Monday, October 29, 2012

The Junior Ladies

Copey writes:

After a number of years in the international doldrums, Scottish ladies junior curling has enjoyed unparalleled success these past few years. The decade-long medal drought was ended when Kilmarnock’s Sarah Reid skipped Eve Muirhead, Barbara McFarlane, Sarah Macintyre and fifth player, Alison Black, to a 2007 World Junior Ladies gold medal that, to be very fair, had not necessarily been predicted. Just a couple of months previously, the two Sarahs and Alison had been to Pinerolo to compete in the World University Games and, though their play was much better than their final position gave them credit for, they ended up tenth! Since then, Eve Muirhead has gone on to skip Scotland to three more gold medals in World Junior Championships, and Hannah Fleming finally stepped out of Eve’s shadow to skip Lauren Gray, Alice Spence, Abi Brown and fifth player Jennifer Martin to a deserved gold medal in last season’s World Junior Championship in Ă–stersund, Sweden. Five gold medals in six years is an astonishing success story, and make no mistake, the Canadians, Swedes, Swiss, Norwegians etc. are all sick of the sight of us and want revenge!

So who will go to Sochi in Russia to represent Scotland and to defend our honour? Hannah Fleming returns with two of her gold medal winning rink from last season, third Lauren Gray and lead, Abi Brown. Alice Spence has aged out and has been replaced by Abi’s cousin, Jennifer Dodds. This remains a really strong team and you must consider them warm, if not positively hot, favourites for the Scottish Junior Championship. They have already won the Braehead Open in Glasgow and forced Logan Gray to draw against three shots in the last end of their semifinal match up later in Dumfries. They are mixing at the top level in Scottish open curling and giving as good as they get with experienced senior teams. They will be pressed by a number of good-looking and strong teams in the junior ladies ranks, mind you, whose progress I will follow with great interest.

As an example, the other performance squad in the junior ladies this season is the team skipped by Jennifer Martin. She has Hamilton’s Hazel Smith at third, Vicky Wright from Stranraer at second and Murrayfield’s Mhairi Baird at lead. They were runners-up in the Kinross Classic junior event, though, to be fair, Jennifer had to sit the competition out due to injury.  Their conquerors that day were Rebecca Steven, Karen Munro, Clare Degan and substitute Rowena Steven.  This was a major breakthrough for Rebecca and she will hope to build on it come the business end of the season!

Winners of the low road were Laura Barr, Emma Hair, Jane Barr and Sophie Sinclair. This is a team to watch and whilst I do not think that they will win the Scottish championship this year, they will certainly challenge in years to come – a look at their surnames tells you that!

Past Scottish champion Tasha Aitken skips Louise Joiner, Naomi Brown and her youngest sister, Karina. This is Tasha’s last year in the juniors and she would like to repeat her Scottish success of two seasons ago when she played second to Lauren Gray.

Maggie Wilson won the first Braehead junior international competition, this year’s Scottish leg of the European junior curling tour. This again is a strong-looking line up, with experience all the way down the rink; third is Lesley Young, second is Becca Kesley and lead Rachel Hannen. Runners-up in the Braehead competition was the team skipped by Gina Aitken (see these Aitkens? They’re everywhere!), third is Katy Richardson, second is Rowena Kerr and their lead is Fiona Telfer.

Finally, Lauren Baxter has stepped into Hazel Smith’s shoes this season and is skipping Naomi Whyte, Sarah Wood and Eilidh Templeton.

What has also struck me this season about the junior ladies teams is their diversity. There is actually only one rink where all the members come from the same home ice rink. Step forward Katie Wright, Lauren Morgan and Jenni Cannon from Stranraer. I have no doubt that their fourth team mate will probably be from the south west of Scotland as well! That there is such a spread of talent speaks to a high level of commitment at junior club level. It is no surprise to see the likes of Murrayfield with ten participants, Stranraer with seven (maybe eight!), Greenacres and Hamilton with five each, Forfar with four and Inverness, Stirling and Dumfries with three. There are sleeping giants needing a prod, mind you: I can only see one Perth young curler and one from Lockerbie (quite a good one, mind you – Hannah Fleming, no less!) in the mix. These things are cyclical though and I have no doubt that there are lots of twelve- and thirteen-year olds doing their thing in those two rinks just waiting to prove me wrong!

The Scottish junior women’s qualifier competition will be played in Perth, December 7-9. There are two sections of six teams and the top three from each section will qualify for the finals in Aberdeen, January 23-27, 2013. There will be a play-off between the fourth-placed teams in each section, the winner of that game also going through to Aberdeen. There, the seven qualifiers will meet Hannah and her team and the eight will fight it out in time-honoured fashion.

Don’t miss it.

