Kings of the road in the Orchard county
SHOUTS of ‘she’s still rollin’ boyyyyy’ from over the brow of the hill were the first signs that an upset might be on the cards.
Thomas Mackle, the Ulster and All-Ireland senior champion, was expected to have too much power and skill for Paul O’Reilly in Sunday’s provincial semi-final, but he was under pressure after the underdog launched a bowl on his native Madden Road that refused to stop.
Of course that’s the name of the game in road bowls, or ‘bullets’ as it’s called in its northern hotbed around Armagh City. Every inch counts and as long as your ball keeps on rollin’ – which it does until it finally runs out of steam, flies off the road into a field or hits something harder than itself - you’re in with a shout.
Matches, known as ‘scores’, are played on winding country roads often packed with supporters and Mackle was the clear favourite in the roadside betting on Sunday (a few part-time bookies must have been stung because you could still get O’Reilly at 2/1 around the halfway point).
Dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, Grange native Mackle followed O’Reilly’s monster shot with one of his own.
Standing with his feet together, he took off in a jog that developed into a full-tilt sprint and when he hit his mark he unleashed an airborne 28oz metal ball that hit the road with a ‘clack’ and skipped off in the direction of O’Reilly’s, scattering the growing throng of spectators.
It didn’t go as far as his rival’s, but it was close enough to keep things tight and keep the pressure on O’Reilly, the pride of the local Madden club.
Like all sports, the object of road bowls is very simple - you have a metal ball and if you make it from point A to point B in less throws than your opponent, you win.
But the devil is in the detail and when you scratch the surface it’s a game of skill and poise, strength and subtlety. It’s a test of stamina too and it was tough going on a muggy Sunday over around three miles up and down hill.
“Yes boyyyyyy,” roared the Mackle fans as he closed the gap, but O’Reilly held his nerve.
With his dad helping him judge the surface of the road he kept his nose in front, releasing the ball with total commitment and nerveless control at the end of a full-blooded charge that climaxed with a whirr of his right arm.
As the finishing line approached the crowd continued to build, talking in a language all their own.
“Not an if, not an if,” says one guy after a shot and later on you could hear: “Not a peep, not a peep…” meaning O’Reilly had no clear line around a tricky corner on the road.
A flick of the wrist that sent the bullet skidding from right to left got him round it though and the pressure began to tell on Mackle who sent a misplaced shot clattered into a wall, handing the initiative to his opponent who was in no mood to throw it away.
O’Reilly played on calmly until Mackle sportingly conceded the score, with the writing on the wall. He walked back through the throng and shook hands with the worthy winner who will meet his cousin Bryan in the Ulster final.
“It just wasn’t meant to be,” said a bitterly disappointed Mackle, as the crowd filed past him to start their long walk back to their cars.
Defeat means he has lost his cherished Ulster and All-Ireland titles, but he’ll be back.
The Grange man comes from a rich pedigree in road bowls that comes from his mother and includes his uncle Michael Toal.
Toal, also from Grange in the Armagh City hinterland, was a legend of the sport, a king of the road who sent bullets screaming along highways and byways throughout the Orchard county, Cork and further afield with ferocious force.
During one score, young Thomas took his eyes off the action and suffered a broken ankle when a bullet from his uncle Mickey caught him just above his trainers.
Obviously it didn’t put him off because he’s now a fully-fledged Ireland international and an All-Ireland champion at senior, U18 and U16 level.
“As long as I mind I was throwing,” he explained when met for a chat early last week.
“I have a young fella who’ll be three now in September and he throws. He has his own bullet and I take him out – he knows what to do and hopefully he’ll take up the sport as well.
“I’d be very disappointed if my children don’t play, I’d be pushing them towards keeping it up.”
His cousin, Ethan Rafferty, splits his leisure time between playing for Armagh and throwing scores. But being sporty doesn’t guarantee that road bowls will be your thing - Ethan’s dad Peter was also an inter-county player with Armagh but (according to his son) he never made the grade at the bullets.
“He would have taken part, for a bit of craic but he was useless, he was always more of a spectator,” Ethan recalls with a laugh.
Armagh’s Ciaran McKeever also tried his luck without a lot of success but Ethan is steadily moving up the ranks. He won the Ulster Junior A title recently and will contest the All-Ireland final in Cork on Sunday.
“We started nearly when we could walk,” the towering midfielder – who’d reach the same levels with the Orchard county footballers - explained.
“My mother’s side were heavily involved in it, so it came from there and it took hold and we’re playing ever since.
“Some people would take it more seriously than the football – Thomas would – but I’m more into the football. For some people it’s their sport and they’d look forward to the Sunday evening to go down the road and watch a score or play a score.
“There’s massive skill in the game, to learn how to spin a bullet, to go round a corner left or right. It’s pure technique, how you release the ball and it’s great craic too, you’d know everyone on the road. There’s slagging and a few bets and you’d get a lot of families out watching it.”
There’s an international element to road bowls too. The game is popular in Germany, Holland and Italy and there are world and European championships.
The hotbeds in Ireland are in Armagh and Cork where Thomas, whose wife comes from the Rebel county, throws most of his scores these days.
“There’d be three or four times the players in Cork,” he explains.
“I go down there every other weekend to throw a score. It’s mostly west Cork – Bantry, Clonakility, Dunmanway – it’s good craic down there.
“It’s great competition and there’s big money for winning tournaments – minimum E600 for winning a tournament. I’d be holding my own, winning more than I’m losing.”
On Sunday, after the spectators had gone, he remained on the road with a few friends going over where it had gone wrong. Maybe with a little luck maybe things would have been different, but O’Reilly deserved his win.
“It’s a lonely sport whenever you’re beat at it,” he said.
“You can’t blame it on your team-mate – you’re the blame and that’s it.”
But there’ll be another day. Keep on rollin’ boyyyyy.