Friday, April 25, 2014

Stones of Destiny!

It is 1972 and we are deep into the final of the World Championship in Garmish-Partenkirchen.  Orest Meleschuk knows that he has to hit and stick within the eight-foot on tricky, heavy ice to score two and take the game into an extra end.  His opponents were team USA, skipped by Bob LaBonte.  Their round-robin records were Canada 7-0 and USA 4-3.  Never was there such a mismatch, yet here we were – it all depended on the big fellow’s last stone.

Cigarette dangling from his lips, he threw his fateful stone; the sweepers give it an early bang with their corn brooms, but the stone suddenly sits back and they are called off quickly; contact is made, but the shooter rolls slowly out towards the eight-foot; and further out; and further out - helped on its way by some furious sweeping from the American third, Frank Aasand.  Finally, it comes to rest, close to lying second, but was it?

Slowly, Dave Romano, the Canadian third moves to look at his skip’s stone.  In his heart of hearts, he must have been worried, but he takes a long hard look despite his opposite number’s celebrations.  Skip LaBonte, taking his cue from Aasand’s leaps of joy, started his own macabre victor’s dance.  The camera cuts to the American front end, who are running down the ice in celebration just as LaBonte begins his tumble.  Don Chevrier pauses mid-sentence as the Americans continue their celebrations, because the unthinkable has happened; LaBonte has slipped and kicked the Canadian stone before Romano has had a chance to either concede or call for a measure.

There is confusion in the commentary box.  With the benefit of hindsight, of course, there should have been none.  The stone had not been measured and Canada had not conceded the game.  Eventually the stones are cleared and the extra end is played.  Meleshuk plays a nice come around a centre guard, though he sits at the back of the one foot.  LaBonte’s attempted draw to face it – predictably in the circumstances – was high, wide and not so very handsome.  The Canadians go home as undefeated World Champions.  The USA, who in their own minds were World Champions for about 7 seconds were left to lick their wounds and think about what might have been.

In the great scheme of things, it wasn’t so much a stone of destiny as a salutary lesson to all curlers everywhere.  Neither team made it back to the World Championships but what, at first, was destined to be a footnote in the history of our great sport began to develop wings and gradually, people began to talk about the “curse of LaBonte”.  It is a fact that Canada did not win a World Curling Championship for the rest of that decade.  Given their dominance in world curling hitherto, it was astonishing!

Then we go the Olympic semi-finals in Japan in 1998.  The GBR ladies are up against Sandra Schmirler who, until this point in the competition had really dominated.  The semi-final was against GBR, skipped by Kirsty Hay, with the Loudon sisters and Jackie Lockhart; no mugs and, truth to tell, they really made the Canadians work hard for their victory, so much so that with Schmirler’s last stone in the extra end, she was facing two GBR stones – albeit with the full eight foot to draw to.  As it crossed the hogline, it’s fair to say that, to use a lovely old Scottish phrase, “it was fully there”!  There was backing, but the line was high and let’s just say that Edith Loudon got her brush to it and had a good sweep, before it stopped – agonisingly beating the GBR stone by inches.  From the semi-final to the bronze medal play-off game – and that is surely the worst one of all to lose; sadly, that is exactly what happened for GBR against the Swedes.

Fast forward a few more years to the Olympic Games in Pinerolo; exactly the same stage in the competition, though this time the GBR men – David Murdoch, Ewan Macdonald, Warwick Smith and Euan Byers are tied at 3-3 coming into the tenth end of a tight, nervy tussle against Markku Uusilpaavalniemi’s Finnish champions.  The Finns hold the crucial last stone.  GBR is lying at 9.00 fully in the four foot and corner frozen against a Finnish stone.  David, with his last stone, plays the perfect shot to about 6.30 at the front of the four foot covering the one foot and forcing Markku to the cold out-turn draw to the button.  The GBR boys must have felt quietly confident.  U15 had to bite the button, whilst coming tight to the guard just laid by Murdoch.  But there was nothing they could do except watch as the stone came perfectly to rest on the button with barely a sweep by the front end.

Heartache twice!

