Monday, December 20, 2010

Organising the Season

This season has been a difficult one for competition organisers, I can tell you. It is all to do with competing diaries and the needs of teams with different interests and issues. It is to do with not enough weekends in the season; it is a story of junior teams wanting to compete in senior competitions; it is to do with teams wanting to test their mettle abroad; it is about competition organisers trying to maintain their competition at the top of their particular tree.

There are, I suppose, certain competitions that need to be given precedence in all of this. As far as the World Championships and European Championships are concerned, their dates tend to set in stone a couple of years in advance. The Scottish Championships – and I mean both junior, mens and ladies competitions here, by the way – will need to have dates about three to four weekends in advance of the relevant world championship. There are qualifying weekends for the finals. Another weekend in the Scottish diary needs to be found for a European qualifying competition. Suddenly, if you are looking at the Scottish diary, you have already accounted for five or six weekends in the season – and the season only last twenty-five odd weeks; two of those are taken up with Christmas and New Year.

Some of our domestic competitions are struggling to fill their quotas; many find themselves unable to 'attract' the top Scottish teams. Cheap flights, sponsorship and funding have enabled teams to travel abroad far more than was the case even ten years ago. I can understand why top teams would want to travel to major competitions abroad; they will better themselves by competing against the top teams in Europe. Is it not ironic though, that taxpayers money is spent giving top teams the chance to compete abroad to the detriment of the Scottish circuit? That money, which might equally well be spent developing a meaningful series of domestic curling competitions, is spent instead filling the coffers of Ryanair, EasyJet, various hotels in exotic cities and, of course, the overseas competitions themselves.

There is a danger that I become a bit Colonel Blimpish in all of this; it does not do to be too insular – after all, we have a number of competitions in Scotland that aim to attract foreign teams to these shores. That said, I do think that we need to plan ahead just a little bit better than perhaps we have these past few years and – this might sound a bit radical – occasionally make different choices than the ones that we have made in past seasons. 'The needs of the many' should be the mantra for the future in my view – not 'the needs of the few'. We should set ourselves a very simple objective here – to improve the standard of domestic competitions in Scotland to such an extent that European teams will literally be gagging to come over here and compete – not necessarily just the other way round.

Consider, for a moment, what we have to offer:
• History and heritage
• Good direct transportation links with most curling countries in Europe
• Great facilities
• Existing competitions
• Attractive destinations
• Strong domestic game with a good depth of talent
In other words, we already have more than enough going for us to turn Scotland into the destination of choice for competitive curlers from Europe.

What do we need to do to achieve this? Well, for starters, we need to get some communication going; we need to get people to talk to each other.

Indulge me here for a minute; let us take the Under 21s ladies and mens circuits in Scotland as an example of a possible way forward. The competitions on the circuit (I use that word loosely, by the way) are the Greenacres Junior Masters, the Kinross Classic, the Dunvegan/Gogar Salver weekend at Murrayfield, the Highland Junior International at Inverness and the Lockerbie Junior tournament. Of those, the Lockerbie mens competition struggled this year because most of the top junior mens teams were involved in the first weekend of the Scottish Championship Qualifiers; the Murrayfield weekend failed to attract Anna Sloan’s team (curling in Canada), Teams King, Fleming and Gray (curling in Forfar), Eve Muirhead (curling with her senior team in Canada); The Inverness competition attracted a pretty strong line up. The Kinross Classic was likewise well-supported; I suppose that the only absentees were the young Duncan Menzies team (they were supporting their ice rink’s open competition, so fair enough – and they won it, to boot!).

