Monday, November 04, 2013

The Runners and Riders in the Scottish Ladies Championship

Now, here’s a rum thing.  Hot on the heels of my thoughts on falling numbers, tippex-scribbled laptops and recruitment officers, I have just taken a look at the 2013-2014 Scottish Ladies Championship runners and riders.  You would have thought, would you not, that, in the absence of the reigning Scottish and World champions (and that’s another discussion), the cream of Scottish Ladies curling might have thought to themselves, in a moment of blinding logic, that, if you had an ambition to win your national championship, this might be about as good a year as any to wander off to the curling cabinet, get out the old Bally shoes, scrub down the Thistle brush and wander down to the rink for a wee practice before the championship onslaught. 

I would have thought so anyway.  You would not have seen me for dust.  In fact, so enthused was I about the whole thing that I got as far as the cupboard before I realised that there was just one small thing I had forgotten about and that was that.

So – how come only seven entrants?  Search me.  And who is going to win.  I think the answer is – well, it depends.

Regular readers will remember that I wrote a couple of months ago about the fifth player for the Olympics.  Since I wrote the blog by the way, it has been announced that Scott Andrews, Tom Brewster, Greg Drummond, Michael Goodfellow and David Murdoch, who will skip the rink, have been chosen to represent GB at the Olympics in the men’s competition.  This is a good thing, in my view and all of British curling wish them well.

But, the fifth lady has not yet been announced.  There was much harrumphing when I suggested that Kelly Wood might be a surprise choice (Kelly currently lives in Canada).  Assuming that she is not chosen, then it seems only logical that the fifth player will come from – one of the seven teams competing in the Scottish.  This will make life very difficult for the rest of the team for the simple reason that they have been robbed of a quarter of their team, and most likely a top-end player, to boot.  Presumably, the player concerned will not be able to compete in the Scottish for the same reason that Eve Muirhead, Anna Sloan, Vicky Adams and Claire Hamilton are not able to compete.  And that will be that, then.

So, I repeat – it depends!

The most obvious contender and heir apparent is Hannah Fleming’s strong team.  They were runners-up last year and in fact had the beating of Eve’s team in the round-robin.  They did not perform as well as they might have in the final, but they are still a strong looking outfit.  Former team mate, Alice Spence replaces Abi Brown who is concentrating on her fourth year studies at university.  Alice and Jennifer Dodds are a strong front end.  Lauren Gray remains at third.

Team Fleming is a funded team so, logically, there is a fair chance that the fifth player will come from their number.  Both Alice and Lauren have been fifth player to Eve and co in the past (and Lauren is going to the European Championships in that capacity this time round), but all four are fine curlers, so any one of them could be picked.

Lorna Vevers, Sarah Reid, Rebecca Kesley and Rachel Hannen look strong as well.  I should report to an enthralled readership that Rebecca recently won the Currie and Balerno points competition, so her confidence is at an all-time high!  Lorna has been there and done it for longer than she will care to remember, Sarah is a gold medal winning World junior champion skip in her own right and Rebecca and Rachel again are a strong front end.

Gail Munro will be back, though there is an element of uncertainty about exactly who she will be with at the championships, given that her three team mates are listed as TBA, TBA and TBA!  It must be the water in Stranraer, or something.  Suffice it to say that if Gail gets her mojo going, the others had better play well to get past her.

There are three younger teams taking part, skipped by Gina Aitken, Jennifer Marshall and Jennifer Martin.  I think that they will compete and will have the beating of some of the other teams.  Will they win the championship?  One of these days, many of them will, but maybe not this season.

So I am leaving Kerry Barr until last.  She is flying quietly under the radar and she and her three team mates, Rachael Simms, Rhiann Macleod and Barbara McPake are all bloody good curlers and chums as well.  They are playing entirely for the fun of it and I think that their innate talent mixed with a wee hint of devil-may-care and topped by some luck along the way – well, you never know!

The competition dates are Friday 29th November to Sunday 1st December 2013 at Dumfries Ice Bowl and then from Monday 10th to Sunday 16th February 2014 at Dewars Centre, Perth.  The format for this year will be a double round-robin followed by a mini page play-off with the top 3 teams from the round-robin progressing.

Ah.  Maybe that’s why there are not so many entries.  Most of the competitors have jobs and other pesky things like that.  You know the kind of thing: you get up in the morning at some ungodly hour; you get on a bus; you commute into your place of work and you earn enough spondulacks to put the tatties on the table.  That pesky thing.
Could we not have devised a system to pick a winner of our national championship from seven entrants that was slightly less pedantic and involved?  Just saying!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The One about Falling Numbers of Curlers in Scotland

Computers are great things.  They add up; they subtract and they let you correct typing errors without using Tippex (other correction fluids are available).  I only discovered this, mind you, when a nice lady asked me what all the white scribbles were on my laptop screen.

