Friday, December 09, 2011

The End of the B Group

No not that way – just the last games of the week. Early Friday morning and Ireland are back on after their close defeat against Hungary to take on the home nation in the semifinal to decide which other team goes to the A group next year and to the B final this year. Although the game was tied at 3-3 early on, the Russians proved too strong in the end and ran out 6-3 winners. Ireland will now play off against England for the bronze medal tomorrow morning – why that game has been delayed until then is a mystery as there is plenty of ice for it to be played alongside the main finals.

In the ladies semifinal it was a much closer finish with Finland winning 8-7 at the last end. The only issue to be resolved is the bronze medal which will be contested between Poland and Slovakia – again tomorrow morning.

The ice in the B hall, which early on was drawing a lot, has now become a lot straighter – which has played right into the hands of the big hitting Russians ... as England found out the other day, if you cannot bury a stone behind a guard they will just blast it away. It is a while since I last saw a player at this level with a backswing as high as the Russian skip Aleksei Tsesoulov. Today in the final, Hungary experienced the power of the Russian team as they lost 7-4 – a reverse of the result earlier on in the week when the ice was much swingier.

Hungary gained their first gold medal in International curling when the ladies won their final against Finland by 4-1. They cannot rest on their laurels however as they now have a three game rubber against the Czech Republic for the final World Championship place. Russia’s men will play Thomas Dufour’s France in a similar series of games.

I went into the A arena for the first time this afternoon for the conclusion of the men’s semifinal between Norway and the Czech Republic and you could have heard a pin drop – there was next to no crowd and it is such a vast auditorium that what little crowd there were seemed lost in the masses of multi-coloured seats – which surprisingly make it quite difficult to spot the crowd which merge into the kaleidoscope of colour.

So a long week draws to a close – this will be my last blog probably, apart from a quick round up of the bronze medal games, but I hope you have enjoyed reading about the parts that other journalists cannot reach!

And apologies for all outbreaks of Mr Grumpy who now has an appropriate mug donated by an admiring reader!

(Thanks, John, we like Mr Grumpy, and have enjoyed all your posts this week. Bob)

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Quick update

Hungary have reached the finals of the B Group in both the men's and women's Championships when a thrilling afternoon of games ended with Robin Gray of Ireland throwing his last stone with just 2 seconds left on the clock. His attempted tap back for two drew too much and left Hungary lying shot for a sensational 6-4 win.

Just 10 minutes earlier Hungary's women had defeated Finland by 7-4. This also means that Hungary will have two teams in the A Group next year - a great follow up to Latvia's similar success this year and an indication of how the power balance of European curling below the very top level is shifting to the East.

More to come...

Games and Fun

B Group Round-Robin Round-Up

As the week here in Moscow progresses my time becomes split between watching games and attending meetings and so apologies if the blogs become disjointed.

Firstly to wrap up the round robin stages of the B Group. In the women’s competition an exciting last session included an extra end win for Finland over Poland. Both teams had already qualified and this confirmed them in second and third place respectively while Hungary finished on top. Hungary’s defeat of Slovakia in this session meant that the battle for fourth place was carried over into tiebreakers as victories for Austria (over Wales) and Estonia (over England) brought them level with Slovakia on five wins. The first tie breaker saw Slovakia beat Estonia and they then defeated Austria, a great result for a team that had to come through the C Group this year to get here. The play offs today will see Hungary playing Finland with the prize of a final slot and promotion to the A Group to the winner while Poland take on Slovakia for the second semifinal slot against the losers.

Below the top six the order was England, Spain, Ireland and Wales which means that the latter two will need to play in the C Group next year if they want to try and qualify for the B Group in Karlstad.

England rang the changes for their final game against Estonia with Anna Fowler skipping for the first time as well as playing last stones (as she has been all week), Angharad Ward playing third and Fiona Hawker moving to second from skip and third stones. This was to give the younger players a chance to experience life at the top end of the team before the European Junior and Winter Youth Olympics. Things started badly and they were 2-7 down after four ends but a run of five singles brought them level going into the last end when unfortunately Estonia finally found out how to make their last stone count!