I suppose I am arguing for a number of things.
• competition organisers should try to get together to avoid clashes where possible
• a meeting of interested parties (coaches, teams, ice rink management, competition organisers, to name but a few) should be convened around about now to put together a meaningful and cohesive diary of events in the form of a circuit for next season.
• Proper individual competition prizes and an overall league prize (as happens in the Under 17s circuit). My own personal preference would be that the winner of the mens and womens circuit would be based on results in all five age group competitions and would be include automatic qualification for the Scottish Junior Championship finals, automatic qualification for the Scottish Qualifying Championships and a funded trip abroad.
• The dates in the circuit should address the needs of as many people as possible, though where there is a clash, I am sorry but we should definitely not have a free weekend here in Scotland to allow one team the chance to compete in a Canadian Cashspiel, for example. Sometimes, difficult choices have to be made.

I wonder if a commercial sponsor could be found to sponsor the circuits. Failing which, perhaps British Curling would be able to divert some of the new money that has been found to fund the elite curling programme to sponsor the circuits? If their aim is to broaden the competitive base in curling, this initiative would surely move us towards the fulfilling of that laudable objective.

Here’s another thought: why not two competitions get together during a holiday period and cooperate with each other to attract some foreign teams to these shores? The competitions could run say Monday to Wednesday and Friday to Sunday. Perhaps teams that have travelled could be hosted between the competitions to cut down on their costs. This approach would have the added benefit of freeing up a weekend.

What I am arguing for is a bit of joined-together thinking and a realisation that competitions should not be competing AGAINST each other, but cooperating WITH each other to develop their competitions and the overall health of the game here in Scotland.

A similar approach could be adopted at the open level and the mini tour could be revived and resuscitated to give teams some much-needed competition before being flung into their national championships relatively 'cold'.

Food for thought, I hope.

Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year break. Here’s hoping that we all get the chance to curl outdoors, by the way – whisper this last bit – even in a Grand Match?

Monday, November 08, 2010

We need to get real

This is going to be a difficult one to write – and to take. As always, it will be written without malice and should not be taken personally; and don’t you just know that, as soon as those words are written as early as the second sentence of an article, someone is going to find it hard to take and someone else is going to take it personally. Ah well. Such is life.

I was up in Inverness at their annual skins tournament. Fantastic weekend and great fun to compete against those I normally just watch and comment on. We heroically reached the quarter finals of the competition completely against the run of play and then, equally heroically, lost our game against Andrew Craigie. Them’s the rubs, but the weekend itself was what curling is all about. Ninety-six like-minded people gathered together for a bit of competition – taken seriously whilst on the ice and a bit of craic – taken equally seriously by many, who shall remain nameless, as they made gallant efforts in search of the next morning’s headache. The success of their previous-day endeavours was evident in the long and unshaven faces that greeted your correspondent early on Sunday morning. And that was the women – you should have seen the men.

But chat there was a-plenty and many were the opinions expressed in good faith.

And I am worried about our sport. Really worried.

>I am worried about it from a competitive perspective because, frankly, our system seems to be breeding an air almost of resignation amongst the next generation of curlers coming through.
>I am worried about it from a facilities point of view – it seems that the only ways to get new facilities are either to rely on local councils’ largesse or take a suicidal leap down the debt trail and hock yourself to the bank for silly amounts of money.
>I am worried about it at grassroots level because the numbers of keen and committed club curlers seem to be dwindling year-on-year.

Worried, worried, worried.

At the moment, serious amounts of money are spent developing youth curling. Coaching is available and those at the top of the junior tree are offered funded trips to overseas competitions (sometimes in Canada) as well as excellent nutritional and fitness programmes. Once the junior curlers have attained the age of majority, they are cast into the big bad world of mainstream competitive curling and told to get on with it. Many do and make a right good fist of it too. Others last a season or two, then, to all intents and purposes, give the competitive game up. Imagine – everything given to them on a plate then – they give it all up! This season, the proof is in the pudding; only eight teams have bothered to enter the Scottish Ladies Championships and a couple of them are juniors.

What’s going on? Is it maybe too easy as a junior – are we breeding a comfort-zone that is perhaps too comfortable? I would have thought that I had died and gone to heaven, given the overseas trips and the coaching that youngsters get these days. But in giving all of that support, are we breeding out of the curler that fighting 'bite' that is needed to progress things further up the greasy pole?