But they are also a bit bad.  Apparently you can play games on them and this, so I am told, has led to a generation of feckless wasters spending all of their time glued to a screen playing computer games instead of getting out and doing things: things like tanner ba’ kicking against a wall; golf; swimming; rugby; tennis; cycling and, yes, curling.

Although we talk a great game and arguably, to the outside world, our sport has never been healthier with medals galore and all of the reflected glory they bring to armchair fans, the stark reality is that the numbers of participants has fallen dramatically these past twenty years or so.  I used to boast in the pub that Scotland was the second biggest curling nation after Canada (where there is, of course, absolutely hee-haw else to do in winter) with upwards of twenty-five thousand participants (I had made the number up, but I was not that far away from the truth of the matter).  Well, it ain’t twenty-five thousand participants now and nor are we the second biggest curling nation any more.  The USA, where for years curling was somewhat in the doldrums, has perked up.  Curling is a growth sport over the pond and they have leapt ahead of us in terms of the membership of their national body versus ours.

At this point, you will expect me to have a dig at the Royal Club.  I don’t think that would be fair.  The RCCC has been proactive in their activities to develop the sport.  Think of all the initiatives that the Royal Club has come up with in the past decade or so. 
·         For the younger generation, there is the Curling’s Cool programme, the annual summer camps and the revamped skills awards.  The club has also taken an active role in coordinating the universities curling programme and, for the past forty-odd years has run the Scottish schools championship as well, of course, as the Scottish Junior Championships.
·         For adults, there is the annual adult “camp” (some camp – it was at the North-West Castle hotel in Stranraer!) and the Virtual Clubs.
·         The club actively promotes disabled curling – not just for wheelchair users, but also now for visually-impaired and deaf curlers. 

For further information on all of these initiatives, go to and have a look at what is on offer.  I would argue that, were it not for these initiatives, the sport might well be in a far worse position than it is now. 

The Mother Club’s job has not been helped by the closure of a number of curling centres – places like Lochgoilhead, Forest Hills, Pitlochry, Letham Grange, Brora and Gogar Park.  I admit that many of these venues were kind of built in the wrong place and did not have a population hinterland large enough to sustain them.  That is not true though of the likes of Gogar in Edinburgh and Forest Hills just to the north of the Glasgow conurbation.  With the demise of each rink, the sport quietly lost many a curler.

At the current leakage rate, we will be plum out of curlers in about twenty-five years or so.  OK – so there is an element of hyperbole in the figures and someone once said something about “lies, damned lies and statistics”, but you get the picture.  The trouble is that all of this is happening over the long term.  It’s a bit like global warming; small changes every year that you don’t really notice until you take stock and compare things to fifty years ago (or in Scottish curling’s case, twenty years ago).  Perhaps most worryingly of all, to the likes of me at least, is the fact that at the recent AGM, there was much talk about ten curlers not being allowed to play in the Scottish Championship this coming year – important issue though that is, especially to the ten curlers involved - but not a lot of talk about the falling numbers playing our great sport!

At this point, let me introduce you to Logan Gray.  No – not that one; not the competitive curler Logan Gray with the loud trousers on the telly.  The one I want to introduce you to is a bit more thoughtful and contemplative.  He is the one who cares deeply about the future of his sport and is currently employed as the Ice Sports Development Officer in Stirling.  He is perhaps less well-known, but I would argue that he is the more important of the two – certainly when it comes to the good of the sport and its future. 

Logan was telling me about a couple of initiatives that he has introduced up in Stirling in which he is trying to enlist the support of the various clubs to back up his development programme.  Let him take up the story:

What I’m doing is asking the clubs to get their members to go out and find people to come to TryCurling sessions.  Once the members have found these new recruits they should accompany them to the session as a familiar face for support and also to socialise with them. It should make the new and very alien environment a little less daunting for the new curler!  The attraction to curling for the masses is the sociability of the sport and if you don’t know anyone it isn’t going to be very sociable at first…

The role the club has here is twofold.  I’m offering them a day and time suited to their club to maximise their opportunity to recruit but also to retain new curlers in the long run. So they need to pick a date and time that suits their club and members.   Secondly they need to motivate their members to get out there and find people.  We need to be more proactive and by having one session (per season) on a date tailored to a club, the whole membership can focus on it and all push to get people signed up.  It’s a more focused approach and once the date has passed the obligation is gone until next season. 

