Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Embedded Correspondent

See 'embedding'. I thought it was something completely different. I thought it was something young Lotharios did of an evening once the sun had settled over the horizon. Stranraer has taught me something new - as oft it does - and there was I, your embedded correspondent, at the Double Rink Championship, sponsored by McMillan Hotels, this past weekend. A right good time was had by one and all, let me tell you, including a visit to a very loud couple of pubs by your correspondent - all in the spirit of research, you understand.

But first, by way of explanation, let me give you some background. Clubs, often after playdowns in their local rinks, send two teams down to the championship. There, they find themselves in sections of four and each club plays against the other in a league format, two points for a game won, one point for a game drawn and no points for a game lost. Points are added and the winning club from each of the three sections progresses through to the semifinal. The highest-up second-placed club also progresses through, so that there are four clubs in the semis.

This means a lot of work for the ice staff. Each section had one game on the Friday and two on the Saturday. Put that another way: six full sessions of ice time on the Saturday with all of the preparation in between the games. At the conclusion of the games on both the Friday and the Saturday, there was another couple of hours’ worth of preparation. Aye – different from the old days when a Zamboni would hurtle round the big skating rink at Crossmyloof preparing the ice for the evening curling sessions in about five minutes flat!

And now – a rant! Well – you wouldn’t expect anything else, would you? The Double Rink championship harks back to an earlier, more innocent time when curlers travelled over hill and through valley to compete against the next village when the plough was frozen in the furrow. The Grand Match, the world’s biggest bonspiel, and the Strathcona Cup series between Scotland and Canada work to the same principle. Never mind points and ends; the results are based on shots-up, pure and simple; ends only come into it in the event of a tie. The semis and the finals of the Double Rink Championship use that system. Two teams, each representing their club with pride, try their best to win their game, but have to adjust their tactics depending on what is happening in the other game. This is curling as it used to be played on outdoor ice in the days of the crampit. My own view, shared by quite a few of the competitors and the watchers behind the glass, is that the league section of the competition should revert to the true double-rink format – in other words aggregate scores totalled and be done with all the points for a win and ends won.

The current system within the leagues means that there is not the same need for that furtive look across the boards; the games are too insular; there is not that feeling that there is another team involved, whose fortunes good or bad reflect on you and your team. One of the semifinal match-ups illustrates my point; more of that later.

Onto the competition itself. It was hard-fought and it was tight. Games, never mind league tables, fluctuated like the ebbing tide out in the now ship-less Stranraer harbour. At the end of it all, the Musketeers from Edinburgh found themselves competing against Kilsyth in one semifinal, whilst Stranraer faced off against the highest-up runners-up, Forfar, in the other.

Musketeers obviously like the third ends of matches. Alan Chalmers and his team scored a three and Graham Cormack and his scored a four in their games. Though Graeme Baxter kept things relatively tight in his game and though John Davie got a three right back in his fourth end, the truth was that from the fifth end on in both games, it looked like there was only one winner.

Shot of the semis though was a run back triple that John Davie played – he needed it, mind you and he still lost a two that end!

In the other match, the true nature of the old-fashioned double rink format shone through. Philip Wilson and his team scored a two in their last end to recover from a 6-2 deficit in end five; a great fightback from Philip, Ian Kirkpatrick, John Parker and John Munro, who was substituting for Ben Wilson. They ended up winning their game by one shot. The other game also went to the wire though, to be fair, it was about an end and a half behind all the other games. Two hours twenty-five minutes is an awful long time to play eight ends of curling, people! Anyhow, Stranraer, skipped by Jim Cannon, found themselves three shots down – two in aggregate – playing their last end without the hammer. They needed to steal a two to even up the aggregate score; Stranraer would then go through on ends won. Jim slid out true and managed to hit a double to lie the two shots needed with his last stone. That left David Russell with an open hit for the match, though it was down a floaty piece of ice on the in-turn.

As soon as his stone was laid, there was a audible gasp from the watchers immediately behind the game that spread like wildfire through the rest of the bar. On the ice, the Forfar boys had been already been shouted at: “wow,” was the loud cry. We and they all knew that anything wide of the brush down the left-hand side going away from the bar on the in-turn was a miss, pure and simple. There was a ghastly inevitability as the played stone tracked further and further wide of its target. David, his team mates and the other Forfar team, who had waited to a man to offer support on the ice, could only watch as his shot drifted wide. He later admitted that he jammed the stone back as he put the handle on at the end of his slide. Though he had won his own game by a shot, the overall match had been tied, and Forfar went out on the ends count. Stranraer had qualified from ten shots down an hour earlier and had set themselves up for an exciting looking match against a strong Musketeers team. For Forfar, it was the long drive home through the snow with nothing in their hands but the memories of a guid weekend in the south west of Scotland. You had to feel sorry for them.

And so to the final and another exciting match, pitching as it did the strong-looking local rink from Stranraer against the reigning double rink champions, the Musketeers club from Edinburgh. Gail Munro, who, as well as making the ice, also updated the scores on the Royal Club site (with a little help from her daughter, Robyn) reports on another tight, tight match. Jim Cannon again found himself at the centre of things with his last stone; a hit and stay would secure a win in his game. Sadly for local supporters, his played stone rolled out, so Stranraer 2 had to be content with a peel instead of a one-shot win. Meanwhile, Musketeers 1, skipped again by Alan Chalmers, managed to score a big three in the seventh end of his game against Philip Wilson’s Stranraer 1 team to come home two shots to the good. Despite Stranraer’s best efforts to lay the perfect freeze, Alan was able to pick Philip’s stone perfectly to run him out of stones and secure a two-shot victory in his game. The winners photo is here.

What was particularly impressive about their win is the fact that these boys were all in one of the very loud pubs that I had visited the previous night. There did not seem to be any conspicuous hanging-back when it came to the singing, the dancing, nor indeed the consumption of falling-down juice. A proper curling weekend then, from which Stranraer will take some time to recover!

Gail pebbling the ice is by Robin Copland

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Ladies

I worry about the ladies, really I do. In season 2011-12 we have only managed to persuade nine teams to enter the national championship. Nine teams, or put that another way – 36 curlers. It’s not a lot, is it? I did a wee 'back of the fag packet' exercise and looked down the list of previous Scottish junior champions. The list goes back all the way to Alison Aitken’s winning Stranraer team in 1981. Competing in that final was none other than a certain Jackie Steele; Jackie is still competing in the Scottish Championships, but she is the only one of her generation still playing at that level. More of her later.

The reason I feel able to go all the way back to 1981 – apart from Jackie – is that there is a huge number of Canadian ladies of that vintage still competing at national level. There seems to be something about the Scottish mentality that rubbishes anyone’s ability, once they reach their mid-thirties. Shame really. It wasn’t that long ago that the Scottish championship was populated with the likes of the Loudon and Milne sisters, Susan Kesley, Fran Stretton, Jenny Barr, Rhona Martin, Debbie Knox, Margaret Morton, Janice Rankin, Christine Cannon – oh I could go on, but you get the picture.

