Top-class bowler McHugh relishing his chance to shine at Glasgow 2014

Martin McHugh in action for Whitehead. Photo: Phillip Byrne
Martin McHugh in action for Whitehead. Photo: Phillip Byrne

Martin McHugh is heading into his fifth Commonwealth Games in search more medals to add to his already brimming collection of titles, writes John Gillespie.

The Whitehead man is one of the most decorated players in Irish bowls and few within the game would be surprised if he arrives home with a medal or two around his neck as he represents Northern Ireland in the Singles and Pairs at Kelvingrove.

A quick look at the 41-year-old’s credentials explains why: he has won the Northern Ireland Bowling Association Singles six times since 2001. He’s also won the Pairs on six occasions.

He’s a five-times winner of the Irish Singles and has won the Pairs four times. The Larne native has also won the British Isles Singles twice (2003 and 2004) and the Pairs in 2006.

He has a World Bowls bronze medal in the Triples from 2000 in Johannesburg, and he won gold in the Fours in the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

Speaking to the Times this week, McHugh said his recent good form has given him confidence as he prepares for Glasgow.

“This is going to be my fifth Commonwealth Games,” he said. “My first experience was in Kuala Lumpur where we won the gold medal in the Fours and we just missed out on a medal in Manchester. Again, we just missed out on a medal at the Singles in Melbourne and we came close to qualifying in the Triples in India. Hopefully this year it will be a bit more successful.”

He added: “It’s a case of the old cliché of taking things one game at a time and try and get out of the qualifiers. I haven’t really set any targets but I know if I play well, I will do well. That’s the key. My partner Helen and son Jorden coming over is going to be a big help because I’ll be a lot more settled.

“I know if I take care of my own, I’ll be OK. I have good form at the minute and hopefully that will continue.”

McHugh was in Cardiff at the weekend practising with players from Wales and New Zealand for the shorter-format matches he will be part of at the Games.

“There’s a two-and-a-half hour time limit,” he explains. “The Singles is still 21 ends, but there are no burnt ends. It’s a re-spot if the jack goes off the rink.

“The Commonwealth Games is down to a five-man team now. It’s the same as World Bowls. Previously I was just playing in the one tournament - either Singles, Pairs or Triples. But now with the new format I’ve the chance to get two cracks at a medal. I’m going in the Singles and with Ian (McClure) in the Pairs.”

“I am confident about it,” he added. “At the British Isles event I was beaten in the final of the Singles and I was beaten in the final of the Pairs. But, going in to the Commonwealth Games, I’m really looking forward to it. I’m in with New Zealand, Jersey, Malta and Papua New Guinea.”

Having competed at the highest level and against the best in world, McHugh isn’t diving into the unkown on the greens. He’s familiar with the players he will face and mentioned a few to watch out for.

“I’ve played against them before at World Bowls level and at Commonwealth level. At least this time I have them on my own patch whereas when I was playing out in New Zealand and Australia it was on their turf.

“In the Singles, Shannon McIlroy (New Zealand) is in my group and you have Aron Sherriff (Australia) and then you have Robert Weale (Wales) who won the last Commonwealths in India.

“The new format has four groups and then the top two go through from each group so I can’t really afford to make a mistake. I need to really keep going. I have five games to play and I need to win four of them to qualify and then I’ll be looking at the quarter-finals and whoever comes out of the other groups.”

In the Pairs, McHugh teams up with Portrush’s McClure - a player with whom he has a great rapport.

“Ian and I go back a long, long time,” he said. “We actually came through at junior level at the same time. We have a great understanding of each other and we are good mates on and off the green.

“He knows my strengths and hopefully I know his. If things aren’t going well we can talk to each other and push each other on.”

And, of course, there will be the usual unwavering backing from everyone at Castleview Road where McHugh plays his bread-and-butter bowls with Whitehead.

“Everybody at the club has been very supportive of me,” said the Larne Borough Council employee. “Whether I’m playing in the nationals or at the highest level at the Commonwealths or at World Bowls, they are all 100 per cent. I get texts every day when I’m away or they are contacting me through Facebook wishing me all the best.

“Obviously my family are backing me too; Helen and Jorden and my mum and dad. Hopefully I can go and do well for them.

“Helen and Jorden will be in Glasgow for the Games so at least I can look up into the crowd and give them a wave.”

He added: “The council have been very supportive. I can’t thank them enough for what they do for me. Any time I need off they are quite happy to help me out.”

McHugh is also planning to watch a number of other sports and soak up the Commonwealth experience, starting with the opening ceremony.

“It’s always different class,” he said. “I always remember the first opening ceremony in Kuala Lumpur. It was amazing just to walk out wearing our Northern Ireland gear, it really was a hair-raising effect.

“We went to see the boxing in Delhi and it was brilliant. Hopefully we’ll get along to that and get to see another couple of events, maybe the athletics.”