Maybe, the system should not drop the twenty-two year old curler fresh out of juniors quite so quickly. Perhaps, there should be an intermediate level that keeps those promising enough at junior level with a bit of support in their early senior years. One thing I want to see happen this season is that a serious challenge comes forward from the mid-twenties brigade. Glen Muirhead showed that it could be done last season with his fabulous tilt at the Scottish title. I want to see John Hamilton, or Logan Gray, or Scott Hamilton, or Sandy Reid – I could go on; I want to see these teams press forward and challenge the Murdochs, the McMillans (whose team, to be fair, includes two relatively recent junior champions, Sandy Gilmour and Ross Paterson) and the Macdonalds. I like the fact that Tom Brewster has taken three recently aged-out juniors under his wing this season; they will learn a lot.

I want Eve Muirhead to be challenged by more than one early twenties team (Sarah Reid). There should be three or four rinks – not just one. Something is wrong when young curlers who were good enough to win the Scottish Junior Championship not that many years ago do not feel inclined even to enter their national championship. We should have twenty teams entering – never mind eight!

Ice rinks – ah, ice rinks. No ice rinks – no sport; no ice rinks – no Olympic medals; no ice rinks – no World and European Championships; no ice rinks – no curling. It seems that in the present climate, ice rinks will be hard to come by. You might get the odd council building a rink that our sport would then, in all probability have to share with skating and hockey, unless you are particularly lucky and live in Dumfries. You might be lucky and live in a town where there is a rink in existence and that said rink is in good enough nick to continue for some time – maybe with a little investment money courtesy of some quango or other (see quangos? Occasionally, they have their uses!).

But now, I’m going to tell you what we don’t need – and that’s 'don’t' with a capital 'd'. We don’t need a new facility with debt hanging round its neck like an Invernessian hangover. The difference between an Invernessian hangover and debt is that the hangover goes away tomorrow; debt doesn’t! Apart from the planning difficulties that seem to have beset the National Academy project in Kinross, there is a real funding issue that needs to be addressed and that is the shortfall between funds raised and final costs.

There is another issue though and that is the ambitious income plans set out in a presentation given to the Inaugural Meeting of the Kinross Curling Trust on 15 November 2009. Suffice it to say that income in year one is projected to be £495K. Let me put that into some kind of perspective: I am not going to give confidential information away here, but that figure is significantly higher than the turnover of another ice rink, not a million miles away over the Forth Road Bridge, situated, as near as makes no odds, in the centre of Edinburgh and adjacent to a big stadium, which claims to be the busiest ice rink in all of Europe (the ice rink, that is; not the stadium). Bear in mind where Murrayfield is situated – bang in the heart of a city with a population of 500,000; bear in mind that the rink has a serious veterans club that uses the rink during the day; bear in mind that there are other ladies clubs that use the rink during the day; bear in mind that it runs at 100% occupancy over seven sheets in two of the three evening sessions and is relatively well patronised in the awful 9.30pm slot as well. Bear all of that in mind and then ask yourself exactly from where the projected turnover figure for the National Academy is coming.

I hate to say this to some very committed friends of mine, but we need to get real. If you can’t raise the money and if you can’t achieve the income projections, then the whole thing needs to be scaled back to a sustainable level that gives the project a fighting chance of survival and long-term health. If that means losing out on some of the available funding, then so be it. I would rather have a sustainable rink with less funding than an unsustainable rink with more funding, if you see what I mean.

But there is an important lesson here for any people with ambitions to build / renovate a curling rink. At the end of the project, debt has to be contained to a sustainable level that enables the business to pay the annual interest, pay off the debt over a reasonable period of time, put monies aside for investment in new stones, new equipment, building refurbishment and the like, as and when needed. It is a tall order in today’s climate, make no mistake.