I have written before about how we have lost huge talents to the game like Kirsty Hay, Gillian Barr and Julia Ewart. To that list of august personalities, we need now to add Kelly Wood, who has followed her heart to Canada. These are all curlers whom Scotland can ill afford to lose, but there is an enormous lesson to be learned from their departure and it is this: never, ever – and in case you missed that, those of you with some say in our great sport, NEVER – invest all of your hard-earned cash in the one 'great white hope'. Remember the lesson that shouts down from history and make sure that there is money left over for – well, if you want to be blunt – the likes of Rhona Martin twenty years ago. Rhona then was the perennial runner-up. She went on, as we all know, to play the most delicate of shots to win an Olympic Gold Medal with her team of Debbie Knox, Fiona MacDonald, Janice Rankin and Margaret Morton, but would Rhona receive investment right now if she were twenty-five and competing at Scottish level? An interesting question for everyone to ponder...

Worrying then, in that context, is the dearth of those who have competed at international junior level in the past fifteen years or so. These are people who will still have that competitive edge, I am sure. They came into the game at the start of the coaching revolution, so should have the basics right. A fair bit of money and time was spent on them, developing their talents to such a level that they were able to go out into the bear pit of a national championship final and hold it all together well enough to win. These are people, in other words, with that indefinable quality that some call 'bottle' and others describe, more prosaically perhaps, as 'an ability to perform under pressure'. For every Rachael Simms there is a Vicky Sloan is all that I am saying and I, for one, would love to see Vicky, for example, back competing at the very top level and, if not winning, then providing those who do go onto win with a stern test in a competitive environment. That’s what I love about the Scottish men’s championship – there are four or five teams out there that could possibly win it and another two or three who will win the occasional game against the top two or three teams. It’s a bear pit.

It should be the High Heid Yin’s ambition to put a ladies' team on the podium at European, World and ultimately Olympic Championships. One of the ways of doing that is to provide our winners with a national championship worthy of the name. I want to see twenty-five teams entering the championships, with four or five of them being realistic contenders.

So let’s look first at the juniors – having got that off my chest – and see if we can identify the winners of this year’s competition and – maybe – the next Rhona Martin, Jackie Lockhart or Eve Muirhead.

First up, let’s rejoice in the fact that we have twelve entrants for the junior championships this year. Let us also rejoice in the work that some dedicated people put into developing their junior charges in places like Lockerbie, Greenacres, Murrayfield, Stirling, Stranraer and Hamilton – to name but six. Let us also pause to thank Nancy Murdoch for her pivotal role five years ago, when she came up with the idea of introducing an under-17s circuit, for out of those efforts have sprung twelve teams, all competing for the honour of going to the World Junior Championships to represent their country in 2012. The two teams that leap out from the twelve are those skipped by Hannah Fleming and Jennifer Dodds. Hannah skipped her team to runners-up spots in both the Scottish Junior and Scottish Ladies' championships last year – a stellar achievement forever blighted in their minds by the fact that they came second in both competitions. She, Rebecca Kesley, Alice Spence and Abi Brown took nothing but credit from their performance. And here is an interesting rub to add to the mix: after what seemed like season after season, the team has changed! Lauren Gray, a previous Scottish junior champion skip in her own right, joins the team in place of Rebecca Kesley, who now plays third in Hannah’s main rival team this year, the one skipped by Jennifer Dodds.

Do you not just love this? Obviously, it is maybe not so pleasant for those involved, but for the independent third party looking in from the sidelines, we really do not wish to be anywhere else but wherever it is that they first cross swords! The draw, rightly, has kept them apart in the junior qualifiers in Ayr at the beginning of December, but their meetings (I use the plural advisedly) will, I think, showcase the finest that we have to offer in the junior ladies game. Jennifer’s front end is Mhairi Baird and Vicky Wright. This is a strong-looking combination that will push Hannah very hard indeed and may very well end up winning the championship outright. We will await with baited breath the outcome to be revealed!

One of Lauren’s erstwhile team mates, Tasha Aitken plays third to Jennifer Martin with a front end of Fiona Telfer and Mhairi Anderson. Tasha is a former Scottish junior champion and Mhairi played in the final of the championship two seasons ago. Expect them to be at the top end of the table. Gina Aitken, Katy Richardson, Rowena Kerr and Rachel Hannen bring a curling pedigree that needs to be respected. I think that their time will come, but maybe not this year. Och, but I have said that before and been proved wrong, so who is to say that it won’t happen again?

And so to the ladies. Well, you really cannot look much beyond Eve Muirhead, Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams and Claire Hamilton, can you? They have already carried all before them at the European playdowns; they sailed through the competition serenely and unruffled. They are a talented foursome and no mistake. I expect them to do the same thing at the Scottish, but I am loving the reaction that I know I am provoking in Stranraer, Currie, Kilmarnock and Stonehaven as four curlers by the names of Munro, Barr, Reid and Lockhart read these inflammatory words!

Make no mistake that Jackie Lockhart, Karen Kennedy, Kay Adams and Sarah Macintyre will bring their multi-world gold medal winning pedigree to this year’s championships. Jackie won her first international medal as far back as 1983; she skipped her team to World Gold in Bismarck in 2002; as recently as 2007 she played third to Kelly Wood and won a Silver Medal in the F├╝ssen European championships. Karen Kennedy is a two-time world junior champion. Kay Adams is a two-time world junior champion and Sarah has won that particular championship three times. Kay is Vicki’s sister; Jackie and Sarah used to play with Eve. They know and like each other – but on the rink? Four wasps circling and waiting quietly. Just you watch!

Sarah Reid, who skipped Eve in the very first of her four world junior championships, has been felled by injury this season, but she, Lorna Vevers (who used to play with Jackie and Eve – oh, I could go on!), Rachael Simms and Barbara McPake will not lie down. Nor will Kerry Barr, Helen King, Rhiann Macleod (who played with Eve and Anna Sloan last season and who won the Scottish ladies, the Scottish junior and the World junior championships – don’t you just love all of this?) and Kerry’s sister, Caitlin.

And nor will my chum Gail Munro. Oh no. Rest assured that Lindsay Cumming, Kerry Adams-Taylor and the magnificently named TBA will also come to this particular party with guns holstered and ready to shoot.

So – maybe I am worried, but do you know what? It should be fun. Don’t miss it!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Inside the Scottish Mixed

You know that you’re getting old when you walk into the Scottish Senior Mixed Championship and start seeing young people on the ice. It’s ridiculous. Jim Cannon is a junior; his wife, Christine, is 26; Marion Craig, one of their conquerors in the semifinal of the high road – more of that later – still looks the same as she did when I first met her yesterday morning, thirty-odd years ago. It’s a nightmare!

Anyhow, onto the curling. I don’t suppose there can be a finer spot than the North West Castle hotel in Stranraer for a competition like this. Good food; good cheer; plenty of drink on tap to soothe and rehydrate the thirsty soul, and ice on the interesting side of tricky to keep everyone honest and fully attentive. There were four tough sections of five teams, so everyone was guaranteed four games. Winners went straight through to the high road semifinals and the section runners-up had the consolation of the low road semifinals to console them.

