Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Some Reflections on the Scottish Curling Championships

Sadly, I was only able to make the Saturday sessions.  See travelling on business?  Nightmare!  Anyhow, up we went to Perth, there to watch things and dream of times past.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I always find it very difficult to support one team.  It was easier in olden times when teams represented ice rinks and comprised typically local players.  The Torrance rink was from Hamilton and the Hay rink from Perth; if the skips name was Adam or Horton, chances were that they were from Glasgow and the Hendersons were Aberdeen born and bred.  So, if you went to Dundee or Perth or Kirkcaldy, there to watch the Scottish Championship finals in February, you had “your” team.

Now – it’s a nightmare!  Four of us decided to sit in the bleachers and concentrate on the Ewan MacDonald v David Edwards 3 v 4 page play-off game.  We dutifully walked twixt one end and the other, better to see the head at close quarters.  I will tell you that the other three were Bob Kelly, Bob Cowan and Ken Horton.  Alan Durno, who had taken his customary place close to the bar servery up the stairs, saw this sorrowful, stooped and regular procession and immediately christened us “the four coffin dodgers”; a bit harsh, I thought, but there we were.  Back and forth we went, talking about old times, chewing on various cuds and watching a splendid game of curling. 

So who was I supporting?  Well, I know, like and respect all eight of the players we were watching.  Some I know better than others, but to be honest, I did not want to appear heavily in favour of one team or the other, so I just applauded everyone and everything and thought to myself “may the best team win” on the day. Which really didn’t help the atmosphere too much.  You don’t want a bunch of neutrals in a sports crowd!

Now – do I want to go back to the old days where, believe this or believe it not, entries to the Scottish Championships were controlled by ice rink managers?  Obviously not; it was a ludicrous situation.  But, on the other hand, we have lost something of the “partisan” support that goes so much to defining the atmosphere at the Canadian Brier or Scotties Championships, for example and that used to be such a feature of the Scottish Championships, when crowds of well over a thousand keen curling fans packed the old ice rink arenas and supported their favourites.

I do think that the Scottish is a defining championship for both men and ladies; as I have written before, it sorts out the men from the boys (with apologies to the ladies – but you get what I mean).  That is why it is so distressing to me that the entries were so low this year – especially in the ladies competition.  It seems to me that the high up-front cost of entry stops a lot of teams that might consider throwing their hat into the ring from doing so.  Also to be considered is the amount of time that most competitors need to take as holiday.  The competition has grown arms and legs and (perhaps this is an unfortunate analogy given the subject matter) but it has grown like topsy into a competition on steroids!  A whole week, for goodness sake.

A rethink of the format is required so that teams can dip their toes in the water without risking literally hundreds of pounds.  I know that a number of people have thoughts on this and some ideas will be aired in the near future.  I will not steal their thunder, but change there has to be.

As to the winners of the two competitions, both teams will represent their countries with pride, passion, commitment and no little skill.  Whether they medal or not will depend on all of those facets as well as a liberal dose of lady luck’s gifts.  There are no minnows now at World Championship level and both teams will need to be at the peak of their form to win.  Winning is in both of their pedigrees though, so good luck to them both and safe travels to Halifax (men) and Sapporo (women).

Anyone need some negotiating consultancy help in either venue, by the way?  I’m your man!  Usual fees apply.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Pipelines and Things

It is fair to report that our sport has enjoyed great success at recent Olympic, World and European events.  You may well argue that it has never been healthier and that we live in a golden age of success.  If you look at the international achievements of the likes of Anna Sloan, Greg Drummond, Michael Goodfellow, Scott Andrews, Tom Brewster, Claire Hamilton, Vicky Adams, Lauren Gray, Eve Muirhead and David Murdoch – to name but ten, and in no particular order – well, you cannot really argue.  These people have been prepared to commit wholly to their sport; they have given up huge amounts of time and effort and, yes, they are living their dream. But the rest of us should never forget that they didn’t achieve this success by accident: they visit the gym regularly; they put in as much work to their sport as the rest of us do to our jobs and, though the highs are undoubtedly high, they come at a price.

Such is the lot of any top sportsperson in the UK today.  You want to get to the top?  Commit.  End of.  And when there is lottery money available to fund all of the coaches and support staff, then that is fine.  Sorted, in fact.