And that leads nicely to my last worry – namely the state and health of the club game. I have been lucky enough over the past season or two to have been asked to go and speak at various club dinners. Almost all of the club supporters – and they are the backbone of the game – sing from one hymn sheet. It is becoming more and more difficult to sustain club leagues. Numbers, if not falling, are definitely stagnating. This is not healthy. I wish I knew the answer, but I did like Mike Ferguson’s take on things. Mike is the energetic and committed owner of Forfar and he is making a determined push to attract the mid-30s and upwards market – specifically the retired active sportsman, so your ex rugby or hockey player who is still looking for a bit of competition but who is maybe not up for belting around a rugby pitch of a Saturday afternoon! The other target market might be the recent retiree.

Both these demographic groups have a bit of money in their back pockets and the second one at least also brings that priceless benefit to the party – namely the ability to fill the ice rink during quiet times. If I were the owner of an ice rink lucky enough to have an Area Development Officer in place, I would be taking them away from running the junior club – important job though that is – and shoving them in the general direction of the middle-aged and older!

A nice note on which to end, I think.

Robin Copland

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Back in the old days

Back in the old days, strange things happened. Bushes self-combusted; old men wandered around the place with bits of stone telling you just what you could and couldn’t do; nobody ate shellfish or hogs. Times were happy if you were a lobster or a pig, but can you imagine life without a bacon roll or a nice plate of bisque? It wasn’t all bad mind you; later on, some bloke turned some water into wine, so that was OK.

Around about the same time, we had a curling tour in Scotland. It consisted of five events, all of which took place over a weekend. The season traditionally started with the Lockerbie Invitation tournament. This was named for its sponsor, a large tobacco company and funnily enough, it was always known as the B and Q. Actually – that’s not true; smokers amongst us will confirm that there is no tobacco company known as B and Q. I dare not mention the second initial for fear of sending the youth of Scotland in the general direction of a tobacconist, there to become immediately hooked on the evil weed. So I shan’t – but if you think how nice the hedges are looking as we approach autumn in Scotland, you’ll get the picture.

Anyhow – that was Lockerbie. Then we all trooped up to the Famous Parakeet in Inverness. Actually, that’s not true either, but for fear of sending the youth of Scotland in the general direction of a hostelry, there to become crazed with drink, I cannot mention the real bird either. I’ll give you a clue: 12 August is not the best day in the world for the bird in question. Then there was the Edinburgh International, the Perth Masters and the Ayr International. Five cracking competitions in the first half of the season were there to be competed in if you got lucky and received an invitation. There were other competitions that came and went from time to time, but those five were there for a decade or more through the mid-70s to the early nineties, I dare say.

I’ll tell you something else: each one of those competitions attracted a healthy turnout of spectators. I remember playing in the final of the B and – oops, there go the youth again! The bar was full; spectators were gathered up both sides of the rink. It is hard looking back and we must beware the effect that the mists of time have on an aged memory, but there must have been four hundred in the rink – thereabouts anyway. The same was true on the Sundays of all the other competitions that I have talked about.

In more recent times, we have had the mini tour; the men's mini tour seems to have been consigned to the history pages and I think that this is a real shame – in fact, I think that it is worse that a real shame; I think it is a bit of a tragedy, if I am honest. Think about this for a second: there is the Under 17s Slam that caters for the young ones; there is a good circuit of events in Scotland for the Under 21s; the seniors – well, and I don’t mean to be rude to my contemporaries – we’re old enough and ugly enough. But what happens competitively for the competitive curler who has not quite made it to the big time? Where can they hone their competitive juices? The answer for this season at least is the Scottish Championship pre-qualifiers. I am greedy – I want there to be a mini tour AND Scottish Championship pre-qualifiers.

But that’s just the men. The ladies, thanks to an initiative from the energetic Judith McFarlane and help from Kay Adams, the ladies have two new events – and both have been well supported by the home nations with Welsh and English as well as Scottish rinks taking part. Both will take place in the north east of Scotland, one in Forfar from 15 – 17 October and the other in Aberdeen from 19 – 21 November.