In Section A, holder Archie Craig tied on six points with Donald Rutherford and Kevin Fearn. Archie sneaked through to the high road semifinal on a higher end count with Donald edging Kevin by three ends. You had to feel for Kevin. He only lost one game and finished on a higher points total than two other teams, Gary Rutherford and Robert Smellie – both of whom qualified for the low road.

Jim Cannon’s powerful looking local team – wife Christine with Peter and Anne Wilson – dominated Section B with four straight wins. They were a frightening twenty-six shots up at the end of section proceedings. The same thing happened in Section C where another local team skipped by Dick Adams (another youngster, by the way!) finished three points ahead of section runner-up Gary Macfarlane.

And so to section D. I wish I could report a different result, seeing as how we came third! Truth be told, Sandy Nelson was way ahead of the pack and finished on eight points. Robert Smellie played a delicate hit and stick against Jim Black to peel his game and qualify for the low road semifinal. The rest of us retired bloody but unbowed; we will be back next year – make no mistake!

And now for the surprises! The oldies (forgive me chaps and chappesses!) took on the youngsters, played them and beat them. Archie Craig, with wife Marion and Robin and Yvonne Aitken played a canny game against Jim Cannon. The first three ends were blanked! A big four scored in the sixth end sealed things for Archie and co. In the other semifinal – again a tight affair – Sandy Nelson scored a two in the eighth end to secure his final spot with a win over Dick Adams.

The final, according to chief umpire for the weekend, Bill Scott, was a great game of curling with both teams firing on all cylinders in front of a typically large and vociferous south west Scotland audience in the bar. Bill reports, “Coming into the last end peels at six shots all, the two teams fought to build a defensive wall in front of their shots in the house with advantage swinging back and forth. With his last stone played, Archie had one white stone lying shot in amongst several reds – well defended from direct attack, but slightly vulnerable to a perfectly played inwick.”

Sandy came within inches of making the shot, but just missed, leaving Archie, Marion, Robin and Yvonne champions for the second year running.

All in all, a great weekend’s fun and fellowship on the ice. If you are of an age and so minded, you should certainly consider putting together a team for next year’s championship in October 2012.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Season Ahead: The Men

Now let’s see – where are we?

Spring – that was summer; summer was winter; autumn is summer and now it’s winter again. Aye, it’s a confusing old world right enough but as far as I am concerned, I should still be golfing. Younger readers may care to note that the older you get, the faster time flies by. Which brings me neatly to the new curling season that beckons – indeed has started for most now that we are into October.

First the bad news: Lochgoilhead has gone. I appreciate that for those of us who inhabit the more populous parts of our glorious nation, this matters not a jot nor a tittle, but pause and bear with me for just a second. This was the ice rink that served the likes of Dunoon, Oban and the Argyll peninsula; this was the rink that produced some great raw talent – Ross Paterson, for example was in last season’s European Championship rink and is playing with David Murdoch this season. We may scoff, but Lochgoilhead was a buzzing curling centre in its time and we curlers should mourn its passing. The Magnum Centre in Irvine is also no more, though there are other rinks in the area to pick up its displaced curlers.

Good news as well though as investment has been announced for the Dewar's Rink in Perth and a new Dumfries curling facility has been opened successfully. We need to cherish and look after our facilities, be they council-run or privately-owned; be they modern or 'traditional', for without the rinks to play on, our great game dies on its feet.

We have an exciting year of competition ahead as well, with some new teams getting together and, of course, some older teams sticking together and giving things another go. I wonder if the Scottish Men's Championship is not as open as it has been for a while. Tom Brewster is back with his Scottish Champion team from last season of Greg Drummond, Scott Andrews and Michael Goodfellow. Having been around the block and won a silver medal at the World Championship, they will fancy their chances to repeat last season’s epic performance. I fancy though, that they will have to get past David Murdoch again if they are to do that.

This season David has moved Glen Muirhead up to third, Ross Paterson comes in at second and Richard Woods plays lead stones as before. You might argue that the loss of Warwick Smith weakens the team, but do not make the mistake of underestimating Glen’s talent at third, nor indeed replacement Ross Paterson’s contribution at second. This is a strong-looking team and will challenge for the Scottish title right to the end.

David Smith returns to skip duties after a number of seasons of playing third – most recently to Hammy McMillan. Both he and his third player Warwick Smith have less time for curling this season and will probably only play the Edinburgh International, Perth Masters and Scottish Championship. With a front end comprising Craig Wilson and Ross Hepburn, they will be the most-capped team on the ice come the finals of the Scottish and anyone who fancies their chances of the title will have to find a way past them. It will not be easy for any of the other pretenders to the title!

Ewan MacDonald is taking a back seat this season, though he will be competitive – any team with Graeme Connal, Pete Loudon and Euan Byers in it will be competitive. I get the feeling that they are playing for the love of the game and the fun this season, though I might have that one horribly wrong – we shall see!

Sandy Reid’s team from last season returns with Neil MacArthur replacing Scott Macleod at second. Moray Combe and Dave Soutar remain in place. I was impressed by their showing in the Scottish last season and would not be surprised to see them back in the hunt this time around as well.

Of the younger skips, I am looking forward to watching Dave Edwards steer his team through the season. He has brought in Scottish Junior Champion skip from last season, John Penny, at third. Scott Macleod moves in at second and the experienced Colin Campbell stays at lead. The top end both play in Aberdeen, so will have plenty of chances to play and practise together. I also expect a challenge from Logan Gray, Al Guthrie, Steve Mitchell and Sandy Gilmour. Interestingly, Ross Paterson was going to play in that team, but there was a kind of domino-like ripple caused by Warwick Smith’s retiral from Dave Murdoch’s team. Ross has gone to Dave, and Steve has come to Logan from young Ally Fraser’s original team. Difficult to keep up, really!

Onto the junior men: warm favourites for this year’s title is the team skipped by Jay McWilliam, with Scottish Champion third, Colin Dick, Grant Hardie moving down to second from third in the team last season and Scottish Champion lead, Billy Morton, making up the four. Their strongest challenge may very well come from Blair Fraser and his team, which includes Jay’s displaced second, Struan Wood, throwing lead rocks, Hamilton McMillan playing second and Thomas Sloan at third. I hear that young Thomas has suffered a pretty bad injury that may keep him out of things for two or three months, so I do not know how they will cope in the first half of the season. Hopefully he will have recovered enough to get some match practice in before the championships start in earnest early next year. All the best to him on his road to recovery.

I am liking the look, mind you, of the team that Kyle Smith has put together. Thomas Muirhead plays third stones, Kyle Waddell is the second and Kerr Drummond brings his wealth of championship-winning experience to the party at lead. These boys are passionate about the game, passionate about winning and all throw the stone pretty well to boot. If they can channel their energy towards winning the really big games and not let the small stuff get them down, they could very well end up with the Murray Trophy early next year.

