Friday, December 14, 2012

This Season's Interesting Experiments

Copey writes:

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.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Scottish Women's Qualifiers

Copey writes:

Eight teams played in the Co-operative Funeralcare Women’s Qualifiers competition in the new rink at Dumfries on the 1st and 2nd December. Jennifer Martin, Lauren Baxter, Lorna Vevers, Kirsty Paterson, Kerry Barr, Gina Aitken, Maggie Wilson and Katie Murray skipped their teams and each team was looking for one of four places. The four qualifiers will join pre-qualified teams skipped by Gail Munro, Eve Muirhead, Hannah Fleming and Jackie Lockhart in the Scottish finals February 11-17 next year.

That’s the good news.

The bad news? Well, the eight teams were split into two groups of four. There was the possibility that a team could go out after only two games in the competition. Trust me. You can recover from two lost games in a league of eight teams – especially when there are four qualifiers out of eight. But you can’t recover after two lost games in a league of four.

Which is why Lorna Vevers, Kirsty Paterson, Maggie Wilson and Katie Murray and their teams will play no further part in the Co-operative Funeralcare Scottish Women’s Curling Championship, 2012 - 2013, described on the Royal Caledonian Curling Club’s website as, 'the highlight of Scotland’s competitive curling calendar with the best teams competing for the national title'.

Played two. Lost two. Out.

It’s not right. Please, HHYs – sort it out for next season.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Seniors' Curling

See the seniors? It’s the new twenties – I kid you not!

I spent a fair bit of time behind the glass recently – looking at two great competitions, the Edinburgh International Men’s and Ladies Championships. Now, I will immediately admit to a bit of bias here, as I am the secretary of the organising committees for both the events, but actually, I am not talking about the organisation (splendid, obviously, though it undoubtedly was!), so much as the curling and the commitment of all the competitors who took part.

These were good, old-fashioned curling competitions – the way they used to be and here I will doff my cap in the general direction of 'my generation', to quote Pete Townshend of 'The Who' fame. No disrespect at all intended to the coaches and young curlers who now populate our sport at its elite level, but here were people, many of who have known each other for thirty years and more and who have competed hard against and with each other for that time as well, playing hard on the ice, then staying to enjoy the fun, chat, camaraderie and all of the rest of it at the end of the game. None of this debriefing stuff; no analysis by video; no coach’s input – just a good game of curling followed by some tales of derring-do.

Ah – but how was the curling, I hear you ask. It was just fine, thanks. Let me tell you about one stone. It was played by Kate Adams (mother of Kay and Vicky), judged by Catherine Dodds (mother of Stuart and Jennifer) and swept by Jill Florence (mother of David – OK, he’s not a curler but you’ll know him because every four years in our football-besotted land, he is suddenly famous for winning silver medals at the Olympic Games in the sport of kayaking) and Elspeth Johnston (mother of Lauren, who skipped the GB team to a bronze medal in the 2005 European Youth Olympics team, then played third in the gold medal winning team in the 2006 European Junior Challenge).

It was the final of the ladies competition (see me – see observation skills, by the way) and Kate was playing against Barbara Watt’s silver medal winners at last season’s world senior championships, Barbara herself (mother of Janice Rankin, Olympic gold medallist in Salt Lake City – oh, I could go on, but I will stop there!), Jean Hammond, Maggie Barry and Val Mahon. Barbara had the hammer. She was lying shot at about 10.00 behind the tee line. There was a stone out front, guarding the edge of the four foot and there was an Adams counter near the Watt stone behind the tee line, but lying second shot. Barbara’s first stone to come. The wags in the gallery (of whom there were a fair few, by the way) wondered whether she might be tempted to rip the guard; she had tried to earlier on in the end, as it happens, but Val Mahon’s stone had only succeeded in rolling to cover the four foot. Barbara decided, queen of the four-foot as she undoubtedly is, to draw top four and maybe tempt Kate into a fairly tricky hit and flop behind the guard. This would have left her with a fairly humdrum repeat draw to win the game and the competition. Her stone came agonisingly two feet too far, it front end straddling the tee line just off the centre of the one foot.

After deliberation, Kate decided to play the tiniest of taps at sweeping weight. She needed to move Barbara’s stone maybe six inches, so that she lay shot, but she did not want it to move any further for fear of giving Barbara a fairly run-of-the-mill hit for the game. She laid the stone and it tracked down the ice towards its destination. Brushes down, then up, then down again – always a good sign! Towards the end of its journey, as the weigh came off it, Jill and Elspeth leathered into it; it tapped the Watt counter back. Catherine looked anxiously at the stones as they lay, but the four of them had done just enough – and no more. It was the perfect team stone. Had this been the final of the world championships, I am telling you that the crowds would have leapt to their feet in admiration!

Barbara was suddenly faced with a nightmare shot; she needed to hit the Adams stone on the high side to force it over the top of her shot. Hopefully, both would spill, leaving her second stone (remember the one at 10.00?) as the game winner. Unfortunately for team Watt, her stone curled slightly over the face of the target stone and all she could do was watch as it drove Kate’s stone straight back onto her own, leaving Kate and her team the winners of the competition.

You had to feel sorry for Barbara and company, but at the same time admire the skills displayed by team Adams. It was as good a stone as the BTG mob are liable to see all season and the odds have already shortened in this watcher’s opinion on a repeat of that final come the Scottish Senior Championships in February.

In the men’s competition, another strong team, the reigning Scottish senior champions, no less, skipped by Keith Prentice, with Lockhart Steele, Robert Anderson (replacing Robin Aitken from last season) and Tommy Fleming in support, overcame the stuffy Kinross team skipped by David Clydesdale. David has made a habit in recent weeks of going four or five down in a game, only to roar back and win defiantly at the end! Not this time though – team Prentice used all their experience and talent to overcome the fightback and a big four in the seventh end secured things for them.

I have a word of advice to ice rinks out there, all of which seem intent on running junior or mainstream weekend competitions. Don’t stop doing the junior / mainstream stuff – it is really important that we have thriving age group and mainstream competitions and a meaningful circuit. But I’ll tell you what; think about running a 50s plus competition as well. Not only will they curl well, but they will put money behind your bar and give your club a real 'buzz' for the weekend.