So it has been a frustrating week for the England girls – three wins plus four games which were lost at the last stone mean that qualification for the Play-offs was a realistic target when they arrived and a final finishing position of seventh is no reflection on the quality of their play or the effort they have put into the whole week. Without having a fifth player it was hard work playing nine games (seven of them going to ten ends or more) on such keen ice where sweeping was crucial.

As expected Hungary and Russia won their last games in the Men’s Red Group so that the playoff games will be Hungary against Ireland and England v Russia. In addition Slovakia beat Belarus to remain in Group B and relegate Belarus down to Group C.

Away from the curling, the European Curling Federation has held its Annual General Meeting. After the last two years of conflict under the Presidency of Andrew Ferguson-Smith there is a new mood of co-operation between the ECF and the WCF.

Interim President Olle Riissanen stated that his mission when he took over was in three parts – to regain the trust of the ECF Board in the Presidency, to regain the trust of the Member Associations in the Board and to restore a co-operative working relationship with the WCF. So far he is well on the way to doing so.

In Esbjerg in March the past President had announced that Champery would become a new centre of excellence for curling and that he would be the first Chief Executive of the centre. Following the resultant outcry that this had not been approved by the Member Associations and then the resignation of the President, further negotiations with Champery and feedback from members led to a revised proposal.

This led to the formulation of a set of 'Criteria for an Approved European Curling Federation Centre for Curling'. If these conditions are met then any facility can obtain ECF approval. One of the criteria is the payment of 5000 Euros to the ECF and the question was raised as to what a centre might gain from the payment of such a sum of money just to become an 'ECF Approved Centre'.

The criteria include:
• Curling ice available for eight months of the year
• Plant and equipment maintained to a high standard
• One international bonspiel / competition to be held every year
• Ice technicians and officials to maintain a three yearly programme of skills updating and training
• A dedicated contact for administration and organisation of events
• Insurance to cover public liability
• Centre will arrange competitively priced accommodation for curlers
• In partnership with ECF / WCF the centre will assist curlers to find coaches and instructors required for courses
• Centre will promote its activities on the ECF website
• ECF branding will be used on all the Centre’s communication
• Centre will provide to the ECF annually an activity report
• Centre will pay 5000 Euros to the ECF each year
• Centre must have approval of the National Association

In return the ECF will
• Promote the Centre on the ECF website
• Provide ECF branding / logo information
• Provide a list of Member Associations’ contact details for marketing purposes
• Provide contact information on coaches and trainers when required
• Provide a certificate of approval that will be renewable after 3 years
• Have the right to rescind approval at any time in case of loss or damage to the ECF’s reputation

Champery has met these criteria and so will be announced as the first Approved Centre for Curling.

It would seem to me that very few centres might want to follow suit unless there was a necessity to be a curling centre in order to gain some benefits from other initiatives, such as a proposal from the ECF that there should be much more pan-European work done with children and youth curling.

Following Karlstad in 2012 the European A and B Groups will be held in Stavanger in 2013 and Champery in 2014 (and the B Group will be held in Champery and not in Monthey as in 2010 which will make it seem like one rather than two separate competitions). Both Stavanger and Champery will be held in the last ten days of November rather than early December. This movement to an earlier date is to avoid the risk of jeopardising the broadcasting of the Championships because of other sporting events taking place in December.

The C Group and Mixed in 2012 have already been announced as being in Erzurum, Turkey in September and it was now announced that the organising committee will pay 75% of the accommodation costs for the teams in both competitions.

The ECF also announced that they were raising the entry fees for the competitions by 100 Euros per entry although the Annual Subscription would remain the same! Afraid that Mr Grumpy came to the fore and I vented my disapproval of such a move as it meant that the English Curling Association’s payment to the ECF would rise to 2300 Euros in total next year.

One hope on the horizon is that talks are beginning today between the ECF and the WCF about the running of the European Championships in such a way that it becomes a WCF competition for which the entry fee would be zero, as it is for the Pacific Championships and Americas Challenge, the two other competitions that lead to entry to the World Championships. It was announced on Tuesday that the WCF’s idea of World Championship Qualifying competitions was not being taken any further and that the European Championships would remain the qualifier for the World Championships.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Almost perfection

The showdown between the two former Scottish Junior Champions, Alan MacDougall (1991) representing England and Robin Gray (1982) representing Ireland, got off to a great start when both skips covered the button with their Last Stone Draw meaning that the umpire had to get out the old faithful coin to decide who would get the hammer. Ireland called wrongly but then drew first blood when Alan was heavy with a draw against two at the second end after a blanked first end.