It is up to the sport’s governing body to do the next bit.  I am going to call it “the pipeline”.  The pipeline is important for two immediate reasons
·       The top chaps need to be kept on their toes; they need to be kept “honest”; they need to know that if they slip – even fall – then there will be someone else in the wings willing and able to leap into their place.
·       There needs to be a succession plan in place; we need to think long-term.  It is all very well thinking of these top players as being long-term solutions, but life is about change, so there needs to be a Sarah Reid willing to step into the shoes of a departing Claire Hamilton, for example.  Oh.  There was; so that’s OK then as well.

To be serious for a second, we actually do have at least a couple of teams in both ladies and men that are serious challengers for the Scottish Championships this year.  I am thinking of the likes of teams MacDonald, Brewster and Edwards in the men and Gray and Fleming in the ladies.  Any one of these teams should have been exposed enough to top-level competition (as well as being serious, regular visitors to the business ends of our national championships) that, if push comes to shove and they find themselves representing their country at World or European level – well, they should be able to make a fist of it. 

Last season, in the controversial absence of the two Olympic teams, teams Barr and MacDonald came out top in their respective Scottish Championships and went to the World Championships.  Unfortunately, neither team threatened the podium, but the experience gained will always be there in the memory banks if the same thing happens again.  

Earlier this season, Teams Edwards and Muirhead won the European play-off in Scotland and therefore took on the far more perilous trip to the European Championships.  For team Muirhead, this was all grist to the mill but for team Edwards, this was their first outing on the serious international stage (with apologies to sundry Junior and European Mixed Championships) and the stakes were high indeed – qualify Scotland for the World Championships.  As the week ground on, the wee Andrex puppy was becoming increasingly agitated, but they came through in the end – as did the ladies with a Bronze medal win over Denmark, their slightly surprising conquerors in the 3v4 play-off game.

So – a story of mixed success then and I think that there are some learning points here for the HHYs.  I’ll bullet-point them as follows
·       The Scottish Championships remain an important calendar event and the stakes in this open competition should remain high.  Bottoms should squeak.  Top teams need to be kept “honest”.
·       Serious competition is important, so ensure that you have at least two “other” teams that can step up to the plate.  This means funneling funds in their direction as well and sending them off to at least three Champions Tour events in the period September to December/ early January.
·       Maintain the age-group championships, but let the youngsters pick their own teams until at least age 18.  Let them enjoy competing with friends; allow them the space to become enthused with the game before you channel them inexorably into teams when they are still too young.

There’s other stuff as well, but that will do for the moment!

Sorry that it has been quiet here for so long and many thanks to those of you whom I have met in my travels and who have encouraged me to take up the fingers again. 

More later.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

BBC Sports Personality of the Year

For some reason, BTG's invitation was lost in the Christmas rush post.  Tssk, tssk, BT, whatever were you thinking?

This has got BTG into a curmudgeonly mood.  Normal service will be resumed next week.

Batten down the hatches, curling HHYs, I'm coming after you again!


Friday, April 25, 2014

Stones of Destiny!

It is 1972 and we are deep into the final of the World Championship in Garmish-Partenkirchen.  Orest Meleschuk knows that he has to hit and stick within the eight-foot on tricky, heavy ice to score two and take the game into an extra end.  His opponents were team USA, skipped by Bob LaBonte.  Their round-robin records were Canada 7-0 and USA 4-3.  Never was there such a mismatch, yet here we were – it all depended on the big fellow’s last stone.

Cigarette dangling from his lips, he threw his fateful stone; the sweepers give it an early bang with their corn brooms, but the stone suddenly sits back and they are called off quickly; contact is made, but the shooter rolls slowly out towards the eight-foot; and further out; and further out - helped on its way by some furious sweeping from the American third, Frank Aasand.  Finally, it comes to rest, close to lying second, but was it?

Slowly, Dave Romano, the Canadian third moves to look at his skip’s stone.  In his heart of hearts, he must have been worried, but he takes a long hard look despite his opposite number’s celebrations.  Skip LaBonte, taking his cue from Aasand’s leaps of joy, started his own macabre victor’s dance.  The camera cuts to the American front end, who are running down the ice in celebration just as LaBonte begins his tumble.  Don Chevrier pauses mid-sentence as the Americans continue their celebrations, because the unthinkable has happened; LaBonte has slipped and kicked the Canadian stone before Romano has had a chance to either concede or call for a measure.