But then you have Rhona Martin’s stone of destiny; enough said!  A month later, Jackie Lockhart’s nerveless hit on a straight piece of ice against Colleen Jones’ Canadian team to win the World Championship.  David Murdoch’s “stone of retribution” – the raised double take out against his pals, Thomas Ulsrud’s Norwegian team in the Sochi Olympics.

You win some; you lose some.

But spare a thought for Labonte and his mates; that’s a lifetime of heartache right there.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

In Defence of the Scottish

Actually, it all started with a miss by one of the five against the other four.  Otherwise the four would never have become five and, I suspect, we would have had a different team at the recent Winter Olympics.  Confused?  Let me explain.

It is February 2011 at Perth ice rink and the Scottish Championship is approaching its denouement.  In the semi-final, Tom Brewster is skipping a team of young hopefuls – a couple of whom wore the same kind of scars as their more experienced skip had in abundance.  Both Greg Drummond and Michael Goodfellow had recently aged out without winning the Scottish Junior Championship.  Their last chance had been against the Ally Fraser team, with Greg’s brother, Kerr at lead. 

Anyhow.  Back to the semi-final; Tom and company had put up a good fight, but they were up against David Murdoch, with Warwick Smith at third, Ross Hepburn at lead and – Glen Muirhead at second.  David had last stone advantage.  I was behind the barrier and saw the whole thing unfold.  With the skips’ stones to play, here’s what I wrote.

With Tom’s first stone in the fateful last end, he attempted to draw round a short guard but was light and came up short.  David attempted a difficult double clear, but was about an inch tight and ended up clearing Tom’s two guards but left his own shooter in play and covering the edge of the four foot.  Tom’s out-turn draw was perfect and bit a piece of the one foot, showing maybe three-quarters of a stone.  David elected to play the cold draw to the one foot, though he knew that he had a bit of backing with Tom’s stone on the tee line.  Meat and drink.  He slid down to the far end, conferred with his front end – strong sweepers both, settled in the hack, concentrated and began his delivery.  Warwick Smith’s brush was almost exactly where Greg’s had been a couple of minutes before.  David slid out – he seemed to be sliding ever-so-slightly tight from where I was, but that could have been an illusion.  In any case, he released and from there, it was down to Glen and Ross.  Except it wasn’t.  Maybe ten yards along its path, David just dropped his brush and looked heavenwards.  He knew already.  The sweepers stayed close.  Warwick shrugged and shook his head – he knew.  Still the sweepers stayed close, but in their hearts, they knew too.  Handshakes all round.  I looked at Glen.  I knew how he felt.  Shell-shocked.  If you haven’t been there, my friend, you will never, ever know, is all I’m telling you.  Glen’s been there a few times.  He knows.  He will be stronger for it, though that particular platitude wears thin with him at the moment.

Tom, Greg, Scott Andrews and Michael went on to beat Moray Combe in a tense final and then won Silver at the World Championships.  The next year, they repeated the feat – losing a tense World final to Canada’s Glenn Howard and that summer following, the four became five when David Murdoch joined the team.

Question: would anyone have picked Tom and his team to go to the World Championships that year?  I’ll answer that one for you.  No.

Would anyone have picked Ken Horton in 1977?  No.  Mike Hay in 1984?   No.  David Murdoch in 2003?  You’re getting the picture.

Maybe my point is even more tellingly made if we look at the ladies game.  Rhona Howie.  Would anyone have picked Rhona anytime?  No.  She doggedly came back for more heartache after more heartache; she was Mrs second-place Howie year after heart-breaking year.  She was like a punch-drunk fighter coming back for more.  And she kept coming back and finally, splendidly, magnificently, she claimed her Scottish Championship.  She proved herself in the cauldron of competition and did enough to get picked as the GBR skip in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.  Rhona Martin, Debbie Knox, Fiona MacDonald, Janice Watt and Margaret Morton.  What a team of losers they turned out to be.

I am hearing and reading it all over again.  Let’s have picked teams for the World Championships; let’s downgrade the Scottish Championship to a second-rate competition.

Let’s not bother, shall we?  Let’s look at history.  Pay attention, people; we have a jewel in our crown.  Keep it polished.
Robin Copland