Interestingly, they have former World Junior Champion, Robin Halliday, coaching them this season. He knows his way around an ice rink and it is good to see him helping develop young talent. While I am on that subject, we should take our hats off to the likes of Keith Prentice, Debbie Knox and Robin himself for the work they are putting in to the game at elite level. There are (and have been) others out there who have done the same kind of work – you know who you are and we should doff our hats in your general direction.

Expect challenges also from some of the younger rinks who are moving towards the age when they might expect to reach the last four of the championship. I will be looking out for Duncan Menzies and Bruce Mouat – to name but two – to make a strong challenge this season.

Right – that’s enough for now. I will put together some thoughts about the two ladies competitions in the next week or two in the fond hope that his nibs will allow me to post two blogs in the one month.

Easy, tiger! Walk first – then run!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Pretty Good Season

Well, it has been a pretty good season on the international front when all said and done. The obvious highs were the European Mixed Championship, Ladies' World Universiade and World Junior Championship Gold Medals that Scotland/Great Britain won at either end of the season. The European Championship Silver Medal was also a performance to savour in what it would seem was the last outing on the international stage for Kelly Wood – more of Kelly later.

I liked the gutsy Silver Medal that Tom Brewster, Greg Drummond, Scott Andrews and Michael Goodfellow brought back from the Mens World Championship. It would have been good for them to beat Canada’s Stoughton in the final; in truth, they were probably a bit gutted that they didn’t win that last game. But, I’ll tell you something for nothing; that was a high class field out there and to finish ahead of Edin’s Sweden and Ulsrud’s Norway – that took some doing and no mistake. The gainsayers and couch potatoes back home were wondering just how far Tom would get and there were all sorts of below the belt insinuations about how good or bad a team it was that Scotland had out there. Well, Tom and company sorted them all out good and proper is all I am saying and good on them too.

My own view is that the junior men would also have medalled were it not for some terrible luck. Of all the weeks to get ill! They will be back though; two of their number, Colin Dick and Billy Morton will challenge again in the juniors and skip John Penny has found himself a berth at third in David Edward’s new look team next season. Colin Howden has left the junior ranks and now must make his way in the shark pit that is big boys curling.

But none of that is what I really wanted to talk about in this last Behind the Glass blog of the season. No siree. What I want to draw your attention to is the sudden flowering of young talent in the Scottish game this past season. Just a year ago, I was bemoaning the fact that the twenty-something generation seemed to have been posted missing in action in the senior game. Now, the game is positively youthful in nature. Yes, there are still the veterans; Warwick Smith, David Murdoch, Ewan Macdonald, Hammy McMillan, David Smith, Pete Loudon and Euan Byers are not ready to draw their pensions just yet. But there is a wealth of talent bubbling under in the men’s game, make no mistake.

I did a quick, 'back of the fag packet' (difficult when you don’t smoke – I must have spent hours looking for a fag packet) bit of research the other day. My question was, “What percentage of the competitors in this year’s Scottish Men’s Championship finals were below thirty?” Maths was never my strong point so, when it came to the actual calculation, I thought for a minute or two; I tried various different calculations on my calculator (one of my answers was 1 – I didn’t think for a minute that that could have been right. Another answer I came up with was infinity and I realised, mathematical natural that I am, that that was probably incorrect as well); then I just gave up with all of the percentage nonsense. So the answer, my friends, to the question, how many curlers under the age of thirty competed in the Scottish Championship finals 2011, is nineteen out of forty – give or take and I would need to see a couple of birth certificates, but it is of that order. Look at the final itself – Greg Drummond, Scott Andrews, Michael Goodfellow, Scott Macleod and David Soutar are all the right side of thirty and four of the five are nearer twenty!

On the ladies' side of things, the future is even brighter, it would seem! Same question (same percentage nonsense – eventually I just gave up, threw the calculator to the floor and stamped heavily on it. It was strangely satisfying – until, that was, I tried to use it again. Then I lost my temper again but couldn’t find anything to throw on the floor, so slammed the phone down instead). Twenty four or thereabouts of the thirty-two competitors were under the magic thirty. Fantastic! And when you think that our junior ladies' team won Gold Medals at the World Junior Championships and that the ladies' team also won Gold Medals at the World Universiade – well it is all looking good for the future of competitive curling on the ladies' side of things as well.

Talking of the ladies, we have a number of tried and tested young skips – people like Eve Muirhead, Anna Sloan (who are playing together next season) and Sarah Reid have all won medals at the highest level. There are also some talented young top end players – people like Kerry Barr are still playing competitively. I would really like to see the likes of Rachael Sims and Vicky Sloan get their competitive curling shoes on again as well though and challenge at senior level as they did at junior (not forgetting, of course, that Rachael is a past Scottish champion in her own right). Also coming through, though still at junior level is Hannah Fleming’s young team. Talking of which, I understand that there are some changes afoot in the junior ladies' teams for next season; one of them is that Lauren Gray is leaving her own team to join Hannah. Becca Kesley is going to play with Jennifer Dodds – but more of all that next season!

Sadly for Scottish curling, though not for the lady herself it has to be said, we will be without the services of Kelly Wood, who is moving to Canada. Kelly first sprang to international attention in 1999 when, as a very young Scottish champion skip, she played her way to a creditable fifth place in the World Junior Championships. Since then, she has impressed with a series of feisty displays – interestingly initially mainly at skip, occasionally at second, but I wonder if her best position of all has not been third. I feel sorry for her in this regard only: when a Gold Medal beckoned at both the World Championships and European Championships last year, it would have been fitting had her team mates and she won at least one of them – but it was not to be and the Scottish team was robbed at the last in both championships. Silver Medals at international championships are not to be sniffed at, but she deserved at least one Gold Medal on her resume. We should wish her well in her new life and bemoan yet another lost curler to the Scottish women's game.

The summer will bring the third playing of the Stirling Skins competition, so the rumble of stones will not entirely lost in Scotland during the next few months. September will be quick in coming around though and with it all the promise and hope that a new season always brings.

Enjoy the summer!

Photo of Kelly Wood © Skip Cottage.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Train Crash Heading for Scottish Curling

There is a train crash approaching Scottish curling and their names may very well be Anna and Ben Fowler. OK – maybe it will not be the Fowlers, but it will be someone of their ilk.

“And who,” I hear you ask, “are the Fowlers?”

Ben is a keen young curler from England. He skipped his school team, Judd, to victory in the English schools curling championships at Fenton’s rink. Mark this next bit well: twenty four teams entered the championships from seventeen different schools. Curling in England, my friends, is no longer the domain of the expat Scot anxious to throw a few stones; curling is being taken up by a new group of young enthusiasts, some of whom will doubtless go on to represent their country with pride in championships to come.

These youngsters are keen enough on the game that we Scots exported to the rest of the world, to travel abroad and compete in international competitions. He and his team of Harry Mallows, Matt Spicer and Oliver Kendall travelled to Lockerbie in December to compete in the Lockerbie Junior Invitation tournament. They were accompanied by a ladies team skipped by Ben’s sister, Anna Fowler, with Hetty Garnier, Naomi Robinson and Angharad Ward.

