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!

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