Merrigum Bowls Club is busting through adversity and rolling with the punches
On a balmy Thursday morning six blokes sit down and chew the fat over a cuppa and a biscuit.
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They are the beating heart of Merrigum Bowls Club.
Graeme Hubble had just hopped off the ride-on mower. That’s his job.
Carmen Quattrochi was busy trimming.
Joe Chant, Alan Dennis, John Firmer and Wayne Shepherd took leave from marking the lines and vacuuming the ditches ― they weren’t slouching either.
In fact, none of the half-dozen bowls-mad men could be accused of dragging their heels when it comes to Merrigum Bowls Club.
They simply can’t afford to.
Though a salt of the earth, never-say-die charm runs like water through the members, keeping a country bowls club afloat is not easy ― yet they somehow do.
The quaint little operation at Merrigum, a town boasting a population of less than 500, is punching well above its weight class with one midweek and two weekend pennant teams entered in Goulburn Valley Playing Area’s competitions.
But as club president Joe Chant takes a sip of his tea, he can’t help but think back to a time when Merrigum Bowls Club was truly motoring.
In 1952, the Carnation Milk Factory drew hundreds to the town.
Houses went up, the streets were packed and after Merrigum Bowls Club was established in 1967, so were the greens.
The club introduced another bowling green to accommodate the players and, boy, those guys could roll.
Merrigum shot to the top and fielded sides in divisions one and two in the late 1980s and early 1990s, stamping its mark as a genuine contender among the competition’s best and brightest.
“When the Carnation Milk Factory was alive, Merrigum was thriving,” Joe said.
“There were a lot of orchards and dairy farms around, but the big industry was the factory and they built houses for the employees ... it was bustling.”
But as Nestle took over the factory in 1985 and cutbacks razed staff numbers, people began to filter out of Merrigum.
“That was the start of the finish,” Joe said.
“It was doing well and they had lots of members, so much so that next door we had another bowling green. Eventually we reached division one and we’re now down to division five.
“Recently there has been two or three new houses go up every year, but we haven’t got an industry to hold people here.”
Today, Merrigum sits third in division five of GVPA’s midweek pennant, fourth in division five of weekend pennant and seventh in division seven.
It is a competitive club; there’s no doubting that.
But without the pull of a division one tag to its name, Merrigum Bowls Club struggles to attract new players to its rinks.
Throw in the funding struggles any small sporting organisation endures and it makes it a sticky situation to be stuck in the middle of, one which treasurer Alan Dennis knows all too well.
“When we were in division one and two we had people wanting to come and play,” Alan said.
“As you drop down divisions, anyone who’s any good here goes elsewhere.
“It’s a catch-22; we can’t attract players to get up the ladder and while we’re in division five we’ll stay there.
“Joe and I have seen us go from division one to division five. (It’s been) horrible, because a lot of the players bugger off.
“You drop a division, you lose four or five players. Of course you drop another division because you lost those players and it’s just a downwards spiral.”
So what can Merrigum Bowls Club do with the cards it’s been dealt?
What’s working and what isn’t?
Joe takes a bite of his biscuit, sits back in his chair and offers words of wisdom on the current hindrance for the club.
“Really, our biggest drawback is that we haven’t got enough money to put lights up. We’ve got those old lights there, but they don’t work,” he said.
“With dwindling members, you don’t have as much pull as the footy club ― they get the first cut of the pie.
“In the olden days the bar was a goldmine, but we haven’t got any drinkers left.
“Alan used to be one of our best customers, but he doesn’t drink any more.”
The six men laughed, breaking the pensive air for just a few seconds before going back to outlining how the club previously operated.
In the past, Merrigum Bowls Club partnered with Kyabram Senior Citizens’ Club to host poker trips, pulling in $500 once or twice monthly.
After COVID-19 put the kibosh on that, it’s been forced to be creative.
In the poker trips’ absence, Christmas hampers and Thursday night meals have been the club’s biggest money spinners.
And with enough cash, Merrigum could buy a game-changing lighting system, allowing the club to host twilight social bowls and draw new members to the greens.
“If we could say to the people, come down at 7 o’clock, play barefoot bowls, drink, run around and do whatever ― we’d get a few,” Joe said.
“We used to have a big competition, Tuesday night bowls. But because of the lights situation, that can’t happen.
“You can’t ask people to come down at 5.30 for barefoot bowls because they wouldn’t be finished work.”
Joe said he’d love the club to be financially healthy enough to shell out for new lights.
Hell, he even spoke about putting new carpet in if they had a spare $300,000 sitting around.
But for now, that’s a “pipe dream” because, as Alan pointed out, running a bowls club isn’t cheap.
“The main expense is insurance which is over $4000; the greens would be next, then fuel, fertiliser, repairing machinery that I usually bugger up,” he said.
“You hardly insure for anything. The fridge broke down and smashed all the grog, the mower broke down, and neither of them are covered by insurance unless you want to pay a heap more in excess.”
Overheads are one thing, but what it all circles back to for Merrigum Bowls Club is numbers.
At this point in time Merrigum boasts enough players to field three teams ― impressive for a club of its stature ― and even has six from the one family: the Parsons.
It’s not quite enough to compete with the juggernauts, the Shepparton Parks and Shepparton Golfs of the world, and that’s where Merrigum has been forced to think outside the box regarding recruitment.
“We’ve been well supported by the community gang down at Dhurrungile,” Joe said.
“We talked about it for about six months, the possibility of going out into the jail (for players). Enough blokes wanted to play, but it just wouldn’t work with travel and the rest of it.
“And there’s no guarantee that they’d be ready to go when you got out there ― there might be a lockdown or something else happen.”
That wasn’t their only idea.
“We took 300 hundred dodgers (flyers) and put them around every house in the town,” Alan said.
“We got one phone call back. We don’t know what to do sometimes.”
Alan says that, but deep down, he knows what’s required: scaling the ladder back up to the top.
Running on a shoestring budget and the smell of an oily rag, the proud bunch of bowlers at Merrigum are doing their utmost to win their respective divisions and retake their claim as a bona fide champion of the Goulburn Valley bowls scene.
It won’t happen overnight.
But there’s an insurance policy that keeps Merrigum Bowls Club rolling, irrespective of the results on the greens: people.
“We’ve got a little core group of really good working people,” Joe said.
“We’re really proud of the surrounds, what it looks like and what we’ve done.
“Before, the exterior was old green weatherboard, that’s all been replaced. We put in a new verandah, we put shades across, we’ve got an overhead watering system ― we’ve done a lot of work and spent a lot of money.
“There’s no big heads and there’s no cliques, everyone kicks off the same foot.”
As the six blokes finish their cuppa and biscuits, a short silence fills the club.
They’d said their piece and it was about time for Graeme to get back on the mower, Carmen to start cutting and the rest of the boys to pick the tools back up.
But before they walked back outside, Joe saved his best line for last.
“We’re a very happy, welcoming bowls club working very hard under difficulties. It would be a tragedy to see this go to long grass,” he said.
“Someone always turns up ... but someone’s got to be brave enough to bite the bullet and say we’re going to keep going.”