Later in the season, Anna took a team to the European Junior Curling Challenge in Prague. She skipped Hetty Garnier, Angharad Ward, Lauren Pearce and alternate Naomi Robinson to three wins. They ran eventual winners of the competition, Norway, close and were right in the game all the way until they gave up a three in the seventh end of their game. Meanwhile, Ben skipped Harry Mallows, Ben Alexander, Matt Spicer and alternate Oliver Kendall to one victory in their competition. Given their age, there is potential there for teams to grow from that pioneering cadre of young curlers into seriously competitive curlers on the European and world stage.

So why do I compare them to an Inter City 125 bearing down on Scottish curling at top speed?

Well, for the answer, we need to pay heed to something that an old friend of mine, JohnJo Kenny, has been warning us about these past few years on the Scottish Curling Forum. I once described it as curling’s very own West Lothian question and it raised its head again when the recently announced changes to the qualification process for the World Championships was announced. At the moment, GB gains its right to compete at the Olympics by virtue of Scotland’s performance at the World Championship. That system will continue for the next Olympic cycle, although there are far-reaching changes also announced for World Championship qualification; more of that in a later blog, perhaps.

So there we jolly were are, five years down the line, and Scotland are competing in the last round-robin game against England, or maybe Wales. If they win, they get to compete in next year’s World Championships. If they fail to win, they are relegated to a qualifying competition. And GB’s entry into the Olympic Games depends upon success at the Worlds.

And let’s just say that you are Ireland, or Denmark or France and that you are in that mix as well. And you are looking at England face off against the Olympic-point- gathering nation for GB participation.

Level playing field? Are you happy?

I didn’t think so.

It is a real, real problem that somehow needs to be addressed by the High Heid Yins pretty soon. And I just do not see a way around it, if I am honest. It genuinely is not fair and cannot be allowed to continue just as soon as one of the other home nations gets themselves up to a level where they are competing regularly at World Championships.

Football’s answer to this question has been very simple. The authorities have refused to allow teams to compete for GB in the Olympic Games for a number of years. Their attitude to the situation is that anything that might call into question the home nations’ right to compete as individual nations in other championships must not be allowed. So they do not enter the competition.

Is that an option for the curling authorities in GB? It doesn’t look like it, does it? Massive funding and support; jobs; winter games medal opportunities every cycle; arousal of interest in the sport; growth of the sport – all of these things seem to be tied in to continued support of participation in the Olympic Games so, despite the protestations of many curlers, perhaps most notably Pennan’s own David Kelly, I do not think that is an option.

JohnJo pondered that perhaps GB will enter a team for the World Championship that is essentially picked annually from a squad of talented curlers, relegating Scotland’s place in World curling to an annual appearance at the European Championships. Helpmaboab if that happens, dear reader! The World Championships started over fifty years ago as an annual competition between the champion rinks of Canada and ... Scotland! For one of the founder countries to be withdrawn from that competition to allow the continued participation of GB in the Olympic Games would be one step too far for this curmudgeon, let me tell you! Yet, I fear that is where we may end up.

Who said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch?” They were right, you know.

Monday, February 28, 2011

World Junior Championships, Perth, March 5-13, 2011

Come Friday, March 4, when the championship flag will be raised at a special welcome party at Loch Levens Larder in Kinross, the excitement and expectation levels will have reached fever pitch. The first round of games will take place the next day at 9.00 am. To Billy Morton, lead in Team Scotland, will go the honour of throwing the first Scottish stone in the 2011 World Junior Curling Championships and the first Scottish stone on home soil in a World Junior Championships this millennium. Now, when you put it like that, it had better be a good one, Billy!

The World Junior Championships are special. The atmosphere is subtly different from their big brother’s and sister’s, but is no less intense. Somehow, they are more personal events; typically, the crowds are smaller, so individual team supporters can more easily make themselves heard and noticed – except perhaps in Canada and here in Scotland, where crowds will come out in support of the youngsters.

Scotland has produced two interesting and contrasting teams. I predict medals for both. The ladies' team will be skipped by veteran (how often do you get to call a twenty-year-old 'a veteran'?) Eve Muirhead, Scottish Ladies' Champion skip Anna Sloan at third, Scottish Ladies' Champion second Vicki Adams at second and Scottish Ladies' Champion lead, Rhiann Macleod at lead. That has never happened before – never. Yes, there has been the odd individual down through the years, who has doubled up in the Scottish Junior and Ladies' Championships, but never three out of four. And they had to beat their junior skip along the way! Two of the four are multiple World Junior Gold Medallists; Anna has won the Gold Medal once. Rhiann is a talented and steady player who is having a season that she will never forget.

These four girls go into the World Championships as favourites to take the Gold Medal. Nothing I have seen about their play this season makes me doubt that assessment. That said, I know that curling games can often turn on a simple mistake or even a pick-up, so nothing is certain and we should travel in a warm hope and confidence built on strong foundation, rather than expectation as of right. When they are on song, they are imperious and we have a world class team in the championships.

The men are untried at this level – indeed three of them are international rookies, skip John Penny, second Colin Howden and lead Billy Morton. In their third, Colin Dick, they have the most precociously-talented thrower of a curling stone of his generation in Scotland. He and fifth man Jay McWilliam have teamed up before and won silver medals in the 9th European Youth Olympic Festival in Poland, so they are not completely without pedigree in international competition. This season, they have travelled abroad and competed both on the continent and in Canada in top-level junior events. They have benefitted from being members of the National Academy programme for talented athletes, so I have high hopes, as I have said, that they will challenge for medals.

They have just the right man in Greig Henderson as their coach. Greig is a great calmer and smoother of ruffled feathers. Make no mistake – our Scottish men's team are a spirited bunch of individuals and sparks may fly. Greig is the chap who will have a quiet word in the ear; he will give them enough rope when they need it, but pull it all close if the wheels threaten to part with the barrow.

The one big lesson that they need to learn – and it is an uncomfortable one sometimes – is that they are no longer Team Penny; they are now Team Scotland. When you are winning and the crowd is with you, there is no finer place to be than on the ice in a home World Championship with Scotland writ large on your back. When you are down, playing badly or the curling gods are agin you, the crowd, worth a couple of points in the good times, can turn. The lads need to be aware that their every move – both on and off the ice, will be watched and that there’s a lot of armchair critics out there. Discipline will be the key.

The last time the World Junior Championships were in Scotland was in 1995. Then, Scotland had two world-class junior teams, skipped by this year’s Scottish Champion, Tom Brewster, and arguably up there with Eve Muirhead as the best-ever Scottish ladies' curler, Julia Ewart. In those far-off championships, Julia qualified second overall after the round-robin, but sadly lost her semifinal game to Canada, then the Bronze Medal game to Switzerland to finish out of the medals. She went on to win silver and gold in the next two championships – narrowly missing out on all three medals, as she also came fourth in 1998. Tom, on the other hand, skipped his team to Gold Medals in that championship. It would be good, would it not, to go one better and for both teams to contest and win the finals on Sunday, March 13?