There is confusion in the commentary box.  With the benefit of hindsight, of course, there should have been none.  The stone had not been measured and Canada had not conceded the game.  Eventually the stones are cleared and the extra end is played.  Meleshuk plays a nice come around a centre guard, though he sits at the back of the one foot.  LaBonte’s attempted draw to face it – predictably in the circumstances – was high, wide and not so very handsome.  The Canadians go home as undefeated World Champions.  The USA, who in their own minds were World Champions for about 7 seconds were left to lick their wounds and think about what might have been.

In the great scheme of things, it wasn’t so much a stone of destiny as a salutary lesson to all curlers everywhere.  Neither team made it back to the World Championships but what, at first, was destined to be a footnote in the history of our great sport began to develop wings and gradually, people began to talk about the “curse of LaBonte”.  It is a fact that Canada did not win a World Curling Championship for the rest of that decade.  Given their dominance in world curling hitherto, it was astonishing!

Then we go the Olympic semi-finals in Japan in 1998.  The GBR ladies are up against Sandra Schmirler who, until this point in the competition had really dominated.  The semi-final was against GBR, skipped by Kirsty Hay, with the Loudon sisters and Jackie Lockhart; no mugs and, truth to tell, they really made the Canadians work hard for their victory, so much so that with Schmirler’s last stone in the extra end, she was facing two GBR stones – albeit with the full eight foot to draw to.  As it crossed the hogline, it’s fair to say that, to use a lovely old Scottish phrase, “it was fully there”!  There was backing, but the line was high and let’s just say that Edith Loudon got her brush to it and had a good sweep, before it stopped – agonisingly beating the GBR stone by inches.  From the semi-final to the bronze medal play-off game – and that is surely the worst one of all to lose; sadly, that is exactly what happened for GBR against the Swedes.

Fast forward a few more years to the Olympic Games in Pinerolo; exactly the same stage in the competition, though this time the GBR men – David Murdoch, Ewan Macdonald, Warwick Smith and Euan Byers are tied at 3-3 coming into the tenth end of a tight, nervy tussle against Markku Uusilpaavalniemi’s Finnish champions.  The Finns hold the crucial last stone.  GBR is lying at 9.00 fully in the four foot and corner frozen against a Finnish stone.  David, with his last stone, plays the perfect shot to about 6.30 at the front of the four foot covering the one foot and forcing Markku to the cold out-turn draw to the button.  The GBR boys must have felt quietly confident.  U15 had to bite the button, whilst coming tight to the guard just laid by Murdoch.  But there was nothing they could do except watch as the stone came perfectly to rest on the button with barely a sweep by the front end.

Heartache twice!

But then you have Rhona Martin’s stone of destiny; enough said!  A month later, Jackie Lockhart’s nerveless hit on a straight piece of ice against Colleen Jones’ Canadian team to win the World Championship.  David Murdoch’s “stone of retribution” – the raised double take out against his pals, Thomas Ulsrud’s Norwegian team in the Sochi Olympics.

You win some; you lose some.

But spare a thought for Labonte and his mates; that’s a lifetime of heartache right there.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

In Defence of the Scottish

Actually, it all started with a miss by one of the five against the other four.  Otherwise the four would never have become five and, I suspect, we would have had a different team at the recent Winter Olympics.  Confused?  Let me explain.

It is February 2011 at Perth ice rink and the Scottish Championship is approaching its denouement.  In the semi-final, Tom Brewster is skipping a team of young hopefuls – a couple of whom wore the same kind of scars as their more experienced skip had in abundance.  Both Greg Drummond and Michael Goodfellow had recently aged out without winning the Scottish Junior Championship.  Their last chance had been against the Ally Fraser team, with Greg’s brother, Kerr at lead. 

Anyhow.  Back to the semi-final; Tom and company had put up a good fight, but they were up against David Murdoch, with Warwick Smith at third, Ross Hepburn at lead and – Glen Muirhead at second.  David had last stone advantage.  I was behind the barrier and saw the whole thing unfold.  With the skips’ stones to play, here’s what I wrote.