Currently, there are two top-level competitions for the men and one for the ladies; by top level, I mean Champions Tour events. I can tell you from personal experience that running one of these competitions involves hours of work, planning and dedication from a band of curlers on the organising committee. Now that we are on the Olympic treadmill, trying to find teams to compete – especially in the first year of a four-year cycle – is not easy. Finding sponsorship? It would be easier growing spaghetti on trees, let me tell you.

There are those who say that the Royal Club should take a more proactive stance and organise a Scottish tour itself – rather as it does in the Under 17s Slam. Indeed, the Royal Club did organise the men's mini tour for a number of years up until last season and Colin Hamilton has taken a hand in organising the Aberdeen and Forfar ladies' events this season. Given the number of man hours it takes to organise an event – and as I have said, it is a few – the Royal Club’s role should be limited to administering from the centre; the actual event will still have to be organised ice rink by ice rink.

All of this makes me think that if you want something, you are probably going to have to do something about it – and that something is organising your own competition.

Which brings me back to Forfar. The rink’s energetic owner, Mike Ferguson, organised and ran the Forfar Open on 8 and 9 October. The event managed to attract ten teams, which is pretty good considering that a lot of the juniors were competing in Kinross and some of my vintage were down in Stranraer at the Scottish Senior Mixed Championship. The competition was won by young Duncan Menzies and his team; they beat Brian Binnie in the final. Earlier this month, Gary Macfarlane organised the Braehead Open. The final was contested by two teams that represent the future of Scottish curling and are exactly in the middle of the target audience I am talking about. Logan Gray and Sarah Reid skipped the teams; both are populated by young curlers, many of whom have won the Scottish Junior Championships and are making their way up the greasy ladder of senior curling.

Later on this season, from 4th to 6th February, Tom Brewster is organising a new competition in Aberdeen with the support of Aberdeen City Council. £120 per team guarantees competitors at least four games of curling plus dinner and entertainment on the Saturday night. This strikes me as good value, could be a lot of fun and gives curling teams the chance to hone their skills in a competitive environment on good ice. It deserves ambitious curlers’ support.

Perhaps some of the grizzled veterans on the men's circuit might like to consider getting together and organising another couple of tournaments – venues like Inverness and Stirling already host a skins weekend tournament. It would be good, for example, to resurrect the Lockerbie weekend tournament. If Stranraer could be persuaded to give over one of their weekends – normally reserved for their weekend mixed competitions – perhaps they could do a men's event as well?

You see where I am coming from. The elite are funded to go abroad and play against the cream of European (and sometimes world) talent. I firmly believe that we should have a series of three or four weekend competitions as well as Edinburgh and Perth (men) and Braehead (ladies). We need to keep churning talent; we need to give our up and coming talent the chance to practise in match conditions; we need there to be challengers to the established teams. A vibrant curling circuit is the answer and the time to start planning it is now.

Oh – and if you find a spaghetti tree, could you let me know? Just so long as it doesn’t burst into flames, mind you – we couldn’t have that. Usual fee and no names, no pack drill. Strictly between thee and me. And see the water into wine malarkey? If you can sort that one out for me I will be forever in your debt.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Scottish Senior Mixed Championship

Stranraer ice rink played host to the 2010 Scottish Senior Mixed Curling Championships. A strong-looking entry list contained past champions and finalists with a wee surprise when Colin Hamilton showed up to skip his dad’s entry. Iain had injured his knee and was unable to take part. Some newcomers took to the ice as well, including Dick Adams, former World Junior Gold Medallist. Was it that long ago, we all wondered!

The weather outside was unseasonably warm and one or two, with time on their hands during a bye, quietly wished that they had brought their golf clubs! A walk along the front had to suffice.

A final throwback to the past: Hammy and Janet – still more than actively involved in the business of course – were in charge for the weekend. The rest of the family management team had flown the coup, though quite why a wedding in South Africa or a foreign curling competition were deemed more important than looking after this gaither-up of talent from all over Scotland had your correspondent momentarily nonplussed. Only momentarily, mind you!