I think all clubs serious about their future should consider having a recruitment officer, as you mentioned, to carry out this role as when I speak to clubs and ask what they need help with. Every single club says “we need more members”.  This is very different to clubs being represented at TryCurling sessions – they need to go out and find people to attend the sessions. 

We need to play to our sport’s strengths and for me… that is acknowledging that people who curl are not randoms who come in off the street (Olympic fever aside).  People do not wake up in the morning and have an overwhelming urge to try curling.  A huge majority of people who currently curl have been brought into the sport by people they know who have targeted their friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, so curlers need to take responsibility for the future of our sport.  Curling clubs are lucky that they have a fantastic resource available to them in most ice rinks where the facility / development group/development officer / curling school arranges coaching opportunities for new curlers, unlike clubs in other sports who have to provide this for themselves to enable them to grow.  I’ve spent a lot of time with clubs over the last 6 months meeting them to explain that this resource exists for their use and encouraging them to use it more.  Don’t bring people in off the street and toss them straight into a league.  Clubs will have a better chance of retaining these new curlers if they have had a proper introduction to the sport from qualified coaches and learning alongside other novices.

Essentially what should happen is this.  The clubs actively recruit new people, book them onto our TryCurling sessions, the new curler advances through the new curler pathway by going to beginner classes then virtual club and within a year, Bob’s your uncle – the club is rewarded for their efforts and has a new member, with no financial cost to the club, just a little effort annually from their members to try and find one person to enrol for a TryCurling class.

Logan’s work is bearing fruit and this year more than three times the number of curlers have come through the TryCurling programme than last.

So, in conclusion, I think we need to have a care.  Our sport – in common with others, let it be said – is going through something of a crisis at grassroots level.  We have a particularly interesting year coming up with the Olympics and we have a chance to use them as a springboard to introduce new curlers to the sport.  Link that with the kind of initiative that Logan is introducing in the Stirling area and we have a chance to grow our sport again.  Our clubs, maybe with a recruitment officer in place, need to get together with their local development officers so that there is a connect between their development activities and active recruitment of new curlers.  Finally, and let this be shouted from the rooftops, every rink should have “come and try” days from February onwards, to build on the interest that two Olympic Gold medals will engender!

No pressure on the Olympians, then!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Four Down - Six to Come!

A couple of weeks ago, and there really was no surprise when the announcement was made; Eve Muirhead, Anna Sloan, Vicky Adams and Claire Hamilton were introduced to the world as the first four UK Olympians for the Winter Olympics 2014 in Sochi.  The more interesting thing about the announcement, to me at least, was not so much the names of the four who were announced, more the names of the six remaining.

On the men’s side, Scott Andrews, Tom Brewster, Greg Drummond, Michael Goodfellow and David Murdoch have been playing as a five-man team this past season.  Skipping duties have been shared by Tom and David, though latterly – and certainly throughout the Scottish and World Championships, David seemed permanently to have taken over that role with Tom, for the most part at least, playing third.  Those five would seem to be the obvious choices for the Olympic spots. 

I hope that the announcement has only been delayed to get “two bites at the publicity cherry” rather than one; this would be a good thing for our sport.  If that is the case, then I further hope that the five people involved have been tipped the wink to prevent unnecessary worries on their part.  The delay in the announcement has got me worrying however that perhaps one of the places is still under discussion; this would be bad news for the player involved, but equally bad news for the team from which the fifth player would be plucked.  It would have to search high and wide for a replacement to take part in the Scottish championships this year and would undoubtedly lessen their chances of ultimate success.

Which leads me neatly back to the ladies fifth player.  Doubtless watchers and commentators will be looking with interest at who goes to the European championships with team Scotland (this pre-Olympics competition sees the Olympic team pre-selected).  Alice Spence and Lauren Gray have both recently been involved as fifth players when Eve and her team have gone out to the World or European championships.  Kelly Wood, now Canada-based has also been involved in that capacity.  If either Lauren or Alice are chosen as the fifth player, this will have as much of a detrimental effect on their team’s chances in the Scottish championships as in the men’s competition.

Which (there we go again with a pronoun at the start of a paragraph!) makes me think that the fifth player will be none other than Kelly Wood.  Now I know that the very thought will send lions into pigeon lofts; that there will be gnashing of teeth and that observers will fulminate. 

“What is the point of spending taxpayers’ money developing talent here in the UK if we just drive a coach and horses through everything and bring in someone from outside the system as the fifth player?” they will ask.  Good question, but if you are a high heid yin charged with winning medals and if that is how you know you will be judged, then as far as you are concerned, and with due respect to all, the question is massively irrelevant.  They have done it before (though not, it has to be said, with conspicuous success!) and, if that’s what it takes, they will do it again.

