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!