There are a couple of interesting experiments going on in Scottish curling this season, demonstrating if nothing else that the sport has moved on a bit since I last threw a stone in anger. Actually, I throw a lot of my stones in anger these days – largely because I am still recovering from the awfulness of the previous effort, if you catch my drift. Still and all, at least I can still enjoy the odd sojourn on the ice, which is more than can be said for those who chose rugby as their sport of choice. They just get angry at Tongans from the stands.
Back to my point. The first experiment is that of the 'five-man team'. Tom Brewster’s successful Scottish champions of the last couple of seasons have been joined this season by none other than David Murdoch. Views vary on the wisdom of such a move. The traditionalist view is that a curling team has four people and that to build up the all-important team dynamic, those four need to learn to win and, perhaps more importantly, to lose together as a team. Those of a cynical nature (not that there are any of those in curling) point to Tom and co’s early season form up to and including their recent foray at the European Championships in Karlstad, Sweden and, when they have picked themselves up off the floor, splutter indignantly, “I told you so.”
The modern approach here in Scotland seems to allow that the 'five-man-team' has a future. There are a number of outside influences at work and there is cross-fertilisation from other successful sports. This comes with the territory. The more money that comes into the top level of the sport, the more influence the paymasters will demand.
Be very careful though; it is not that this experiment has not been tried before. We could, for example, talk about Rhona Martin’s Olympic team from 2002. The original team was Rhona, Margaret Morton, Fiona Macdonald and Janice Rankin. They had already come fourth in the 1999 Chamonix European Championships before going on to win the Scottish Championship (Rhona’s breakthrough championship, by the way) in 2000; they went to the Glasgow World Championships with Debbie Knox as alternate. During the first half of season 2000-2001, Debbie and Margaret swapped in and out of the team event-by-event, until later on in about the November or so, when Margaret found herself as the permanent alternate and Debbie was installed as the third player.
Without the chance really to settle, they actually missed out on competing in the European championship that year. Later on, they lost their Scottish Championship title - it was won by Julia Ewart, Heather Byers, Nancy Murdoch and Lynn Cameron. The rules in play at the time meant that Julia and her team had to get all the way to the final of the World Championships before a play-off would have been triggered between them and Rhona. They missed out, failing at the semi-final stage and the sighs of relief from Team Martin nearly blew various houses down. It was therefore Rhona and her team who went out to the European Championships in Vierumäki in December 2001. Although there were a couple of tight games, their 2-5 record and sixth spot did not stoke the boilers of confidence.
Team Martin had settled down for the Vierumäki Europeans but to continue to swap players in and out of the team must have been disconcerting for those involved in Karlstad this season.
Rhona Martin went on with a completely settled team by this stage to the Olympics. Apart from a late round-robin hiccup, they carried all before them and ended up winning a fantastic Gold Medal for GB – the only team to do so, by the way, in the modern era.
Now, I know Tom well and he is a fine fellow. The last thing that he (or any of the other players or coaches for that matter) would ever do is dissemble. He is on record as taking the critics and the likes of me on full frontal. His post-championship interview on the Thursday at Karlstad is a direct rebuttal of what I am suggesting here. He was fully-supportive of all the technical changes and team rotation that we have seen. He blames the relatively poor Karlstad showing on illness and poor play. The evidence, anecdotal though it may be, might suggest otherwise.
Ulrika Bergman – remember her? She was Anette Norberg’s alternate player though that massive run of success that the Swedish ladies had in the noughties. Hardly got a game; never even a look-in! She was not a threat – which meant that the four in the team could concentrate on playing and bonding and that she could concentrate on doing all the important stuff that an alternate does at international championships – stone-matching, liaising between the bench and the team, and morale-boosting.
Ever heard of Terry Meek or Adam Enright? Neither had I. They were Kevin Martin’s alternates between 2008 and 2010. Chucked a couple of stones here and there (Meek is actually credited with a 100% statistical record for the stones he threw), but were they ever going to replace Ben Hebert, Marc Kennedy, John Morris or indeed Kevin Martin on a permanent basis? You may as well ask if David Cameron is about to join the World Socialist movement.
Look, I could go on but I think that those at the top of our game here in Scotland, and by extension, the UK, need to take valuable lessons from all of this.
• First of all, be very careful about introducing uncertainty to a team that is working. David Murdoch is one of the finest players that Scotland has ever produced; he has won more medals – especially gold ones – than just about anyone else. He’s a right fine fellow too, but right now, he is the fifth player who is getting a good few games and, like it or not, that has an effect on the team dynamic; it introduces an element of uncertainty in the other four.
• Make decisions about the playing order and, crucially, who is the alternate early on in the process – as early as you can.
• Recognise that there is a skill in being the fifth player. They are an important communication channel between the players and coaching staff. They need to be able to throw stones consistently and in the same style as the rest of the team, otherwise their stone-matching duties late of an evening will be waste of time. It is as important to have a good fifth player in many respects as it is to have good players in the team.
Our coaches tend to look at these things in four-year cycles; that is not their fault – it is a weakness in the current system. I want to make sure that decisions taken now are not just for the benefit of Scottish curling up to the next Olympics, but are also not – important this; HHYs please note – NOT to the detriment of the long-term future of the competitive game in our country. Why is David not skipping his own team in the meantime and providing competition for Tom, David Edwards and all the rest of them? Why was David Edwards and his team not invited to give Tom and his team a 'best-of-five' challenge to go out to Europe? What is wrong with competition?
“What’s the second experiment going on in the game at the moment?” I hear you ask. Picked teams, that’s what. Teams cobbled together by coaches without as much reference to the players as there should be.
The answer to this conundrum is relatively simple.
Don’t do it.