If it were I, then I would ask Eve, Anna, Vicky, Claire and David (Hay) who they thought would fit the specialised bill of fifth player and who they would be comfortable with as part of the team and I would be guided by that.  Politics should not enter it; feelings are not the issue here.  At this stage of the game, it’s about giving GB the best possible chance to go out there and win a medal.  Period.
Oh - and another thing.  If I am right, I hope that the wink has already been tipped there as well.  Get with the sit-ups, woman and get with the programme!

Friday, August 30, 2013

The European Mixed in Edinburgh

Edinburgh. Scotland’s capital city and home to quite a big castle; its main street is only built up on one side, so that people can look up at said castle; its New Town is older than the USA; its zoo has two pandas, one of whom (the female) may be pregnant (right enough – the male probably wouldn’t be); and home of the Spanish-upturned-fishing-boat and very, very expensive Scottish parliament.

Yet never – not once – has she ever hosted a European, never mind World curling championship. Well – that’s not strictly true. When the old Scotch Cup used to come-a-calling back in the late fifties and early sixties, rounds were played in different rinks, so the old Haymarket rink of blessed memory hosted the odd round of play.

This is all about to change though because later this month, from September 14-21 to be precise, Murrayfield curling rink is putting on a show. After visiting Andorra, Italy, Spain, Austria, the Czech Republic, Greenacres, Denmark and Turkey, the European Mixed Curling Championship is coming back to Scotland this year and Edinburgh is the host city. Andy Morrison, chair of the organising committee, and the rest of his team have been working hard to get the event off the ground with very little notice.

The EMCC started as recently as 2005. The first event was held in Andorra. I played in the rink the weekend prior to the inaugural event in a Reform CC overseas outing and it is fair to say that the ice was 'interesting'. The combined talents of Mark Callan and Scott Henderson, neither of them mugs at the old ice technician game, managed eventually to get things vaguely playable with about ten feet of swing. I should perhaps add that this was on the reverse hand – it took me back to my youth at Crossmyloof! After that somewhat inauspicious start, the competition has rumbled along merrily. Scotland has a great record with first-place finishes from four of eight starts.

There are twenty-five competing countries, all of whom have been placed into one of three groups, A, B and C. Scotland, skipped by reigning EMCC champion and all-round 'good egg' Ewan MacDonald, find themselves in Group A. Ewan’s regular third in the Mixed is Eve Muirhead who, if she sticks in, could become quite good at the game. She, to be very fair, has other more Olympian commitments this season, so is not competing and her place is being taken by none other than Kay Adams. Euan Byers and Karen Barthelemy make up a strong front end.

Mind you, what a draw they have in round one - none other than former champions, Germany, skipped by Andy Kapp. Andy has 'form' at Murrayfield; he is a past winner of the famous Edinburgh International Curling Championships. Their game is on Saturday 14th at 19.30.

There will be bleachers in the rink and seating for about 200 souls. There is plenty of car parking right beside the rink and there are three sessions per day (10.00, 14.30 and 19.00) from the Sunday (15th) through Thursday (19th). You can find a full draw on the website here.

There is nothing more fun than attending an international curling event, so I have some advice: get yourself down to Murrayfield and take in at least a couple of the rounds; better still go for the whole week. It is not that often that Scotland competes in a sport on home ground where there is the definite sniff of a medal on offer.

See you there!

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Next season's big events

Tuesday. And a grand day it was; sunny and bright and the temperature crashed through the mid-teen barrier here in Balerno – just for a while, to be fair. Positively sweltering we were and I got the two lawns cut and the front one scarified as well. Life is good, but that was summer and it is now time to think about curling again as we move inexorably towards autumn and finally winter. Why do we bother talking about the seasons, mind you? We just have the weather here and there’s an end to it.

An old friend of mine, Alasdair Seftor – actually, he’s not old but he has been the Edinburgh Curling Club treasurer these past few years and he’s not aged well – recently got in touch to ask me if I would be so good as to blog about the European Mixed Curling Championships, due to take place at Murrayfield from Saturday 14th until Saturday 21st September. As an aside, since this event was introduced in 2005, Scotland has won four gold medals – precisely three more than any other nation! When you reflect on the quality of the gold medal winning skips, mind you, it is hardly surprising – Tom Brewster (twice), Ewan Macdonald and David Edwards! Eve Muirhead wasn’t a bad third for Ewan either, come to think about it (with no disrespect to the other thirds!).

