bowling green. In 2005 with the agreement of the then Niue Government tucked safely in his pocket [the land where the golf course and tennis courts are located is Crown Land] Des, Maru Talagi, Alan Tano and a few other volunteers started working on the green by removing the remnants of the old tennis court with the aid of Andrew Corey of Niue Honey who agreed to use his little bull-dozer to remove the tar-sealed surface.
In 2006 with the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Des was able to convince World Bowls that Niue indeed had a bowling green; he send off a photo of green, which he admits freely that it looked a little rough. But on the strength of that photo, permission was given for Niue to bowl. Once more all the bowlers were from NZ.
In 2010, with the bowling green still very much a work-in-progress, Niue was able to compete in the Delhi Games with NZ based players.
There is a story doing the rounds that someone in World Bowls got wind of the fact that while Niue has a bowling green, not one single bowl has ever been bowled by 2013. In December of the same year Niue Lawn Bowls was officially opened but it was not until the middle of 2014 the greens were used for regular competitions.
By the time of the Gold Coast Games in 2018, Niue Lawn Bowls was fully operational. It would be fair to say that by this stage the participation of NZ based Niue bowlers effectively came to an end.