Monday, October 08, 2012

New Season Thoughts 2: The Ladies

Copey writes:

Twelve teams have entered the Scottish ladies' championships this year and I am pleased! Ok, so it is not thirty; but it is a few more than the past couple of seasons and I really hope that all the competitors enjoy their competition and that they are encouraged to enter again next season. I was worried for a while that Scottish lady curlers had lost their competitive mojo and that everyone else had just given up taking the fight to Eve Muirhead and her world-class team. I am glad that a few younger teams are taking up the challenge and I am looking forward to seeing some cracking games between talented teams as the season progresses.

The Scottish championships will have a pre-qualifying weekend on the 1st and 2nd December when eight of the twelve teams (teams Muirhead, Lockhart, Fleming and McMillan have been 'pre-qualified' to the final weekend) will play in two round-robin leagues of four, with the top two from each league qualifying for the eight-team finals in Perth, February 11-17. So, how will it all go?

Eve, Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams and Claire Hamilton are a talented foursome and no mistake. Are they the best team that Scotland has ever sent out to international championships? Well, they have to go some to equal the exploits of their predecessors, Rhona Martin’s Olympic gold medallist team and Jackie Lockhart’s world champion team, but they are on their way and time alone will tell if they reach those ultimate heights or not. They have to be installed as warm favourites for the Scottish championships.

Unlike the men (shame on that decision, by the way!), they will face a challenge to represent Scotland at the Europeans; that challenge will come from the redoubtable Gail Munro and Lyndsay Cumming. Lyndsay is a strong and supportive third; Gail has that McMillan 'chutzpah', for want of a better word – she never knows when she is beaten. Their front-end has yet to be confirmed, though Jodie Milroy returns from last season’s runners-up team. In a sense, it doesn’t matter who they get in as their second player (though it should, of course), but Gail and Lyndsay know each others’ games so well at the top end that I expect them to challenge strongly again – not only in the European play-offs, but also in the Scottish championships proper.

Jackie Lockhart plays with Karen Kennedy and Sarah Macintyre. They have recruited Katriona Davidson (nee Fairweather) to replace Kay Adams at second. Katriona and Jackie have 'form' of course; they won the world championship together in Bismarck. If they were good enough to win a world championship then, they will undoubtedly challenge for a Scottish championship now. Those three teams will be there or thereabouts when the fat lady joins the party and starts singing.

But, do you know what? I really hope that some other twenty-somethings make the party as well. I really like the look of Kerry Barr’s team this year. Rachael Simms is a strong player at three and Rhiann Macleod and Barbara McPake make up a useful front end, though Rhiann is better known as a top-class lead than second. They should challenge. So should Lorna Vevers, Sarah Reid, Alice Spence and Kay Adams. There is a wealth of winning international experience in this team; three world junior gold medallists and an Olympian serial winner of the Scottish junior and ladies' championships will be a tough act to knock out. The way the team reads, the top end are playing out of their 'natural' positions; Sarah is used to skipping and Lorna is used to playing in the middle order – the boiler house of the team at either third or, more recently, second. It will be interesting to see how they get on; the great curlers, mind you, can play anywhere in the team.

Leading the junior charge in the ladies' championships this season is the team skipped by Hannah Fleming. Fresh from their world junior ladies gold medal, Hannah, Lauren Gray and Abi Brown bring in Abi’s cousin, Jennifer Dodds to replace the aged-out Alice Spence. This is still a very strong-looking team and one whose progress I will follow with interest as the season progresses to the business end early next year. They won the Cardwell Garden Centre Braehead Open yesterday!

Look out also for young teams skipped by Jennifer Martin and Gina Aitken. I do not expect them to win the Scottish ladies this season, but I do expect them to do well in their own championship.

On the wider front, whilst I am pleased that there are more entries this year than last, we should not rest on our laurels. Somebody, somewhere in Cairnie House should be making plans to achieve a goal for ladies' curling. The goal should be this: by 2016, there should be a minimum of twenty-four teams entering the Scottish ladies' championships. Further, at least six of those teams should have a fighting and realistic chance of winning the championships.

I shall return to this theme as the months progress, but next – the juniors!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

The Curling Professional

I received an email from my old mucker, Richard Harding, the other day. In it, he referred to an attached flier advertising David Murdoch’s coaching at the Greenacres curling rink. I forgave him the fact that there was, in fact, no flier attached to the email – it’s the kind of thing I do all the time myself and I think it might be an 'age' thing – so I chuckled and sent him back a suitably rigorous rejoinder. Sure enough, the next day, Rod Dickson picked up the pieces and this time sent the flier as well (see below).

I thought so at the time and I still think now that this is an innovative and creative idea. I remember that there were dark murmurings about David’s lack of coaching qualifications when the idea was first floated and to be honest I don’t know what level of coaching badge he has – if any. I suppose I can understand the points that were being made and there are certain important milestoney-type moments that more traditionally-trained coaches need to reach and pass. There is, I suppose, a natural kind of reluctance to accept a newbie who walks into a position when the rest of us have to get ourselves badged and booted first.