With Tom’s first stone in the fateful last end, he attempted to draw round a short guard but was light and came up short.  David attempted a difficult double clear, but was about an inch tight and ended up clearing Tom’s two guards but left his own shooter in play and covering the edge of the four foot.  Tom’s out-turn draw was perfect and bit a piece of the one foot, showing maybe three-quarters of a stone.  David elected to play the cold draw to the one foot, though he knew that he had a bit of backing with Tom’s stone on the tee line.  Meat and drink.  He slid down to the far end, conferred with his front end – strong sweepers both, settled in the hack, concentrated and began his delivery.  Warwick Smith’s brush was almost exactly where Greg’s had been a couple of minutes before.  David slid out – he seemed to be sliding ever-so-slightly tight from where I was, but that could have been an illusion.  In any case, he released and from there, it was down to Glen and Ross.  Except it wasn’t.  Maybe ten yards along its path, David just dropped his brush and looked heavenwards.  He knew already.  The sweepers stayed close.  Warwick shrugged and shook his head – he knew.  Still the sweepers stayed close, but in their hearts, they knew too.  Handshakes all round.  I looked at Glen.  I knew how he felt.  Shell-shocked.  If you haven’t been there, my friend, you will never, ever know, is all I’m telling you.  Glen’s been there a few times.  He knows.  He will be stronger for it, though that particular platitude wears thin with him at the moment.

Tom, Greg, Scott Andrews and Michael went on to beat Moray Combe in a tense final and then won Silver at the World Championships.  The next year, they repeated the feat – losing a tense World final to Canada’s Glenn Howard and that summer following, the four became five when David Murdoch joined the team.

Question: would anyone have picked Tom and his team to go to the World Championships that year?  I’ll answer that one for you.  No.

Would anyone have picked Ken Horton in 1977?  No.  Mike Hay in 1984?   No.  David Murdoch in 2003?  You’re getting the picture.

Maybe my point is even more tellingly made if we look at the ladies game.  Rhona Howie.  Would anyone have picked Rhona anytime?  No.  She doggedly came back for more heartache after more heartache; she was Mrs second-place Howie year after heart-breaking year.  She was like a punch-drunk fighter coming back for more.  And she kept coming back and finally, splendidly, magnificently, she claimed her Scottish Championship.  She proved herself in the cauldron of competition and did enough to get picked as the GBR skip in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.  Rhona Martin, Debbie Knox, Fiona MacDonald, Janice Watt and Margaret Morton.  What a team of losers they turned out to be.

I am hearing and reading it all over again.  Let’s have picked teams for the World Championships; let’s downgrade the Scottish Championship to a second-rate competition.

Let’s not bother, shall we?  Let’s look at history.  Pay attention, people; we have a jewel in our crown.  Keep it polished.
Robin Copland

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sochi's on my Mind (part two)

Well; the dust has settled on the round-robin competitions and we enter the play-off phases of the competition with the semi-finals.  In the ladies competition, Canada find themselves in that most unenviable of positions: top of the table, but about to face arguably the top team in the competition - our own GBR team skipped by Eve Muirhead.

If we are truthful, the girls have struggled a bit and there has been some careless shot-play.  5-4 is not what was expected at the start of the week though, and to be very fair, the losses have typically been in tight, tight games.  We approach the business end of the competition; I like our chances.  Eve seems nerveless when she throws these big, big shots towards the end of her games.  She has a wonderful temperament.  If Anna, Vicky and Claire can set things up for her, she will finish them off.

David Murdoch, by the way, really needs to start sending Christmas cards and gifts to Rasmus Stjerne Hansen (not a name for the faint-hearted!).  Not once, but twice, he has ridden to GBR's rescue - first with a bit of a miss with his last stone against the British boys earlier on in the round-robin, then with a great (and somewhat unexpected) win against Norway in the final game.  That win set the play-off game up; had Norway won their game, then it would have been curtains for the GB men.

I really liked the way that the GBR men went about their business and as for David's last stone - have a look at it again on the iplayer!  All I'm saying.  Brilliant!

Men v Sweden and women v Canada.  Business end of the competition.  Bring it on!

Friday, February 07, 2014

Sochi's on my Mind!

