Figtree’s still going strong after six decades | Illawarra Mercury


news, latest-news, Figtree Sports, Figgy Bowlo, Loose Ends, Mike Driscoll, Wollongong, Illawarra

Figtree Sports have been part of the Illawarra community for more than 60 years. The club had a name change to Figtree Sports late last year after opening in 1955 as Wollongong RSL Bowling Club, with the then Church Street-based Wollongong RSL playing a pivotal role in the club’s foundation. The RSL Sub Branch wanted a bowls venue and other sporting activities to operate separate to its licenced city-based club, and a parcel of land at Figtree offered excellent prospects. The first Wollongong RSL Bowling Club clubhouse in the early 1950s was a simple corrugated iron shed at the staff parking area at the Western end of the current club site. Leading figures in the club’s formation were RSL Sub Branch president Frank March and the bowls club’s first president Norman Laneyrie. The initial premises were a 15 by 30 feet shed which housed maintenance equipment, trestle tables and a makeshift bar, with keg tapping facilities to quench the thirst of the locals. Phil Donaldson has been involved with Figtree Sports since the mid-1970s and as a child witnessed the club’s formation first-hand in the early 1950s. Donaldson remembers how developing the site from swamp land into a bowling venue required enormous loads of top soil and materials being delivered from Cordeaux. With the support of free labour, coal trucks made the trip to O’Brien’s Gap, behind Mt Kembla en-route to Cordeaux; where the soil was of excellent quality and perfect as a base for a bowling green. As the coal trucks, brim full with soil, travelled down the winding roads from around Cordeaux towards the new club at Figtree, young boys like Donaldson rode on top ensuring the shovels, mattocks and sieves were not lost overboard during the trip. ”I can vividly remember the smell and dampness of the rich brown soil, digging my feet into it, getting a foothold, while deciding whether to save myself or the digging gear should the load shift,” Donaldson wrote in an article to commemorate the club’s 60th anniversary. ”The journey down the mountain seemed interminable with the old truck whining and backfiring as it was guided expertly on gears, as the brakes were not meant to cope with such a load. ”The anxious looks on our young faces would turn to relieved smiles as we rolled through Central Kembla flats on our way to Figtree…” The club’s first green was built on the site of today’s No 2 Green and featured games from 1956, with the official opening ceremony on January 10, 1959. The club undertook its first major refurbishment in 1986 with the installation of a bistro and lounge at the eastern end of the club, followed, in 1998, by a new poker machine room with 60 gaming machines. A new office, plus board room and men’s and women’s locker rooms were also added. Wollongong RSL BC evolved into Figtree RSL around 2010. The club is also well known as Figgy Bowlo. Figtree Sports has a long history of punching above its weight in pennants and Zone 16 championships, and has been one of the strongest Illawarra clubs in recent years. The club won NSW Bowls’ most prized title for club bowlers in 1993 in clinching the grade six state pennant flag, plus was state runner-up in grade seven in 2013 with Ernie Redman part of both teams. Figtree has won 34 Illawarra men’s pennants titles overall and claimed an Illawarra flag in every grade except grade one. The club boasts eight grade three flags and seven grade four titles. World champion Leif Selby is the greatest men’s bowler to represent Figtree and served as bowls coordinator for two years. Figtree Sports always have a pennant side or two challenging for a flag. In 2018 they won the grade six crown and represented Zone 16 at state finals. Last year, Harry Johnston and Mark Sunderland combined to win the Zone 16 senior pairs, while in 2013 and 2014 Brett Pieper won the prestigious Illawarra singles and became the first bowler since the mid-1970s to win back-to-back zone open singles. This year’s Zone 16 titles have been halted by the pandemic but, beforehand, Jeremy Ryan and Nathan Tyrrell reached the president’s reserve pairs final. Figtree Sports father and son Matt and Denis Cooper are also into the zone open pairs semi-finals. They will face Warilla’s Corey Wedlock and Gary Kelly when the Zone 16 championships are expected to resume in August. Margo Brandes holds a special place in Figtree’s records book after clinching the club’s maiden state individual title. The much-respected Illawarra bowls champion claimed Figtree’s maiden state individual trophy by winning the NSW singles in 1994. Figtree’s ladies club has also reached the summit in the NSW pennants competition, winning the blue-ribbon NSW women’s state grade one pennant flag in 2004. The club remains one of the leading men’s and women’s bowling clubs in the region and its most recent $1.3 million refurbishment, plus rebranding as Figtree Sports has the club well-placed to be a leader in the local area. ”We are always looking to broaden our base and appeal to families in and around the local community and Figtree Sports as a name is helping with this,” club president Larry Matthews said. The club sponsors several sports, including Figtree Kangaroos AFL Club, Figtree Sports Fishing Club, Figtree Sports Social Golf Club, Keira Cricket Club and the Figderra Ladies Hockey Club. While you’re with us the Illawarra Mercury is offering sport readers 20% off an annual digital subscription. Sign up to stay up to date with all the local sports you love for only $3 a week. Terms and conditions apply.

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