When Martin Coppinger rediscovered his love for bowling it helped him win his fourth All-Ireland senior title in seven years, as GER McCARTHY explains
THE year ends with Bantry native Martin Coppinger sitting proudly at the summit of the senior bowling world having secured a fourth All-Ireland title.
Coppinger (35) returned from a brief hiatus having won numerous senior and All-Ireland titles between 2010 and 2013 to once again become All-Ireland champion at the conclusion of a vintage year.
Since then, life took over as the line lead for Johnson and Johnson in Ringaskiddy and his wife Kim welcomed son Tommy into the world.
But the lure of a sport that Coppinger has been involved in since he was a child led the Bantry man back to the famous Madden course in Armagh for a showdown with Ulster champion Bryan O’Reilly. Looking to recapture the coveted All-Ireland title, Coppinger delivered when it mattered most although his preparation was somewhat hampered in comparison to his previous successes.
‘The main difference coming into this year is that I hadn’t won an All-Ireland for a few years and had lost a bit of interest to be honest,’ admitted Coppinger.
‘It is very hard to keep the bowling going when you have a new child on the way and work commitments as well. When it comes to competing at the top end of bowling, you have to be giving it one hundred per cent all of the time. You lose confidence very easily as well when you are not training and competing like you used to.
‘I suppose things changed for me once I got back into it around August of this year and had a run of matches that helped me prepare for the championships.
‘Before that, I was finding it very hard to get matches because people just didn’t want to take me on. That’s the money side of bowling; people won’t compete against you if they feel they have to make up the money to secure a match.
‘It is wrong in a way I suppose but once you get to the top, very few want to compete with you or simply put up the kind of money needed to make a match worth their while.
‘Luckily, coming back last August, I had been away from it for a couple of years so people were more willing to play me again.
‘So for a change, I had plenty of matches which helped sharpen me up and that led to better performances. Around Christmas, when my form was back, I just decided that I would keep going for the rest of the year and try and win back the All-Ireland title.’
Bryan O’Reilly, the Madden road, Armagh, August bank holiday weekend, all the ingredients for a classic match-up between two of the top senior bowlers in the country.
‘The day itself panned out the way I wanted even though the starting section is always kind of tricky,’ four-time All-Ireland champion Coppinger admitted.
‘I knew that if I could stay level with Bryan after five or six bowls that the road would kind of open up for me. I knew my power would come into play and that’s exactly what happened. The road was in front of me and I had the confidence to finish things off. I hit two brilliant shots near the end and there was no way back for him (Bryan O’Reilly) at that point.’
When asked if this was the sweetest of all his many bowling victories, Coppinger refers back to his maiden win (in 2010) but doesn’t believe in a league table of successes.
Moving on to the next challenge, the next title, even the next opponent is what has kept Coppinger sharp all these years and no different in 2017.
‘It is hard to say if it was the sweetest because you are always looking to prove yourself in such an individual sport like bowling,’ he said.
‘You gear yourself up to win all the time but as soon as you achieve anything you are immediately looking ahead and not dwelling on things. I suppose the first All-Ireland I won back in 2010 was unexpected so that represents a special moment and a turning point for me too, to be honest. That win gave me the belief that I could do it and I pushed on for that moment.
‘It was out of the blue and some very good bowlers have only ever won one All-Ireland, so I knew I had the ability but hadn’t delivered up until that point. 2010 was when everything changed.’
Coppinger has been delighted to witness bowling’s phenomenal rise in popularity, especially at youth level, in recent years. Increased media coverage in the pages of The Southern Star has helped introduce a new generation of bowlers to an age-old traditional West Cork sport.
‘I grew up in Bantry where everyone played football and where my dad first introduced me to bowling,’ said Coppinger.
‘I played both sports growing up but what has changed in the past couple of the years is the sheer number of men and women, both young and old, who have taken up the sport of bowling. There is interest now from everywhere despite bowling still being relatively unknown in many areas of the country.
‘West Cork and Armagh are the two exceptions where bowling is as big a sport as any other, which I think is great. I would be someone that encourages children to get involved like I did when I was young but everyone knows, to get to the top, there is a lot of money and unfortunately, gambling involved.
‘It is very hard for a newcomer starting out to get the right people around them, to properly train and prepare for the rigours of the sport. It doesn’t matter what your ability is because unless you have the right group preparing and looking after you then you are going to struggle.
‘In an ideal world where money and gambling were completely cut out of bowling then the sport would be much more appealing to a younger audience. Then again, I would also accept that gambling is a big tradition and plays a huge part in the sports appeal at senior level.
‘I would say to anyone starting out that they are going to need thick skin but if they have the right people with them and are willing to work hard that bowling is a hugely enjoyable sport to get involved in.’
As far as comebacks go, Coppinger’s All-Ireland bowling success ranks amongst the best feel-good sports stories of 2017 and it looks like there is even more to come from the Bantry champion next year and beyond.