I mentioned that Julia Ewart narrowly missed out on all three medals. There is actually one Scottish curler who has the set of all three junior championship medals. You’ll be wondering who that is. Well, you will have to wait until the event itself and the answer will be in the programme. I’ll give you a hint. It wasn’t me.

And on that teasing note, there is nothing more to say – except just this. If you do not take the chance to go up to Perth and see the action live, you will be missing something really special. To find out how to buy tickets, go here. To get tickets for Friday’s evening opening party, go here. For Eve Muirhead’s introduction and welcome video, go here and click on the YouTube link.

See you there!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Congratulations to all of them

I’m going to be honest; I love the Scottish Championships on so many levels. There is the fact that you meet so many old chinas from years gone by; there is the fact that you have winners and losers; there is emotion on show – sometimes raw and unchecked; there is so much at stake for winners and losers; there are personal triumphs and tragedies; there are wheels within wheels – sub-plots, if you will, as ex-team mates battle it out. In short, there is nothing to beat the atmosphere and tension as it grows and grows towards the end of the week. Second only perhaps to the Brier Championships in Canada and perhaps above even the World Championships, the Scottish Championships give you raw tension. It is, in short, a fantastic test of nerve on so many levels.

“Dark mutterings I hear,” as Yoda might have put it. “Downgrade the Scottish Championship to a mere championship and choose the team to go to the Worlds.” Aye right. Why don’t you just go ahead and do that and while you’re at it, drive another nail into competitive curling in Scotland? Over my dead body, my friends; over my dead body.

This year’s competitions were brilliant – just brilliant! Oh – I’ll grant you they weren’t brilliant if you were a David Murdoch or an Eve Muirhead. But if you were a neutral observer, they were brilliant. Indeed, I wonder if we haven’t just witnessed another of those seminal moments in our sport – another 'changing of the guard'. They have happened before: Ken Horton’s win in 1977; Mike Hay’s triumph in 1984; David Murdoch in 2003. In the Ladies' Championships, think of Isobel Torrance’s first victory in 1985 (her second player that year being a certain Jackie Steele); Christine Allison’s first victory in 1988; Kirsty Hay in 1995; Rhona Martin’s first and only victory in 2000 – look what that lead to – and Kelly Wood’s triumph in 2005. Yes – I truly believe that this Scottish Championship gave us a double-header; a double-whammy on so many different levels.

The Men

Tight – so very tight! Unfancied teams beating more fancied opponents, yet sailing above all of the tension and tightness, two teams began to emerge from the pack – Teams Brewster and Reid.

Way back when, Sandy Reid was a stalwart member of the front end union and won two Scottish Junior titles. People tend to forget that. He won a World Junior Silver Medal in 1998 in Thunder Bay to John Morris’s Canadian team, which included Brent Laing at lead, by the way, and Brad Gushue as alternate. At third this season, though throwing last stones, was Moray Combe. Moray has been around for years and years and years. He has competed in numerous Scottish championships as well as domestic competitions the length and breadth of the land. He thinks and worries constantly about the game; he was one of the leading lights behind the Mini Tour. He cares.

Their front end was made up of Scott Macleod, one of the famous Blair Atholl Macleod siblings – his sister is Scottish Junior and Scottish Ladies' Champion, Rhiann – and David Soutar. Both the front end are former Scottish Junior Champions, so though you might have been tempted to write off the team, you would have done so at your own risk. None of these chaps is a duffer – they are all proven winners.

In a tight 1 v 2 play-off game versus Tom Brewster, they had prevailed. Add this to their victory against the same opposition in the first round of the championships, and they looked to be the in-form team.

Up against them in the final was that old warhorse and scarred veteran of the Scottish Championship, Tom Brewster. Again, he had a young team ahead of him. Michael Goodfellow and Scott Andrews provided a strong front end. Scott is a two-time Scottish Junior Champion and World Junior Silver Medallist last year. Michael was twice runner-up in the Scottish Junior Championships before he aged out last season. The same applies to talented third Greg Drummond. Michael and Greg had also reached the final of the Scottish Championship last season in Glen Muirhead’s team. So again, here was a battle-hardened team with their share of triumph and disaster within the ranks.

Team Brewster’s route to the final had included a semifinal game versus David Murdoch. David and Warwick Smith are world-class, pure and simple. Both are multiple world champions. At second they had the powerful and enigmatic youngster, Glen Muirhead. At lead, was the committed, experienced and three-time Scottish champion, Ross Hepburn. In truth, the Murdoch quartet was in command almost for the whole game. It was tight though, and when Tom made a clutch draw against multiple Murdoch counters in the ninth end, the scores were tied, though David had last stone in the tenth.

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 perhaps. 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.

Crucially, Tom and his young team had stared defeat in the face and had come through it. Onto the final.

The final went the way that many finals go: it was cat and mouse; it was cagey; it was tight. I was impressed by the demeanour and guts that all eight players brought to the party. The first two ends promised much; the middle ends fizzled and popped, but there were a lot of blanks; the ninth and tenth was when the fun started. In the ninth, the Reid team forced the issue and, with his last stone to play, Tom was faced with two counters front left. He went for the double at biggish weight but only managed to hit and stay. Moray needed to hit and lie for his two and a one shot lead going into the final end. He gave himself more ice and played a quieter weight than Tom. His stone nearly curled all the way over the face of the target – as it was he cleared it, but only scored one, so the stage was set for a nail-biting last end.

Early doors and Tom is lying one on the top of the four foot, while the Reid team have a guard out front (nosed earlier on) and a clinger in the back twelve foot. Crucially though, they had a welder on Tom’s stone top four. With Tom’s first stone, he elected to blast the welder and lose his own stone as well, leaving the Reid team with the stone in the back twelve. Moray and Sandy elected to cover the four foot with a stone sitting in the eight foot. Moray Combe can stand tall after all of this. He slid down the ice slowly, settled in the hack and threw the perfect stone. A less experienced skip than Tom might have been tempted to go for the hit, but there was no real margin for error, so he called the right shot – the draw to one side of the four foot on the in turn. Simple really – except... except it’s the last stone of the Scottish Championship and the easier road to the pot lid is blocked by the stone that Moray had just thrown!

You could have heard a pin drop in the arena. You could almost feel the adrenalin flowing through the veins of Team Brewster; you could hear their hearts beat; electricity sparked and sizzled in the ice hall as Tom sat and threw the most important stone of his life. Down it came; sweepers were on, then off, then on again. As it travelled, it looked slow from the side – but by this time it was a team effort and all four were focused on one thing – getting it to the four foot. Scott Andrews and Michael Goodfellow are good sweepers. As the stone approached the house, it looked better and better, and then it was all over. Tom dropped to his knees; fifteen years of trying; fifteen years of disappointment – it was all finally over and he was crowned Scottish Champion skip. The eerie breath of wind that slipped silently through the applause was a ghost finally laying itself to rest.

And the runners-up? They came to the party; they played some great curling and when the fat lady came along for a song, they sang. They can hold their heads high – none of which, sad to say as they read this of an evening, will make the pain any the easier.

