Looking Forward, Looking Back
16 May 2024
Local Legends by Paul Neazor

Profiling the well-known Hill clan can, for a bowls writer, be a bit tricky. The older ones are reluctant to talk about themselves, and the younger ones ditto. ‘I’ve done all that,’ says patriarch Neville – ‘Bones’ to all and sundry – when the idea was floated. (And I bet you all heard Neville’s voice as you read it.) Nobody does. uninterested better than Bones.

Next-generation Jamie, Neville’s son, was equally reluctant. ‘I don’t really want to get into the me stuff,’ he said. But after a bit of persuasion he and his 17-year-old son, Ryan, agreed to sit down and chat. Just not about themselves. It’s clear both love the game, but right now see it through different lenses. Ryan sees what Jamie saw when he was a young man in a hurry at the same age. Looking forward, he has plenty of ambition. Jamie sees the game from the perspective of a man who has achieved plenty but wants to make sure the next generation gets the chances he had.

No doubt this conversation gets aired over the Hill dinner table, or in the lounge, or the back yard or on a bowling green somewhere regularly. But both are adamant they’d like to see more high-performance bowls.

Jamie, because he’s seen what it does for a young guy. Especially a young bloke with talent, who frequently gets to play with and against the guns. Ryan has that desire to prove himself, to take the big dogs on, prepared to take his licks and a few hidings on the way, but one day to be a bona fide challenger.

Both admire the Australian way. The pennants. The format that brings competitive players to a peak of concentration and performance. The economies of scale. The fact you’re challenged every step of the way. All the time.

“It’s a bit of the best of both worlds,’ Jamie notes. ‘You play in the afternoon. One game, so you’d better be sharp. But you have time for the kids, or some shopping, maybe brunch, before your game starts. And that season goes on for weeks, home and away. It’s always good.

‘Here in New Zealand, sevens seems to work best. In many ways, it’s a numbers thing, but it is a pathway event, leading to a potential national title. As you go deeper, the standard lifts although a good singles player and a couple of good skips will always be gold for any team. If that’s what works here, we should play more sevens.’

True to his ambition, Ryan would love to be part of a more concentrated programme. ‘I want to play the good players,’ he says, ‘but it’s hard to find the chances. The opportunity simply isn’t there other than the occasional game in some tournament.’

This discussion led to another one dear to the Hills’ hearts – coaching. Jamie acknowledges and makes sure Ryan knows his thoughts on the matter, that coaching has an important part in the career of a young player. ‘There’s a lot to learn when you’re young and on the way up, and you have to do it. But with players who know their game, and have proven it, they don’t need to have every little thing pointed out.’

When Jamie coached the Cook Islands at the World Championships last year, he was true to that dictum. He didn’t mess with anyone’s technique a couple of days before they played. But he was always there to provide a general tactical blueprint, lend an ear if a player wanted a chat, pump up tyres if needed, or just to be a comforting presence if it all got too hard. He did it brilliantly, and every player in the team held him in the highest regard.

So Ryan is in a good place to learn the inside game, and he’s not wasting his chance. For a young guy, he has a lot of game knowledge that ten-year players don’t have. And he’s encouraged to express an opinion, even if it leads to being challenged to defend it. When bowls is being discussed, he’s in a positive environment and the benefits show.

Deep down, although he doesn’t talk about it, it’s hard not to believe Ryan Hill doesn’t aspire to wear that black shirt with the silver fern-like his grandfather and father before him, or as many predict his slightly younger cousin, Liam, will do sooner rather than later. He knows he is surrounded by knowledge and experience and a love of the game that can only be good if he’s prepared to do the work. He listens a lot and practices a lot.

Jamie, having done all those things, enjoys playing when he gets the urge, but being part of the fabric of the game is probably more important these days. He is happy to be part of good club events and tournaments that appeal. He’s available to talk if someone wants to ask him and has ideas to help drive young players forward in the game. He enjoys the company of bowls and bowlers, a beer in the summer sun and time with and in the game he loves. That’s why we play, isn’t it?

Ryan Hill, at 17, wants to be as good as he can be. How high that will be is up to him. Jamie Hill, a generation older, wants to help young players push to reach the heights. More than anything, I think, he’d like to be asked how best to help them along that path.

Ryan’s dream may well be to win a medal at some prestigious world tournament. Jamie’s is more likely to help a youngster achieve just that.

Laudable ambitions both.