The outside conditions meant that skips had to pay attention to the wee rubs and fall backs on the ice. This was like manna from heaven to these grisled veterans, mind you and they all settled to the task man-, and in some cases woman-fully!

The competition started with four leagues – two of four teams and two of five. Winners of the leagues went through to the semi finals of the main competition and the runners-up to the semi-finals of the low road. Murrayfield’s reigning champions, skip Lindsay Scotland, third Johann Steele, Second Alan Stanfield and lead Sue Scotland found themselves up against a strong-looking Hamilton husband and wives team of Archie and Marion Craig and Robin and Yvonne Aitken. Lindsay and co never really got going in this one and the game was over almost before it began! A big steal of five for Archie in the sixth end led to handshakes all round and an early bath.

The other semi final was a cracker! The crowd were enthralled by the play of all eight players on the ice and the pendulum swung first one way, then the other. Dick Adams, Louise Kerr, Jak Kane and Lindsay Galloway must have thought that Dick’s skinny double at the seventh to score a three and take a one-shot lead into the final end had swung things their way, but Gary Macfarlane, Jacqui Crawford, Gordon Crawford and Fiona Macfarlane are made of sterner stuff. They played a cracker of a last end. With Gary’s first stone to come, they lay game, but their first shot was at the back of the four foot. Gary played a perfect draw to cover the route into the shot and lie top eight. Dick could not get in for at least second shot and the game was over. It had taken a fair while to play out the eight ends, mind you – it had been a drawing game and sometimes these things happen. Gary and his cohorts had precious little time to gather their thoughts and prepare themselves for the final.

Meanwhile, in the low road, Colin Hamilton skipped George and Catherine Edington and his mum Jean to a win over Trevor Dodds. Lockerbie’s Jim Black skipped Kate Burnett, Irving Davidson and Sheena Black to a straightforward win over Ian Nicholson.

So to the finals!

In the main event final the Macfarlane team had barely come off the ice in their semi before having to back on and face a rejuvenated and refreshed Craig team. Archie and his team are ruthless at this level if they get a lead – and a lead they got fairly early on. They ran out 7-2 winners after seven ends and so were crowned Scottish Senior Mixed Champions for the first time. The Macfarlanes and Crawfords can be quietly proud of their achievements too though and the memory of their semi-final win will live long in the memories of those lucky enough to have been there to see it.

In the low road final, Colin Hamilton quietly played to the strengths of his team and in their third game of the day, managed a cracking win over Jim Black’s team. All I’ll say is this and I hope I get it out on paper right, so as not to cause offence where none is intended! I hope I can play half as well as the Edingtons and Jean Hamilton when I reach their age. Colin? He’s just a young thing barely past his teens!

A cracking weekend then down in the south west corner of Scotland. The banter and laughs were always to the fore and though the competition was hard-fought, as you would expect of those present, the fun was never far away.

Here’s to next year!

Janet McMillan presents the trophy to (L-R) Robin Aitken, Marion Craig, Archie Craig, Yvonne Aitken, Robbie Scott, President Royal Caledonian Curling Club. Photo courtesy of Colin Hamilton.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Winter of Content

For heaven’s sake, what’s going on? It’s still the summer, but the nights are drawing in and ice rinks have already started taking in paying punters! Thoughts are turning to the upcoming season. The National Curling Academy saga continues to burble along in the background with new revelation following old. Talk in the bar is of a relatively secure 4-year period of curling ice supply being rudely interrupted by another closure or two, but on a positive note, we read of expansion at Greenacres in Renfrewshire; if a rink can succeed on the top of a hill in the middle of agrarian Renfrewshire – albeit near a pretty big population centre called the Central Belt of Scotland, what’s to stop other ice rinks springing up and creating new demand for our great sport?