The Women

When Anna Sloan, Claire Hamilton, Vicki Adams and Rhiann Macleod took to the ice on Friday morning at 9.00am, there were still six teams left in the championships, but Anna and co were hanging by a thread on two wins and four losses. Two hours later, they were tied 5-5 in their game against Sarah Reid, Kerry Barr, Kay Adams and Barbara McFarlane, all of whom are former World Junior champions. The ninth end was blanked and Team Reid took the hammer home in the tenth. Anna stole and thus began the biggest fightback since Pete Smith won the men's championship in 2002.

In the same session, Hannah Fleming, Alice Spence, Becca Kesley and Abi Brown had the beating of pre-competition favourites Eve Muirhead, Kelly Wood, Lorna Vevers and Annie Laird, dropping them to the 3 v 4 play-off. Hannah remained undefeated and knew that Jackie Lockhart, Karen Kennedy, Kim Brewster and Sarah McIntyre awaited them in the 1 v 2 play-off.

But who was to play Jackie Lockhart in the semi final? Friday afternoon and evening were busy times for the ladies. First of all, Anna had to play Sarah again in a tie-break game. This turned out to be an easier game for the Sloan foursome than the earlier encounter and they ran the Reid team out of stones in the tenth end, winning the game 7 - 5.

Next up was Gail Munro, Lyndsay Cumming, Kerry Adams-Taylor and Sarah Ferguson. A tight one this, and it went all the way to the wire. But again Team Sloan prevailed and Anna, Vicki and Rhiann were on a roll towards the Saturday 3 v 4 play-off game against their junior skip, Eve Muirhead, playing in this championship with her 'senior' team.

In the meantime, Hannah and company had sat through the rest of Friday, safe in the knowledge that they had two bites at the cherry to make the final. First up, it was the 1 v 2 play-off game against Jackie Lockhart. As an illustration of how team Fleming has progressed, this was an interesting game to follow. Jackie has a strong, experienced team in front of her. There are few finer throwers of the stone in the ladies game than Karen Kennedy at third; Kim Brewster has been around the block more than once at second and Sarah Macintyre’s international junior record bears comparison with any other curler in the world game. Yet none of this fazed Hannah, Alice, Becca or Abi. They stuck to their task, took a three in the third end, survived all that team Lockhart threw at them, scored another two in the eighth end and eventually ran their more experienced and wordly-wise opponents out of stones in the tenth.

In a funny kind of a way, I was almost hoping for their own sakes that they would lose that game, but win it they did and, not for the first time, a team had made it all the way to the final on a perfect record. This is an amazing achievement, especially when you consider that all four are current juniors with at least another year to go on the under-21 circuit. Much credit should go to Debbie Knox, who has quietly given an awful lot of her personal time coaching these four youngsters to the top of the Scottish game. For now though, they had to take a quiet seat at the back; their curling was done until the next day’s final.

Over on the other side of the ice rink, Anna Sloan and company were facing up to the might that is Team Muirhead. This must have been a teaser of a game for all concerned. Eve skips Anna, Vicki and Rhiann in the juniors. Claire Hamilton will have been under pressure to 'produce the goods' as Eve’s replacement in the Sloan senior team. The old hands on Eve’s team, Kelly Wood, Lorna Vevers and Annie Laird were in kind of the same position as Claire on Anna’s team, though none of them had the fallback that Eve, Anna, Vicki and Rhiann had – namely a national championship already in the bag this year.

The game was tense, as you would expect. Sloan struck first with a two in the third, but Eve immediately hit back in the very next end with a two of her own. Ann took a one in the fifth. After the fifth end break there was that kind of cruel, game-changing stroke of bad luck that can sometimes alter the course of a game. Eve was attempting a tap-back on a Sloan counter. It seemed to pick up and suddenly a steal of three is on the scoreboard. Never nice when a game is decided like that; to be fair to the Sloan team, they kept focused and, despite a wee scare in the tenth when Eve’s last stone rolled through the house, so that she did not lie 'game' when Anna came to throw her last stone – huge turnaround that from the 'pressure' point of view – Anna had a simple 'hit it anywhere' for her last stone to win the game. Phew! Sighs of relief all round – Team Sloan had reached the semi final and by now, they were on a roller-coaster of a roll!

The semifinal was against Jackie Lockhart and her team, still smarting from their defeat at the hands of Team Fleming. Now, it is fair to say that Team Lockhart have been there and done that – all of them. They have all worn the colours of their country with pride and they have all won medals at international championships. With Eve failing in the 3 v 4 play-off game against Anna, they must have begun to think that the championship was there to be won. Last season, life had been cruel to Jackie. She had reached the final of the Scottish playing third to Eve, but a last-minute injury robbed her of the chance to take to the ice and, of course, to travel to the World Championships, where the Scots won a Silver Medal. That said, she has won the Scottish no fewer than eight times and third Karen Kennedy is a four-time Scottish champion. Surely, this experienced combination could not be beaten twice in one day by teams consisting solely or mainly of juniors?

It was tight and nervy, but again, the Sloan team rose to the challenge. They stole in the third, then crucially in the eighth and ninth ends to come home 4-1 ahead, albeit without the hammer. Two nerveless take outs around guards sealed the victory and it was onto the final the next day. On Thursday night, they had been two and four; now, on Saturday night, they found themselves in the final having won five games on the trot – could they make it six? We would have to wait.

Two finalists and only one winner – that’s the cruel reality of sport at the top level. Two contenders whose route to the final could not have been more contrasting – one team undefeated and the other scrabbling and fighting over scraps to get there. Crucially perhaps, one team refreshed after just one game on the Saturday, but the other battle-hardened to match fitness with five wins under their belts since the cock had crowed on Friday morning. One team, three of whose members had won a Scottish Junior Championship three weeks earlier over the other team, all of whom had lost the selfsame game. Friends off the ice and rivals on the ice – it was a potent mix of emotions and conflicts and for the supporters, it was difficult to take sides – both teams deserved it so much. The question was – who would blink first?

Team Fleming had the hammer and she managed to blank the first three ends of the game. It was tight and it was cat and mouse, but the blinking was done in the fourth and, sad for them, it was Hannah’s squad that blinked first. Team Sloan went for it big style and left Hannah with a tricky shot for her last stone, which she made. First blood to Team Fleming, but it was a force of one – no question. If the fourth end was the end where the momentum swung in Sloan’s favour, the fifth end provided us with the confirmation. A sublime, quiet, out turn take out round all kinds of stuff out front that Hannah, crucially, could not follow. Her stone ran agonisingly wide and caught on an outside guard. She maybe jammed it a tad – there was certainly a lot of rotation on the stone as it left her hand. A huge, psychologically-chilling three went up on the scoreboard at end five and Team Sloan had one hand on the trophy.

Now – a word to the wise. It is quite the most horrible feeling when that kind of thing happens to you – especially in a really important game like the finals of a major championship. It is like the wind being knocked out of you; your stomach lurches – you almost want to be sick. You want time to reverse; you want the chance to play a couple of stones again. There is genuinely nothing worse in the context of competition at the highest level than that moment when you know that the wheels are just maybe coming off the barrow.

