BOWLS: Andrew Leckey leads Irish charge at Watson Stadium

Andrew Leckey will attempt to turn back the clock in the Irish Open Bowls Championship at the Watson Stadium on Saturday.

Team Ireland who were World Cup Winners (left to right) Tony Bell, PJ Gallagher, Pauline Beattie and Joe Beattie
Team Ireland who were World Cup Winners (left to right) Tony Bell, PJ Gallagher, Pauline Beattie and Joe Beattie

It’s the second of six ranking events on the 2016-17 Short Mat Players' Tour season.

The Armagh man lifted the trophy back in 2013 and is determined to improve on his 49th position in the world rankings.

Leckey will certainly be eager to emerge from Group 13 and book a stage in the knockout phase. However, with a certain Joe Beattie also in that section, it promises to be a hotly contested affair.

Beattie and Leckey have been pitched in with Ireland’s Robert Kidd, Sammy Patterson, Katrine McDermott and Germany’s Erika Wachholz.

Leckey also finished runner up in the UK Masters in Belfast back in April. He was pipped to the title by Gary Burke, while Sean Conroy finished in third place to make it a top three finish for local representatives.

The UK Open got the SMPT up and running last month at Bromsgrove Bowls Club, near Birmingham, with Lawrence Moffatt defeating Chris Mann in an all-England final.

Due to commitments outdoors, there was a skeleton Irish interest.

However, Joe Beattie, who has propelled to ninth in the world rankings, may have missed out on the big prize, but he did manage to win the subsidiary competition, defeating Stephen Holdsworth in the Shield final.

And, the Armagh man was on the winners’ rostrum in the SMPT World Cup over the summer months. Joined by his wife, Pauline, PJ Gallagher and Tony Bell, the Irish side defeated Joel Hager, Ingvar Nelson, Dick Almen and Jorgen Karlsson, of Sweden, in the final.

It’s no surprise there is a heavy local interest at Shaws Bridge and, with crucial ranking points up for grabs, all the big guns are ready for action.

SMPT Director Phil Mills is excited by what is sure to be another tremendous two days of action. He said: “The 2016 Irish Open has 174 entrants – a record for this event. Only the SMPT’s World Masters in April is bigger . . . and that is also staged in Belfast.

“We have seen even more players travel to Northern Ireland than in previous Irish Open events.

“Yes, the draw is littered with home players, but it is becoming apparent from results and performances in our international open events that the Irish dominance of short mat bowls is being seriously threatened by the best players from the rest of the world.

“For example two Swedes contested our Two-Bowl Masters final in April and world number two, Dimitri Payne, is the defending Irish Open Champion.

“There was not one Irish player in the medals at the recent UK Open, so the gap in class appears to be closing. With a field of 174 it is virtually impossible to call the winner."

There are number of groups that have a familiar appearance, particularly Section Two, where Pauline Beattie goes in with Stephen Clarke, Michael Fitzsimons, Shauna O’Neill, Aidan Corrigan and Tom Brady.

The reigning champion, Dimitri Payne, will also have his work cut out in Section Five. The Belgain ace faces Wales’ Craig Evans along with Irish quartette of George Tanner, Kevin Conroy, Suzanne Finlay and Andrew Cockcroft.

Saturday show mat games: 9am: Tone Boe (Norway) v Sean Conroy (Ireland); 9.45am: Nathan Haire (Ireland) v Dick Almen (Sweden); 10.30am: Chris McWhinnie (Wales) v Magnus Nordin (Sweden); 11.15am: Andrew Jones (Wales) v Andrew Morrison (Ireland).

Noon: Cecil Dillon (Ireland) v Nathan Haire (Ireland); 12.25pm: James Trott (England) v Stephen Mulholland (Ireland); 1.30pm: Pauline Beattie (Ireland) v Aidan Corrigan (Ireland); 2.15: Dick Almen (Sweden) v Cecil Dillon (Ireland); 3pm: Alan Paul (Ireland) v William Morrision (Ireland). 3.45pm: Kevin Conroy (Ireland) v Dimitri Payne (Belgium); 4.30pm: Jonathan Payne (Belgium) v Mark Beattie (Ireland); 5.15pm: Jonas Hager (Sweden) v Sophie McIntyre (Ireland).