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.