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Local bowlers get a shot at new Irish team

Four older men in outdoor clothing pose outdoors with a bowls pitch in the background, in front of them a man smiles widely as he takes the photo.

Photo shows Sam (second from left) and Alan (far right) pictured at Portrush Bowling Club alongside Causeway Coast VI Bowls teammates Norman and Richard. They are smiling for the camera and holding orange bowls in their hands. Taking the selfie is Jonathan Adams, RNIB Community Access Worker.

Four local bowlers with sight loss have been selected to take part in the first Irish disability bowls team.

Alan Marshall and Sam McAfee, both from Coleraine, play in the Causeway Coast VI bowls group, organised by the Royal National Institute of Blind People in Northern Ireland (RNIB NI) in partnership with the Irish Bowls Federation (IBF). Lisa Royle and Liz Thompson, who both play out of the Belfast hub are also part of the new team.

They will be part of a group of 10 people with various disabilities who will take on their English equivalents in Solihull on 26 and 27 January.

Jonathan Adams, Community Access Worker for RNIB in Northern Ireland, says he is ‘delighted’ that their talent has been recognised by the Irish Bowls Federation.

He said: “Ian McClure and Chris Mulholland from the IBF have been so supportive as we’ve developed this group from grassroots all the way to now having opportunities to play for a national team. Bowls ‘taster sessions’ for people with a visual impairment (VI) have been popular over the years but the establishment of a disability hub for VI bowls at Portrush Bowling Club has been crucial.”

The Club, which celebrated its centenary last year with major refurbishment including all-weather pitches, is fully accessible for people with sight loss. Jonathan says the attitude and ethos of the club has been so welcoming and many VI bowlers have joined as members and will benefit from that social aspect too.

“Last summer we had a match against Belfast and Pickie VI groups and I think that was the moment some of the Causeway Coast group realised their potential in the sport individually but mainly gained the confidence to compete and play against others!” Jonny said.

“My role has been to help create opportunities, set up the group and give them support and encouragement but, ultimately, I would like it to grow, be established and function as independently as possible. The group continues to grow and I’m sure we will have others who will progress and be given the opportunity to compete at national level! I want to wish Alan and Sam all the best for Solihull – I know they’ll make us proud.”

Olive Rodgers, also an RNIB Community Access Worker, supports the Belfast VI bowls group. “Lisa and Liz are fantastic bowls players,” she said. “I’m delighted that their commitment to the sport has been recognised by the IBF and they will have the chance to take part in the match against England.”

She added: “A big part of my role is to connect clients with activities that really benefit their wellbeing, boost their confidence and improve their social lives. Bowls ticks all those boxes. It’s fantastic to see the sport going from strength to strength.”

Alan (65), has very little useful vision left after suffering from detached retinas. He says it was his wife who encouraged him to get involved with groups run by the RNIB. “She told me to get up, get out and meet people!” he says. Modestly, he adds: “I only started playing a couple of years ago and for every good shot there are five or six bad ones but I really enjoy it and it’s all about the camaraderie.

“I’m a bit nervous about playing against England – it doesn’t seem real - but I’ll try and enjoy the experience. I’d say to anyone with a visual impairment to try out sport, of any kind. It’s long sitting in the house all day so it’s important to find something that keeps you motivated.”

Sam (64), is also a relative newcomer, having first picked up a bowl less than two years ago, but he had always enjoyed watching the sport.

He describes his sight as ‘blurry’ and uses the analogy of looking down from an aeroplane on a clear day, but with clouds scattered here and there. His vision was affected following a stroke which damaged his optic nerve.

“I always fancied a go at bowls,” he says. “But, you know how it is, working full time I just never got round to it. Johnny from RNIB encouraged me to come along and try boccia to start with and then that progressed to bowls and I actually joined Portrush Bowling Club last year, which has been wonderful.”

When asked what the team’s chances are in Solihull are, Sam just laughs and says, whatever happens, the team will have a good time!

Ian McClure, Development Officer at the IBF, will be one of the support staff accompanying the team later this week and says the ‘inaugural test match is a big opportunity’.

“It’s the next part of the puzzle,” he adds. “Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that doesn’t compete the Commonwealth Games. Our strategic plan has been two-fold; to set up disability hubs in Belfast and Causeway and to establish a high-performance end of things.

“That’s where we are now, which is really exciting, and hopefully opens up more opportunities for funding in the future. We really believe in this.”

Research shows that blind and partially sighted people are twice as likely to be inactive compared to people without sight loss. RNIB’s See Sport Differently initiative aims to tackle the biggest barriers for blind and partially sighted people within sport and activities and motivate more people with sight loss to get moving by highlighting the benefits of physical activity.

To find out what sporting opportunities exist for people with a vision impairment in the Causeway Coast area and beyond, email [email protected].