This year’s Scottish champions, newly-crowned on Sunday 31st March, are Ewan Macdonald, Eve Muirhead, Euan Byers and Karen Barthelemy. This, in other words, is a major European competition and Scotland is sending a team of non-mugs (there you go, Ewan; you are now officially a non-mug!) to see if another gold medal can be added to the tally. Check out this website for further details.

Let’s take this a little bit further though because Dumfries pitched for and won the right to host three competitions next season, the World Mixed Doubles and the Ladies’ and Men’s World Senior Championships. These are great events and Dumfries will be the place to be from 22nd to 29th April 2014. The websites for the events are still under development, but put the dates in your diary.

Oh – and longer term? Well, I understand that Scotland may well be in the running for another World Championship in two or three years’ time. Watch this space!


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Commitment Required

As many readers will testify, I have been banging on far too long about the level of commitment that the current system demands of our elite young curlers and the detrimental effect that this can have on their studies or the early part of their career. It is important that those older and wiser give appropriate guidance and advice to athletes who, if we are not careful, will have their heads turned with the promise of medals, fame and fortune when at least one -and probably two in our football-obsessed sporting culture - of these flighty mistresses will remain unattainable.

It is all very well for full-time coaches who are paid to get that commitment; it is all very well for the self-employed; it is all very well for full-time curlers; it is all very well for the children of Croesus. But what about the rest of us?

And how do we square another circle? Evidence demonstrates time and again that curlers hit their peaks at different times. Glenn Howard and Kevin Martin, to name but two Canadian stars, are well into their forties, yet are still curling at the very top level. They would be nowhere in Scotland’s current system, because they all have jobs and careers to pursue as well as their curling dreams.

At this point, I shall make a startling admission. I play golf – not, to be fair, as anyone else might recognise it, but I do wander around the long grass in search of lost causes most Saturday mornings when the rest of you are still tucked up in the warm quagmire that passes for your pit. The course that has been most damaged in the course of this typically weekly pursuit (not the right word; it suggests speed!) is Baberton on the south-west side of Edinburgh. It is a fine course and has produced Ewan Murray as an example as well as a couple of other golfers good enough to pursue their golfing dreams on the American golfing circuit.

This got me and an old curling friend a-talking after my last post. Would it not be possible to negotiate some kind of deal with the University of Stirling? Could they not be persuaded to run a curling programme that on the one hand gave participants the chance to secure a good degree and on the other gave them the appropriate time as required to train and compete?

Perhaps we need our sporting authorities to get together and thrash some kind of deal out with the university? I suspect that a benefactor might be required to help sponsor the programme – I don’t know, really I don’t how these things work, but this would surely help those at the start of their careers at least.

The next challenge will be to keep the talented late twenties- and early thirties-brigade on side. Right now, we have Tom Brewster, the manager at Aberdeen curling club and David Murdoch, a full-time curler in that age bracket. But how do we keep the likes of Logan Gray and David Edwards enthused and committed enough to keep challenging? Therein lies your problem.

Talking of benefactors, curling needs these now more than ever. I am going to give a plug here. My old mucker and team mate Tom Pendreigh started his business, British Curling Supplies a few years ago and he does a power of unsung work supporting junior teams and curling generally; he is also a great 'fixer' who was, for example closely involved with the putting together of Goldline’s sponsorship of the Scottish curling tour. He is also heavily involved in the running and management of the Inverness rink. Look him up on the web; we need more of his type supporting our great game. By the way, he can’t help how he looks; his coupon is a gift from on high, though that didn’t stop his mother from pulling the pram!

And on that happy note, I bid you a good summer!

Robin Copland

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

You cannot argue with the facts

There has been much weeping and gnashing of teeth by pundits (myself included) on Scottish competitive curling these past few seasons. I even read somewhere that a Scottish person was actually supporting the other team in a World Championship game because he was so vehemently opposed to 'the system'. Didn’t really know what to make of that, to be honest; it struck me as odd.

But, and it is something of a big 'but', (I might rephrase that last bit in the edit in case I am accused of being a fatist. Que – moi?), you cannot argue with the facts. This season, in the six major annual competitions, the World Championships, the World Junior Championships and the European Championships (with due respect to the European Mixed, the World Mixed Doubles and the World Senior Championships), Scotland has finished on the podium in all but one. Our tally is two Gold Medals, two Silver Medals and one Bronze. It is a pretty astonishing record when all said and done and credit needs to be given to all of the competitors, too numerous to mention now.

I have as much of a problem as anyone with the level of commitment that is demanded of our young competitors. I fear for their collective futures when the good times, as they surely will, come to an end and they are left with medals, memories but – no job, or perhaps less of a job than their talent deserves. But hey; it’s a free world and choices have to be made. Make your choice and get on with it.