We reflect, of course, on a fairly mixed season just past in terms of international success. The Olympic campaign finished with no medals but at least we got to the podium in the world championships for both ladies and men; our junior men put recent disappointments behind them and came home with a creditable Silver Medal. Not a vintage year perhaps, but not a complete disaster by any means and it bodes well for the future.

So what of the new line ups for season 2010 – 2011? I always think that the post-Olympic year is a bit like the hangover after the night before. It’s a kind of a “nothing” year in some ways. I rather like what our top competitive curlers have done this season – they seem to be going back to basics and playing with their mates. David Murdoch, for example, is teaming up with Warwick Smith, young Glen Muirhead and Ross Hepburn. This will be an interesting year for Glen and I assume that David will be eyeing him up as a possible second player in the longer term. His erstwhile third player, Ewan Macdonald has gone back to skipping his own rink with Graeme Connal, Pete Loudon and his Olympic team mate, Euan “Bader” Byers. Graeme, Ewan and Euan know each other well from the last couple of seasons, but big Pete is a long-time buddy of Ewan’s; they won the World and European Championships in 1999 playing front end with Hammy McMillan and Warwick Smith. Tom Brewster has taken on two of Glen Muirhead’s junior team from last season, Greg Drummond and Michael Goodfellow. Aged-out Scottish Junior Champion, Scott Andrews makes up an interesting four. Duncan Fernie has put together a team with David Edwards, Richard Woods and Colin Campbell. Others to watch out for include teams skipped by Iain Watt, Neil Joss, John Hamilton, Sandy Reid and Lee McCleary – always assuming that he’s got his entry in this year!

Finally, and perhaps in the most surprising move of all, Hammy McMillan keeps his front end from last season of Ross Paterson and Sandy Gilmour; they team up with ten-time (and reigning) Scottish Champion, David Smith. Hammy and David played together in the dominant Scottish team of the mid- to late-eighties but it all went a wee bit pear-shaped for them in the demonstration Olympics in 1988 and I doubt if they have thrown a stone together since. Make no mistake though, these are two hungry curlers; they have a chance to put down an early marker at the European playdown competition in Perth from 29 – 31 October.

Talking of the European playdown, event organisers found themselves between a very big rock and an exceptionally hard place this time around and no matter what solution they came up with, it would be the wrong one in somebody’s eyes. The top three teams in last season’s Scottish basically chucked themselves into a cake mix blender, turned on the machine and all jumped out at different times with different people. I do not suppose there has been such a shake-up in team formation since Adam took a bit of a ribbing and decided that he wanted to be a man. According to the rules of the competition from the previous year, none of the top three teams in the 2010 Scottish Championship were eligible; the top eligible team was Hammy’s. Rule a(iii) was implemented. It states “If less than four teams qualify as of right then the National Coach, along with an RCCC Sub Committee for the competition, may select one or more teams to participate in the Play Downs (sic). The number of qualified teams plus selected team will not exceed four”. This was always going to be a controversial move – especially if you are a member of one of the “bubbling under” teams.

On the ladies side of things, Eve is sticking together with Kelly Wood, Lorna Vevers and Annie Laird. Jackie Lockhart, who seems to have recovered from that horrible injury just before she took to the ice for the Scottish final, has put together a really interesting team with Karen Addison at third, Kim Brewster at second and young Sarah Macintyre at lead. These two teams will be there or thereabouts along with Gail Munro and her Stranraer outfit of Lyndsay Wilson, Kerry Adams and Alison Mather. Expect challenges also to come from Sarah Reid and her young team of Kerry Barr, Kay Adams and Barbara McFarlane as well as Gillian Howard, who plays this season with the 2000 Scottish Junior Champion skip, Louise Soutar, Jude McFarlane and Fiona Steele. The rest of the field of eight is made up of junior teams skipped by Anna Sloan – and I want to be a fly on the wall when Anna takes on her junior skip this season, step forward Ms Muirhead, Hannah Fleming and reigning Scottish Junior Champion, Lauren Gray.