And they had five minutes to reflect on it. Never was coach Knox’s intervention more important, I suspect. She needed to calm her young charges nerves and build their confidence up for the next five ends. The game was by no means over at this point, but there was no denying the body blow that Anna Sloan and her team had just delivered.

The next couple of ends were tight, then there came another three and that, to be frank, was that. 7-2 at this level with only two ends to go is never completely insurmountable, but these girls in Team Sloan know all about winning. They like winning. Winning is their friend. They are not scared of it. They were not going to lose five shots in two ends.

And there, writ large was the difference on Sunday morning. Our champions this year really enjoy winning. Young though they might be and charming as they all are – they are a ruthless bunch on the ice and there’s an end to it! I should add that this bodes well for the World Championships in Denmark.

And for Hannah’s team? Well, believe it or not, they have at least one more year in juniors to look forward to and they must take only the positives from this experience. They have mixed it with the best; they have beaten every top team in Scotland; they have proved that they can win games at this level. Down they will doubtless be, but they are all part of the brave new world that is Scottish ladies curling.

Not a bad place to be.

And one final thought on which to ponder, if you are still with me at the end of this – of the sixteen competitors in the two finals this year, seven are still juniors, another four are just this side of the juniors, two are young enough to remember what it was like to play in the juniors, which leaves three who should know better!

Congratulations to all of them!

Monday, January 10, 2011

The scourge of curling

Pick ups! They really are the scourge of curling. The stone, perfectly laid and played, suddenly veers off course for no apparent reason. We saw the cruellest example of the evil art that ever I have seen in the final of the Ramada Perth Masters last weekend. Duncan Fernie, having controlled the final from the minute he took a three in the second end of the game, found himself facing three shots when he came to play his last stone of the game against the Canadian team skipped by Mike McEwen. I understand that the only reason he was facing three shots was because an earlier David Edwards stone had also picked up but, be that as it may, big Duncan had played the shot perfectly and it was hitting the Canadian counter plum on the nose when – suddenly and within the last couple of yards of hitting its target– the stone veered off course so dramatically that it missed the target stone completely and handed the Canadians a steal of three and, more importantly, the Perth Masters title.

I cannot begin to imagine how Duncan, David, Richard Woods and Colin Campbell felt after such a turn of bad luck – well actually, I can – but to be fair to them, they took it on the chin and were philosophical about things after the game.

By and large, Perth is not known as a rink that suffers from pick ups; it is a big, modern rink and has been home to many national and international events over the years; the ice that Paul Martin and his team produces has constantly been of the very best quality in Scotland; yet something had obviously changed and whatever it was caused there to be a surfeit of pick ups throughout the big weekend. Lest anyone think that I am having a pop here, exactly the same thing happened at the Edinburgh International at the end of November; it had its share of stones veering inexplicably off course. I dare say that each of you dear readers will be able to point to similar instances in your own rinks.

And it’s not limited to Scotland, by the way – just before any lurkers from across the pond get all smug and righteous! Remember the Brier in 2008?

What was interesting there though was what the ice team implemented immediately once it became clear that there was a problem. The fans thought they were crazy, but an almost 'operating theatre mentality' was introduced. Do you remember the sticky floors over which anyone going onto the ice pad had to walk? A pick up can be caused by the minutest piece of salt, grit, fibre or dirt; the ice technicians spotted there was a problem and tried to sort things out as soon as was humanly possible.

I know one ice technician in Scotland who has a 'ball of shame' in his office. What is it? Well you know when the ice technician 'nips' the ice with that elaborate piece of kit known – not unreasonably – as a nipper? He melted down all the residual ice and collected the stray bits of rubbish through the season. The 'ball of shame' was essentially all the bits of curlers’ clothing and shoes that he collected off the ice throughout the season. It was a big, medicine ball of a ball, let me tell you. So, lesson number one for the curler must surely be to ensure that they use clothing and shoes especially designed for curling and that they keep things as clean as they can.

Lesson number two: I suspect that a lot can go wrong in the short walk between the changing room and the ice pad. In the inclement weather from which we have been suffering these past few weeks, we must have been bringing all manner of debris into the rinks from the outside. If every curler could avoid stepping on the mats adjacent to the rink in their outdoor shoes, then make sure that they wiped their feet on the mats with their curling shoes before stepping onto the ice pad, then that presumably would help – assuming, of course, that the mats are regularly cleaned.

Lesson number three: some of the shoes I see curlers wearing on the ice are just a joke. You can see the bruising marks that badly attached sliders leave on the ice. You can see the damage that a rough edge does to the ice. Every time the ice is so damaged, I cannot help but think that the miniscule ice shards are potential pick ups waiting to happen.

Lesson number four: don’t bang your brush on the ice. Seriously – just don’t do it. Just think for a moment of all the little bits of bristle and nylon that come off the brush when you jar it on the ice. And if you are a regular banger – and you get a pick up? Guess what – it was probably your fault.

Lesson number five: I am not sure whether ice going flat, or fudging, is down to the curlers’ exuberant use of the nylon brushes now so much in vogue, or ice technicians having the ice temperature a degree or so warmer than perhaps would be wise, so that they can give the curlers a swing, or whether indeed it is due in some cases to curlers leaving handprints and other bodily prints on the ice, but it does seem to me that, on ice that is prone to fudge, curlers would be well advised to keep their hands off the ice surface.

Just developing that theme for a moment, there was a rule introduced last year that specifically prohibited a player from damaging the ice. I quote from rule 5 (b) (vi): No player shall cause damage to the ice surface due to equipment, hand and/or body prints. A player may be ejected from a game if continually breaking this rule: see 6 (b) Royal Club Competitions General Rules and Conditions under Dispute & Discipline. For clarification, rule 6 (b) goes into chapter and verse in terms of what will happen to players who break the rule. The procedure is interesting.

Again, I quote from the relevant section of the rule:
1) Warning and procedure explanation at the team meeting.
2) 1st incident – 1st official on-ice warning, repair damage.
3) 2nd incident – 2nd official on-ice warning, repair damage.
4) 3rd incident – repair damage and remove player from the game.

That the rule was a serious attempt to bring to players’ attention the seriousness of the breach is not in question. Time and again though, I have seen players’ hands resting on the ice and melting it. I have not yet seen a warning issued. This does not mean to say that a warning has not been issued (and if one has, I have a feeling that Alan Stanfield will be on my case faster than a speeding bullet!) – just that I haven’t seen it.

If you see players leaving their hands on the ice in an un-umpired game, it seems to me fair to draw to the player’s attention their breach – even if it is just in the exaggerated sweeping of the melt marks once they have un-spreadeagled themselves from the ice. If they get stroppy at you for pointing it out, the rule is there and it’s not your fault that they are breaking it.

So, in summary, what causes pick ups? Answer – it seems to me that it depends. What can we do to help make them less common (I doubt we will ever eradicate them from the game)? Answer – keep it clean, Archbishop, keep it clean!