It’s not far away now!  There are ten GBR curlers’ hearts beating just that little bit faster as Monday approaches.  Their support teams will be gathered around them – holding hands; supporting; encouraging.  The coaches will be focusing their charges on the struggles ahead.  The clock keeps ticking down.

For some, this is not a new experience.  Both skips have been here and done that in Olympics past – in David Murdoch’s case, not once, but twice.  He has come agonisingly close – who will ever forget Uusilpaavalniemi’s draw to the corner of the one foot in the Pinerolo semi-final eight years ago to snatch victory from the GBR team?  They went on to lose to the Americans in the 3 v 4 play-off but, interestingly, went on that year to win the World Championship – a chance denied them this time around.

Eve, as a young and raw 19 year-old went to Vancouver as skip of a strong GBR ladies team – Jacqui Lockhart at third, Kelly Wood at second and Lorna Vevers at lead, with fellow-golfer Annie Laird as alternate.  They lost more than they won, but many of the losses were tight, tight affairs and she will have learned from the experience.

This time around, I like the look of both teams.  I think that both have great chances of podium finishes – with perhaps the women looking the stronger of the two in their group.  That said, there are a goodly number of strong ladies teams.  GBR start with a game against their nemeses, the Swedish ladies; tough opener, this one.  You look at this Swedish team and think that they are there for the taking; but they are dogged and the sum is very definitely stronger than the parts. 

On Tuesday, they play the USA in a game I expect them to win.  Then on Wednesday, they have a big game against Jennifer Jones from Canada.  Jones has made a habit of winning Canadian championships for fun but, strange to report, this is her first go at the Olympics.  This would be a great game for Eve and company to win!  Jones has one only World Gold to her name – and that was in front of a home crowd in Vernon.  Get the win in early.  Let the Canadians sweat a bit!

Mind you, two of the first three games are tough, tough affairs – and, by the way, I don’t expect the USA to be pushovers either!   

China, Japan, Korea will be doughty opponents.  In round seven there awaits the 2012 World Champions, the Swiss skipped by Mirjam Ott.  The GBR team has two round-robin games after their match against Ott, one against the stuffy Russians in front of a home crowd, and finally they play Denmark.

Look, a game of curling can go either way and, more often than not, will hinge on one or two great stones or marginal misses.  Our team is good though – really good.  Yes, they will have a target on their backs as the current World Champions, but there is a presence about them on the ice and the other teams know just how good they each are.  With David Hay as their coach, a man for whom they all have the utmost respect, I expect them to reach the semi-finals and I hope that they get the wee rubs that Rhona Martin got all those years ago and David Murdoch didn’t get in Pinerolo.  I think that the four semi-final places go to Canada, Sweden, Switzerland and GBR.  GBR for Gold!  There you go; I’ve said it!

Now to the men.  They have the honour of opening their campaign against the Russians.  I like the fact that they get the Russians early, before the crowd has settled down.  I think that their second game is also a good one for them against a strangely out-of-sorts but current World Champion, Niklas Edin.  Germany, Switzerland, USA and Denmark follow and I am really hoping that, by this time, they are on a 6-0 or 5-1 record, for the next two games are the tough ones, and they come one after the other.  Canada, skipped by Brad Jacobs with a really strong third in Ryan Fry, look the class of the field to me; Norway, whom GBR face in the next game, are perennial podium finishers.  The GBR men finish their round-robin with a game against China.  I hope that they have done well enough for it not to matter!

I think that the four semi-finalists in this field are Canada, Norway, GBR and Sweden.  I say that because the GBR team has a pretty strong record in recent World and European Championships – two Silver medals and two Bronzes.  There was a time when David Murdoch had the Indian sign over Norway’s Ulsrud, but that time has perhaps passed.  If I were a man who prayed, I think I would want Sweden in the semi-final – and then may the best team win the final!  Can the men make it a golden double for GBR in the curling?  We can dream, but I think a more realistic colour is either Silver or Bronze – depending on whom they face in the semi-final.  I can’t see past Canada for the Gold – but I want the lads to prove me wrong and I promise that my face will be covered in poached egg (the healthier option, after all!), when they come back to Blighty with a Gold medal around their necks.

Best of luck to them all.  They all deserve our 100% support.  The games are all on the BBC red button service and you might find this link useful.