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!