I have just finished reading Jim Telfer’s autobiography. In it, he talks about commitment and the difficulties that Scottish rugby faced in the transition from a wholly amateur game to professionalism. He was firmly of the view that there needed to be an elite level and that the elite clubs (he lobbied for four Scottish elite clubs, loosely based on the old 'districts') would only prosper in a seriously competitive league. He also argued for a vibrant 'amateur' club scene that would develop and nurture new talent. The established clubs, of course, were adamantly opposed to that set-up and instead wanted to become 'elite' themselves. It is fair to say that the sport is only now recovering from the internecine war that developed.

Curling needs to be careful about how it handles the rise of the elite. There is still a stairway that individuals can climb from mere mortal status to international curler. That the system has flaws is not in question. It is wrong and misguided, for example to be proscriptive and judgemental about young teenagers. Kids develop at different speeds. The fourteen year old star may not be so brilliant at twenty. The gauche young teenager may develop into something like the finished article later on in his teens. Let the kids enjoy themselves; let them learn to play in teams of their own choosing; don’t over-coach them – rather make sure that they have the basics right.

When it comes to the business end of the Scottish Championship I remain steadfast in my view that four talented curlers should be able to get together, enter their national championship and win the right to represent Scotland at world level. Trouble for them is that they will have to get past the likes of teams Brewster or Muirhead; there’s the challenge.

Now, let’s talk about five men teams. Actually, let’s not!

Well done though to all of our medal winners. An amazing achievement that would be good to repeat next season when the Olympics make their quadrennial appearance.

Robin Copland

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

There is something about the Scottish...

Copey writes:

I don’t know whether it is just me, but there is something very special about the Scottish Championships. I only made it to seven final stages of our national championships. Maybe nowadays those curlers who make it year after year become blasé about it; maybe the chances that the top curlers get to curl overseas – far more than we ever got in our pre-funding, pre-Ryanair day – mean that the Scottish has less of a frisson than it used to do. I remember the very first time I ever competed – it was Perth in 1978. You walked in to the old rink and immediately you knew that you were at an event that was beyond the run-of-the-mill. There was something in the air.

I still get that feeling of excitement to this day – especially on finals day. The stakes are high; the competition is fierce; nerves need to be of steel and, let this be said, the quality of play on offer rarely disappoints. 

Of course, they get it easy nowadays. The quality of ice that they play on is the stuff of dreams to those of our generation used to tracks and fall-backs. A nipper in those far-off days was the noisy child in the stands. Our defensive hands were shown on tricky ice and the game was a draw-free zone until a team was down. The free guard was still strutting his stuff outside Buckingham Palace and misses there were a-plenty.

Work kept me away during the week. I was in Amersham, of all places – at the northern extremities of the Metropolitan line. Here’s a thing; when you get to the outskirts of our capital city, the 'tube' is no more a tube than the Glasgow-Edinburgh express. There’s a fact for you to share with your mates over a thoughtful cigar and no mistake. Amersham it was and with a dodgy internet connection to boot. I followed things from afar and occasionally with a buffering delay of an hour or two built in. I followed progress and wished that I was somewhere else – and maybe some time else as well! We live for our youth.

And so to Sunday; at last, we were making the trip north for an old-fashioned day out. The ladies' final was first up and, with due respect to other feisty competitors, the cream of Scottish ladies' curling had risen to the top with the eye-watering prospect of Eve Muirhead versus Hannah Fleming. Who would have thought ten years ago that a curling writer could have written the following of a Scottish ladies final? In international competition, the eight competitors have amassed between them 24 Gold medals and 7 Silver medals. That is an astonishing statement to be able to make and speaks volumes of the quality on offer in Scottish ladies' curling.

We, the watchers, settled back on the bleachers – all but full for the final - and were prepared to be entertained. The Fleming team came out of the blocks at a gallop and their 2 in end five gave them a 4-2 half-time lead. What happened thereafter will be mulled over by the experts for a while to come. Maybe they relaxed a tad; maybe they lost a bit of focus; maybe my old mate and new Scottish senior champion, David Hay, paid a little visit to the Brocks fireworks factory in the break, but whatever it was, the Muirhead team, from hanging on in the first five ends dominated the business end of the game. A big 3 in the sixth end set the tone. They were four shots to the good coming home. Debbie Knox, Hannah’s faithful coach for many a long season, was called onto the ice deep into the tenth end (maybe her input would have been more valuable earlier on in the second half), but by then it was too late and a clearly delighted Muirhead team celebrated a famous win against a team that will be a real threat in years to come.