Why only eight entrants, I ask myself? This is getting serious, my friends. If an established curling nation like Scotland can only raise eight challengers for the National Championship, then we are in a bit of a pickle and no mistake. It is frightening to look back at old Scottish Curlers from four or five years ago and ask yourself where the likes of Claire Milne, Rachael Simms, Sheila Swan, Mairi Milne, Katriona Fairweather, Lynn Cameron, Lindsay Wood, Edith Loudon, Katie Loudon, Jen Priestley, Linsey Spence, Lauren Johnston – I could go on – but where are they all? Has anyone contacted these fine curlers and asked them why they have given the competitive game up?

In any case, action starts in earnest at the European playdown in Perth – again from 29 – 31 October, when Sarah, Eve and Gail will fight it out for the honour of representing their country in the European Championships.

Onto the juniors and Ally Fraser probably goes into the season as favourites to defend their title. Steven Mitchell and Scott Andrews from last season’s Championship-winning team are both age-barred and their places in the team are taken by Blair Fraser and Thomas Sloan. Thomas and Ally played together with Graeme Black two seasons ago and won the Scottish Junior Championship together, so they know each other well. Kerr Drummond is a dependable and feisty lead who will set things up well; Blair is a fellow Inverness curler – fine young curler too, if truth be told, so the others will have to get past them if they have aspirations to win the Championship. I expect John Penny with Colin Dick at third to feature strongly. Colin Howden and Billy Morton make up a strong front end. Much will depend on how the team bond.

Jay McWilliam, Grant Hardie, Struan Wood and Ian Copland will also be there or thereabouts. They need to bring forward their early-season form to the finals. There are a number of other junior men teams that I am looking forward to seeing this season. For many, this will be a transition season from “promising youngsters” to “genuine challengers”. Look out for Hamilton McMillan, Kyle Smith, Bruce Mouat and Duncan Menzies in this category.

Finally, spare a wee thought and maybe even bet a wee penny each way on former champion, Graeme Black. He would love another go at the World Juniors. This season, he has enlisted the fiercely competitive Waddell brothers, Kyle and Craig at third and lead. Keeping the peace at second is Pete Macintyre. If they can all gel together and keep each other focused – well, you never know! Focus and channelled energy – those are the keys with these chaps!

There are seventeen entrants competing in the Scottish Junior Mens Championships which, if my information is correct, is slightly down on previous seasons. It is a healthy looking competition though with three or four teams that will fancy their chances. This bodes well and is testament to the grounding that young curlers get in the Under 17’s series of competitions.

On the ladies side of things there is a healthy fourteen team entry this season and that is up on previous seasons. Defending champion Lauren Gray returns with her front end of last year, Tasha Aitken and Caitlin Barr. Jennifer Dodds comes in to throw third stones in place of the age-barred Claire MacDonald. They will be desperate to have another tilt at the World Juniors and will feel that there is unfinished business to deal with there after their disappointment last season. Lurking in front of them though, is Eve Muirhead; Eve herself is concentrating on her senior curling this season and will play most of the season with that team. She is entering the juniors with Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams and Rhiann MacLeod in what looks like a really strong team. Vicki played in two of Eve’s three World Junior Championship successes and Anna was third player in the last of them. Rhiann MacLeod is a really strong player to have in your team at lead. Much will depend on how quickly they can get it together on the ice. They have the advantage of having played together at different times during their careers – it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.

Helen King returns after her runner-up spot last season and will be looking to go one better. Perennial challengers, Hannah Fleming keeps her strong team of the last two seasons, Becca Kesley, Alice Spence and Abi Brown. Older and wiser are these young ladies and, if they continue apace, they will challenge and may ultimately win their first Scottish Junior title. I also hope to see further development and challenges from the likes of Mhairi Baird, Jennifer Paul and Gina Aitken.

Aye – summer it may be, but there is a winter of content ahead of us and no mistake; bring it on!