Rhona Howie swaps curling rink for bowling greens

THERE is a ‘whit?’ factor accompanying the appointment of Rhona Howie as Bowls Scotland’s first high performance manager to which she is anything but oblivious. How has the 48-year-old, who under her married name Martin captured the affections of the nation in delivering the stone of destiny to win curling gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics, now found herself entrusted with creating the conditions for her fellow Scots to deliver bools of destiny? Something, indeed, that Scottish men have proved pretty nifty at in recent years.
Bowls Scotlands high performance manager Rhona Howie and high performance coach John Price. Picture: John DevlinBowls Scotlands high performance manager Rhona Howie and high performance coach John Price. Picture: John Devlin
Bowls Scotlands high performance manager Rhona Howie and high performance coach John Price. Picture: John Devlin

Well, the leap from bowls on ice – a description hated by curlers – to actual bowls isn’t such a massive one for Howie. Not when she is manager and it is former world champion bowler John Price who will be Bowls Scotland’s first high performance coach.

“John will come in and tell them how to play,” she said. “I am not here to tell them how to do that. I am here to help have a plan in place and a support service to make them even better bowlers. In no way am I going to try and intervene in the technical side of the game because that is not what I am employed to do. Having just thrown a few bowls out there, I wouldn’t even think about it.”

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This demarcation may help quell some of the dissenters within a sport fiercely proud of its heritage and its singularity. There will be plenty, though, who will require to be won round by the personnel changes made possible through funding from Sportscotland. In terms of global sporting excellence, bowls is Scotland’s prized sport. Under Price’s predecessor David Gourlay, Team Scotland’s bowlers won three golds and a silver medal in last summer’s Commonwealth Games. At the very Kelvingrove rinks in Glasgow where Howie met the media yesterday, no less. Moreover, at the 2012 Adelaide World Championships Scotland won six medals, including three golds.

Howie celebrates delivering the winning shot at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Picture: APHowie celebrates delivering the winning shot at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Picture: AP
Howie celebrates delivering the winning shot at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Picture: AP

The two incumbents of the newly-created high performance posts have their work cut out, then, to raise the standing of Scottish bowls – although there is more mileage for that in the women’s game – but Howie made plain it is not trading on a glory night in Salt Lake City that has provided her with the opportunity.

“I’m not here because I won an Olympic gold medal,” she said. “I am in this job because I’ve been involved in high performance in a sport where there was no high performance plans in place. I was there as an athlete, competed at the Olympic games as an athlete, I then went through the process of implementing a high performance plan with a sport that had some resistance. And still does.

“It new to them, and you do get people who say ‘Uhm, what’s this all about?’. It is about going in and seeing what happens in bowls and seeing how I think it can be improved and putting a performance plan in place that the athletes are happy with. Not everyone is the same. I’m not going to go in and steamroller them and say, ‘You have to do this, this and this’. That is not going to work. Every athlete will have different needs. It will be about how I can put a plan in place for these individual athletes that will benefit them and the group.”

One of the benefits that will accrue from bringing in Welshman Price could be the ending of a Kevin Pietersen-type situation in Scottish women’s bowls. Lorna Smith, who moved to Scotland from South Africa five years ago, is generally regarded as the best women’s bowler in the country. She has won the Scottish title for three years running – an unprecedented achievement – but was not selected for the Glasgow games or the World Championship two years earlier after withdrawing from an earlier national team event when she was dropped.

“I covered the Commonwealth Games for the BBC so I did see a lot of the ladies games and, to be fair, it’s a results business. If you take it on results, the men did very well and the ladies didn’t deliver results,” said Price, who has described taking charge of Barcelona or Real Madrid as the football equivalent of landing the top coaching post with Bowls Scotland. “I’ve got a blank piece of paper coming into the job and any bowler who performs has a chance with me of being in the shake-up. I’m not in post [until 1 June] but I’ll be watching some bowls over the next month and it’s something we’ll be discussing as we go along.

“I’m very aware of different things that have gone on, but I’m coming into it as a new face. It’s not just about that particular individual, there could be other players out there as well who might be a little bit unlucky to be on the fringes. It’s all about form coming into major championships, and about experience.

“One of the things you’ve got to look at is the next two majors are in the Southern Hemisphere [with the 2016 World Championships in Christchurch and the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018] so that offers different challenges. It’s not just about who maybe is playing well under UK conditions over the next 12 months, but who is going to adapt to foreign conditions as well.”

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Howie, for her part, will also need to adapt to foreign conditions and she and Price will work closely to develop the high performance strategy. “Rhona will bring a lot of things to the party that I can’t,” Price said. “Sometimes in bowls terms you can be a little bit tunnel vision thinking bowls all the time. She’ll have other things she can bring to the party and hopefully we’ll work well together moving forward. That’s the aim anyway.

“I remember seeing her winning gold on the television. I just said to her out on the bowling green, ‘You want to bring your brushes next time. I’ll deliver them and you can brush them’.” Certainly there is a new broom sweeping Bowls Scotland.