But here’s the choice put starkly: I did have a coaching badge for a while (thankfully for all concerned, now lapsed), but I am trying to imagine who would deliver best value to a committed curler trying to improve some aspect of their delivery – me with my badge, or David Murdoch.

Let me pause just for a second there; I’ll maybe get a Havana out and have a few contented puffs as I turn that one over in my head – the pros, the cons – oh, the decisions, the decisions.


But I think I would go with David!

Good luck to him and to Greenacres this season as they progress the initiative. I’m all for it and hope that the idea spreads.

Robin Copland

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

New Season Thoughts 1

What a summer of sport that we have had! I was enthralled by the Olympics and the Paralympics. The performances were spectacular but the dedication and commitment that led to those performances – well, they were simply outstanding. Standouts for me as a true Brit were the performances of the cyclists and rowers (obviously!), the Opening Ceremony (and tell me that you too didn’t shed a tear or two), that marvellous Saturday night when it all came together in the athletics stadium, Usain Bolt – oh, I could go on.

But do you know the biggest highlight for me? Four or five weeks when our national radio stations’ airwaves were not hogged by the great god, our so-called 'national' sport (at which we are totally and utterly woeful, by the way) football. With the gloriously apt exception of the shenanigans at the Rangers Football Club (Newco or Oldco – take your pick) and the interruption provided by a bunch of football fans indulging in what they seem to do best – fighting on the terraces at Dundee in Dundee United’s match against Moscow Dynamo, our screens and airwaves were filled instead with properly committed sportspeople, funded I will grant you, but not to the obscene levels of the top footballers, indulging in competition of the very highest quality and level. It was brilliant.

Sadly, it is over. After a brief respite, football hogs everything and is everywhere and those of us who despair are left with memories of the Tour de France, Wimbledon and the odd oasis provided by the likes of the Ryder Cup (What a performance!) and the US Open tennis championship (didn’t the boy do well?).

Oh. And the curling!

The season has started; I have already had my first fall and have suffered the pangs of defeat at the hands of the Midcalder curling club in the Jackson trophy. But you don’t want to hear about that! Instead, let me take a look at the upcoming season and post some thoughts on the runners and riders in Scotland. I shall start with the men.

The shenanigans at the top of our sport have Tom Brewster and his unchanged team from last season of Greg Drummond, Scott Andrews and Michael Goodfellow being joined by David Murdoch, erstwhile Scottish and Olympic skip. It seems to me that these five players look like the HHY’s shoo-ins for the next Olympics – call me an old-fashioned cynic if you will. It is going to be interesting to see how David Murdoch melds in and makes a tight four into an equally tight five. Certainly, they have to be considered favourites for the Scottish championship. Tom and co are now double world silver-medallists. It would be good if they could go one better this year!

To do that though, we first have to qualify for the world championships by doing well in the European championships and that done, they have to get past some other useful looking teams. Last season, the talented David Edwards won many more games than he lost at the Scottish championship finals. I expect that he will do the same again. He has kept his team together, so continues with former Scottish junior champion skip John Penny, Scott Macleod and Colin Campbell.

Logan Gray looks to me to have got things sorted out this year. I like the fact that he has Ross Paterson at third. Ross has developed into a fine top-end player in my view. In playing with Logan, they recreate the top end from Logan’s very first junior Scottish success. These two could do something special this season. At second is Al Guthrie, another strong player in the mid- to late-twenties generation and at lead, they have the (slightly older!) Richard Woods.

I fancy these three teams will make the top three of the Scottish championships this year. There you are – I can’t say fairer than that.

Mind you, three veteran teams will take a few scalps this season and are just loving the fact that I have tipped other teams to top them in the Scottish! Look out for Smiths (but not related) Warwick, David and Alan, who are joined by experienced lead Ross Hepburn in a strong-looking team. Ewan Macdonald has persuaded Duncan Fernie out of premature retirement to play third with a front end of young Ally Fraser (to be fair, he’s just out of juniors and can hardly be called a 'veteran'!) and Euan Byers. Sandy Reid and Moray Combe have persuaded another old warhorse, Hammy McMillan, to pick up where he left off a couple of seasons ago. Murrayfield’s Sandy Gilmour takes up the mantle with Hammy again. These are strong teams and are capable of beating anyone on their day.

I also expect strong challenges from Glen Muirhead, Graeme Black and John Hamilton. All three skips played in the Scottish championship finals last season and could well do so again. Junior teams (or teams just out the juniors) skipped by Grant Hardie, Kyle Smith (reigning Scottish junior champions) and Murray Young will be keen to compete in the finals. They will all challenge too at the two Scottish member events of the Champions Tour, the Edinburgh International, November 9-11, and the Ramada Perth Masters, January 5-8. Both events have attracted top overseas teams to augment the Scottish teams that will take part.

It’s a long slow burn towards Olympic stardom and the chance for new heroes to introduce themselves to the sporting scene at the top level of our sport and a chance for the rest to make statements of intent. An interesting season ahead, I would wager!

Robin Copland