Jobs Events Advertise Newsletter

A revitalised Indigenous spirit comes through on the bowls green

Andrew Mathieson -

For Indigenous man Rhys Jeffs, a comeback to the game of bowls reconnected the proud father of three’s Wadawurrung side of his journey back into traditional culture while educating a conservative town’s club about the benefits of embracing reconciliation.

How that came about lied somewhere between a childhood visiting his grandfather in Warrnambool and succumbing to peer pressure while attending high school in Geelong.

But the change happened when a former plumbing employer lured Jeffs to recapture his heritage that he buried for years and almost lost forever.

The 32-year-old was born to an Aboriginal mum, but reverted to his dad’s non-Indigenous ways of not being immersed in culture.

“The Indigenous part I have only probably been the same as most other Indigenous kids or person at one stage: I embraced it when I was real young, but in my teenage years it was just easier to go through high school not being it,” Jeffs says.

“I only really picked up being back in culture probably six or seven years ago.

“There was discussions with my wife was that it was not my choice to take away from our kids knowing their culture and who they are – that’s up to them.

“So if I can give them whatever I can when they’re young, they can choose to be proud of it their whole life.

“When I was in high school, I copped the old you know, ‘You’re too white-looking to be an Aboriginal’ and the ‘You’re not a blackfulla’ and the usual blah, blah bullshit.”

The misconception that other students made of Jeffs’ Indigenous claims had him ask is it worth celebrating his heritage?

“Seriously, you just want to escape it,” he adds.

Fighting for his cultural recognition seemed more trouble than it was worth.

That decision went hand in hand with his promising lawn bowls game, a sport that he once loved and thrived on as a standout junior.

“I was just seven years of age when mum and dad let me play in pennant for the first time,” Jeffs recalls.

“My mum and dad, aunties and uncles, and grandparents all played.

With the exception of Jeffs’ old man, the rest of the family bowlers were oddly Aboriginal.

They pushed against the archetypal scene of lawn bowls, where the old folk dined out on the plates of cucumber sandwiches and cups of tea between ends.

Dad coincidentally learned the sport on a bowls green that an old boss dragged him across the road from a workplace for an after-hours social game.

Jeffs showed interest in the game mucking around on the indoor bowls rink when his parents were playing the serious club stuff on the greens.

“I just got hooked on it early,” Jeffs explains.

“It was a competition, I suppose, and I was a young whipper-snapper coming through and everyone homed in that I loved it, and I didn’t mind being in the middle of it.”

Jeffs learned more than just the skills of the game with his maternal grandfather.

But those lessons on the game and his culture was quickly forgotten by the time high school came around.

Both were culturally humiliating in that environment to gain adolescent acceptance among his peers.

“I feel I am only at the tip of reconnection again,” Jeffs says.

“It’s so much to learn and there’s still so many stories I’ve got to listen to again.

“Basically I have realised how often when my grandfather was alive and I went to go down when he played bowls as well, how we used to sit there and talk, and I did not realise then that he was teaching me (culture) until he was gone.

“I sort of miss those conversations a lot now.”

Believe it or not, Reece Plumbing decided to write out a company reconciliation plan, and that is when his past flashed through his head again and Jeffs began to embrace his heritage again several years out of high school.

All of his sudden, his values were found back in his Koori south-western Victorian roots.

“I thought this is a time that I want to be involved again,” he said.

“It opened the doors to a connection back to family.

“All the stuff I learned when I was younger, I was just reconnecting with it again.”

By chance the good work of his bosses to pay respect to the custodians of the land was also a contributing factor to Jeffs leaving his well-paid job.

He had a blackfulla epiphany, realising what his mission in life was from this new-founded clarity.

“I saw myself working from 6:30am until 6pm most days, then getting home, putting the kids to bed and then working until 1am in the morning,” Jeffs says.

“In the end, I said this is ridiculous.

“I was yelling at my young bloke one night because when he went to give me a hug, he put sauce all over my pants.

“When I looked at myself in the mirror, I thought he is a one-year-old that’s happy to see dad come home from work – so what am I doing?

“So I gave up a really good job with Reece, but the kids like me more now.”

The life balance has Jeffs working between his two passions across three occupations.

He runs West Coast Bowls, a bowls business that sells bowls, including Indigenous designs, and bowling accessories.

There’s also Yeerra Ngitj, an Indigenous inclusion and design business that relies on his inner art side with painting of Indigenous yarns, usually for commissions.

Then there’s his Indigenous consultant work for Meli to reach out to Community in and around Geelong.

All the jobs work around his and his family’s lifestyle.

“I love it; my kids now love it too,” Jeffs says.

“I am not earning as much as I was, but everyone around me are a lot happier.”