And so to the men. Logan Gray had tweeted for supporters to come out dressed in 'loudmouth' gear. This is great for the game – colour and excitement. Interestingly, there was a general feeling in the ice hall of support for the underdog. Keith MacLennan and Sandy Gilmour both pitched up in suits that took the breath away. Outrageous trousers were in evidence and Team Gray had electric green shirts and dapper green, black and white check trousers. Sensibly, space up the stairs was limited, so the bleachers were again all but full. It took you back to the old days when crowds were numbered in their thousands. There was a real atmosphere down in the ice hall that added to the occasion.

The men came out. Now, everyone has a view on funding; on five man teams; on the Olympic effect; on curling’s own West Lothian question; on the effects of coaching and all of the rest of it. But, I don’t care. Really, I don’t. When it comes to those nervous slides in a darkened ice hall with the TV cameras waiting and a big expectant crowd sitting hard by the rink - that’s the test. That’s what separates the kids from the grown-ups; it’s curler v curler and that’s what makes the Scottish so special in the curling calendar. You can feel the tension – the nerves. There’s a kind of electricity in the air. Static. A buzz.

Add the side stories. Logan and Michael were Stirling Young Curlers together a decade ago; Ross Paterson and Richard Woods played front end for David Murdoch last season; Tom and David were rivals on ice for years before this season; the same two were team mates in a World Junior Championship almost twenty years ago and played together as kids in Lockerbie. Scott Andrews was up the stairs where he had been on the ice in the previous two finals. Scott, Tom, Greg and Michael were attempting to join curling immortals, Hay (Chuck), Bryden, Glen, Howie and McMillan (Hammy) as three-in-a-row winners of their national championships. On the other hand, Logan, Ross, Al and Boobsy were going for their first win in their national championships. Underdog versus incumbent. I could go on.

And then it was all over! I am going to be honest. I thought that Logan’s last draw against two in the second end was good from his hand. So did the sweepers, who did not really hit it hard until about two thirds or so of the way down the rink. As it crossed the hogline, it seemed to suddenly lose weight. By now the sweepers were pounding into it as if their lives depended on it. Then it stopped – agonisingly short and it was a steal of 2 for the Brewster team. And that was that.

In truth, it was always going to be difficult to fight back from three shots down, but when you are not quite getting the ice (as Logan admitted he wasn’t) and when they are playing just that little bit better than you are, it becomes a long, lonely struggle against the odds. Eventually, Logan and his team offered their hands after eight ends and Team Brewster became Team Scotland. Scott was down on the ice as fast as a butcher’s dog and the five of them celebrated a great win. Logan and his team will be back to fight another day. Words are cheap, I know, in their situation, but they are all talented curlers and hopefully this taste of the big time will whet their appetite for more.

What of the World Championships?  More of that later but suffice to say for the moment that we have two world-class teams going out and with a following wind…

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Strathcona Cup

Copey writes:

In amongst all of the regional playdowns that have been going on in the various age-group and gender Scottish championships these past few weeks – all of them hugely important, of course – a group of middle- to late middle-aged (0K - old!) men have disappeared off on a jaunt to Canada: twenty of them have flown off to the far west; a further twenty are in the centre of the country and twenty more are curling in the east.

Let me admit something up front here; I was on the 2003 centenary tour to Canada, so there will be the slightest smidgin of bias in this blog! I was also lucky enough to compete in the final stages of quite a few Scottish championships and consider my one appearance in a world championship as the highlight of my curling life, but playing as a member of the Scottish Strathcona Cup team in 2003 is right up there as well – albeit in a different and perhaps more private kind of a way.

We need to get real – it is different. First, you are picked to go on the tour and there are various criteria used to whittle down over 90 applicants to the 60 tourists. Patently, curling ability is one of them, but not the only one; the ability to win playdowns is not high on the agenda, if only because there aren’t any! Actually, perhaps the most important criterion is the ability to get on with 19 disparate people over a period of three weeks without irrevocably falling out.

One of my 2003 team mates put it all rather nicely when he described going on tour as “not the holiday of a lifetime, but certainly the experience of a lifetime”. Touring is a marathon. Each day starts with “morning class”. This longstanding tradition was introduced to curling by the late Collie Campbell, a noted Canadian curling personality and administrator. It involves gin is all I am saying!

Normally, there are two sessions of curling per day; often but not always, one of the tourist teams is off session by session. Even with the off session every fifth or sixth game – even then, it is a tough gig, so you had better be fit and ready. You travel around the country from rink to rink in a blur of curling, sleeping, drinking, fun and fellowship.