That has allowed Jeffs to also concentrate on looking after his other family: members of the Winchelsea Bowls Club on Gulidjan lands.

That has been returned to the coach of a proud community, for his four-year-old daughter Tilly, three-year-old son Jimmy and his newborn Eddie.

“Imagine having 15 grandmothers?” Jeffs jokes.

“If you need food, you call for it, you’ll get it.

“There’s always someone there to help you.

“When I’m coaching, there’s a lot of people that look up to me, a lot of people that help me.”

They have embraced Jeffs as the backbone of the club, earned over the years while representing the rural bowls club 40 kilometres west of Geelong.

He has claimed eight club championship wins and a further five regional club champions of champions titles.

The proudest moment, Jeffs says, was his 2021 Bowls Victoria champion of champions title wins that later would produce a bronze medal at the national championship and champion finals.

“I just grew hungry, hungry to work harder to get the (Victorian) gold,” Jeffs says.

“It wasn’t until my second born, a month before it started that I went in with a very different attitude.

“If I lost, I got to go home (early), but if I had won, it was still a nice bonus as well.

“I remember I played with no fear and I wasn’t worried about losing (a final) because there was something more important for me at home.

“But at the end of the day, I wanted to win and that is probably what got me over the line.”

Talking about his zenith in a career that was not only the best Aboriginal player in the state and arguably the country, the bearded figure with the silver crop of hair makes a stark admission on his game.

Considering that most young bowlers of his age still have many years left in what has been an impressive playing career, Jeffs declares that he hasn’t got much more to left to give; to succeed further.

“I probably would have to say that I have kinda peaked,” he says.

“Just at the moment, family is a bit more important to me.

“The aspirations to play for the state and everything, the drive has perhaps gone.

“I got more joy winning the recent grand final with Winchelsea than when I didn’t get selected for the (season) country versus city trial – and I wasn’t disappointed about it.

“I know that sounds really bad because you always want to play at the highest level.”

But perhaps fatherhood has changed Jeffs, caring more for others inside the club than he does for his own ego.

This year’s successful season is evident of that after one of the smaller clubs out in the sticks captured both the division 1 and 2 titles, while also finishing runners-up for the division 4 title, while both of their midweek teams reached the semi-finals too.

The camaraderie inspired by Jeffs’ leadership of a group of around 60 non-Indigenous bowlers got one of the competition’s rank outsiders up, he explains.

“We literally had our division 1 side getting around and driving our division 2 side to an unexpected victory,” Jeffs says.

“I got pretty passionate about that because that means more to me winning that final to me.

“The grand final was the fifth time they had to play (the opposition) in the season, and they got belted three times during the year and came close once.”

But in an old-fashioned town stuck around the livelihoods of cattle and sheep farmers that don’t embrace change easy, Jeffs has been accepted for who he is rather than for what he isn’t in a sport that has not embraced change.

“I have probably been lucky because I had a lot of early success when I was younger and I managed to create a name for myself,” he says.

“I was always Rhys first, while I am Aboriginal.

“They sort of found out later down the track I was after I started reconnecting, which for me is probably not a bad thing.

“My circuit at Winchelsea Bowls Club where I play now, it’s no difference.

“It’s more like ‘Cool, our Aboriginal community plays here’.

   Related   

From one coast to another, Wallam finds a touch of family in her team's Indigenous design
Donnell Wallam’s defining leap onto the game’s horizon after landing from quite...
Andrew Mathieson 24 May 2024
Culture Round bringing Indigenous communities closer to Super Rugby competition
Next to finally capping for Australia in a not-so-distant Wallabies’ future, it...
Andrew Mathieson 24 May 2024
Phil Krakouer law suit to grow into Indigenous class action against the AFL
Legal proceedings by Phil Krakouer and on behalf of his brother Jim and other In...
Andrew Mathieson 24 May 2024
Hornby backs Latrell for Origin return
South Sydney interim coach Ben Hornby says Latrell Mitchell “wouldn’t let anyo...
Martin Gabor 24 May 2024

   Andrew Mathieson   

Culture Round bringing Indigenous communities closer to Super Rugby competition
Next to finally capping for Australia in a not-so-distant Wallabies’ future, it...
Andrew Mathieson 24 May 2024
Phil Krakouer law suit to grow into Indigenous class action against the AFL
Legal proceedings by Phil Krakouer and on behalf of his brother Jim and other In...
Andrew Mathieson 24 May 2024
From one coast to another, Wallam finds a touch of family in her team's Indigenous design
Donnell Wallam’s defining leap onto the game’s horizon after landing from quite...
Andrew Mathieson 24 May 2024
AFL system failing to engage Indigenous players amid slump in numbers
An AFL system fixated on discovering the most elite Indigenous footballers has b...
Andrew Mathieson 22 May 2024