Back in the day, the Strathcona Cup tour travelled the length and breadth of the country. Pre-war, tourists travelled by ship and the tour lasted six or seven weeks. Nowadays, the tour lasts around three weeks and tourists can expect to play around thirty games of curling in all kinds of different rinks – from small two-sheeter village rinks to the grand eight-sheeters in the cities. Some of the curling clubs are run by the members for the members; others are part of a larger country club complex with all the mod-cons and luxury you would expect. What astounds the first-time Scot visiting Canada to curl is the sheer number of rinks – every village, township, town and city will have at least one rink. The sport is huge over there; it is part of the social fabric of the country. If you meet a Canadian, they will know someone who curls and have probably have had a go themselves.

Everyone knows Eve Muirhead, Hammy McMillan, Tom Brewster, David Murdoch and David Smith; they are all more famous in Canada than they are in the land of their birth. It’s a fact. Scotland is the home of the game, but Canada has adopted it and developed it beyond our wildest dreams.

Another fact for you: the standard of club curler out there is, in my experience, a lot higher than it is over here in Scotland. We would regularly come up against a team of what you might think of as “dirt-trackers”. Then, they would get on the ice and the one shot of which none of them seemed in the least scared was the cold draw to the four-foot. Time and again, we would be lying nicely and time and again, the skip would calmly wander down to the hack and cover the pot-lid!

Another thing we noticed was the consistency of the ice. It is, of course, a lot easier to make ice in a dry and very cold climate than it is in our mixed and often quite wet weather. All of the rinks that we played on were dedicated curling rinks – another factor that helps the ice technicians. But it was always keen and true; in thirty-odd games, I only played on one sheet that you would describe as “drug”.

Anyhow, back to the Strathcona Cup 2013. They are coming to the end of their tour as I write and you can follow their last week – indeed you can read about the whole tour - on their website here.

It is a grand old tradition and it gives many curlers their only shout at playing for Scotland. OK – it’s not a world championship, but in its own way, these five-year get-togethers between the curlers of Scotland and Canada are every bit as important. If you get a chance to go – take it!

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Scottish Curling Tour

Copey writes:

I have been impressed by the work that the committee of the Goldline Scottish Curling Tour has done these past couple of seasons. They have gathered together a series of competitions, worked out a set of rules and let the individual competition organisers get on with running their own competitions, organising sponsorship, getting teams to compete and all of the other palaver that comes with the territory. Basically, the organisers get to run their competitions in peace and all that the tour want is a list of winners, runners-up, losing semifinalists and losing quarterfinalists. The tour does the rest. Winners get 10 points; runners-up get 7; losing semifinalists take five and losing quarterfinalists are awarded 3 points. A league table is drawn up and it’s on to the next competition.

As a meerkat once opined, in a moment of insurable weakness – "simples".

These guys got things sorted out. The first thing they did was to sit round the table and ask themselves, "What does Scottish curling really need?" They looked at their answer and worked out a mission statement that clearly and transparently told everyone what they were getting into, they wrote it down and published it online for all the world to see. The meerkat is shaking with glee; if he’s not careful, he is going to fall over and – if you’re a meerkat (which thank the Lord, I’m not, sir) – that can have serious consequences, to wit a painful death.

Without their permission (but I don’t think they will mind), I publish the mission statement below.

• Provide structure to the existing circuit of competitive events
• Grow number and quality of competitive curling events around Scotland
• Provide high-quality competitions in Scotland for international teams looking to improve their game outside of the European tour
• Establish a 2nd tier competitive path for graduating juniors wishing to stay in the competitive game
• Improve participation by encouraging strong local teams to travel to different rinks.

Everything about the above is just 'right'. The quality of teams taking part in the various competitions has been excellent – there is nothing 2nd tier about the likes of Tom Brewster, David Edwards, Ewan MacDonald, Logan Gray and Warwick Smith. There have even been the odd foreign teams attracted over to compete in the old country.

The final round takes place at the Petrofac Aberdeen Open, February 1-3. Any one of four teams can lift the prize that Kyle Smith won last year on his way to the Scottish Junior Championship. David Edwards currently leads the pack on 23 points; Frazer Hare, winner of two of the earlier events is on 21; the consistent Murray Young is on 20 points and Hannah Fleming, who won the Braehead Open, is on 18 points.

The next time you see Neil Joss, Iain Stobo, Gavin Fleming, Colin Hamilton, David Edwards, Paul Stevenson, Graham Shedden, Jude McFarlane or Kay Adams in an ice rink – do me a favour and buy them pint, will you? They’re the committee and we should all doff our caps in their general direction.

Good work, chaps.

And a Good New Year to one and all while I’m at it.