For those who may not appreciate the concept of the Last Stone Draw, a quick summary. Before the start of every game each team has 9 minutes practice and at the end of that time they are required to draw one stone to the house. The team with the nearer stone has the hammer at the first end. Obviously a stone covering the hole cannot be measured and scores a 0.0 distance while a stone that does not end up in the house is given a distance of 185.4cm.

The idea was introduced to bring another skill level to curling rather than depending upon the luck of a toss or simply allocating the hammer evenly between the teams. For the majority of teams the pre-game practice becomes focussed for at least the last three minutes on throwing practice draws to the button.

After all the round robin games the worst score is discarded and the others are averaged, with the resultant Draw Shot Challenge (DSC) distance being used to determine ranking where this is needed for deciding who plays who in tiebreakers or the final overall ranking of teams where there is more than one group.

Alan MacDougall’s average over seven games this week, with one discard, has been 5.23cm (2 inches in old money)! His sequence was 9.0, 5.5, 0.0, 8.7, 8.2, 64.8 (discarded) and 0.0! So my question is – if teams become so good at this that a coin toss starts to be needed more often will we need to find some other procedure to decide the hammer? Those are quite amazing numbers from Alan but he is not alone in getting the draw spot on – for the last four games of the Round Robin Stuart Hills of Wales covered the button three times and the fourth distance was 6.5cm! Of the 8 teams playing the last session in the Blue Group 3 covered the button, while the others were 2.3, 2.8, 32.3, 81.1 and one with the maximum of 185.4 (must try harder).

Of course having done all that hard work just to get the hammer one then needs to make sure that one uses it! And after failing to draw against two in the second end, further mistakes from England left them 1-7 down at the halfway stage. A further loss of one at the sixth end and it was early handshakes.

Ireland go to the 1/1 Page play-off game, probably against Hungary, while it looks as though England will face Russia in the 2/2 play-off game – these games will take place Thursday afternoon/evening.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

It is all there in black and white

One of the features of International sport is the variety of bright colours that distinguish different nationalities, often, though not always, based on the colours of their national flag or some national mythology. Hence we have red and white for England and blue and white for Scotland, green and yellow for Australia and South Africa. I have never quite worked out why it should be blue for Italy (though of course all Ferraris should be red).

So it is with curling – the bright yellow and blue of Sweden, the red and white of Russia or Canada and the yellow and red of China. So why am I sitting here in the B arena looking out over a sea of black and white! We have from left to right in the black corner (if that is not a geometrical impossibility) the black of Spain (why?); the black (with blue undershirts) of Estonia – national flag contains blue and black so that is not too surprising; the black of Slovakia (why?), the black with green highlights of Ireland (green obviously, but black?) and the black of Finland (why?).

In white we have Wales (why?); Poland (flag is half white – so OK); white with red highlights of England (pretty obviously OK); white with red undershirts of Austria (again reflecting their national flag) and the white with red and green highlights of Hungary (matches National Flag).

So as regards suitability the whites win hands down, so what is it with the BLACK!

Sounds like Mr Grumpy is back again (see previous blog), but until the players turn around it is not possible to know at a glance on many occasions which country you are watching. It used to be that red was the universal colour and it is still very prevalent, and of course it is specifically identified in WCF rules as not being a light colour!

(John, you're beginning to sound just like me. Bob)

Anyway enough inconsequentials – what about the action. While Ireland and England have sewn up the blue group (and tomorrow’s game will be the first between their men’s teams at this level), the red group is still wide open. In the last session Hungary, Russia and Finland all won while Austria lost and so with one game to go Hungary and Russia are on 5-1 and Finland and Austria on 4-2. Finland and Austria play each other in the last game tomorrow, Hungary play Spain while Russia have the potentially easier task of defeating Lithuania.

England beat Croatia 9-1, and with Wales winning against Netherlands this consigned Croatia to the C Division next year where they would have been this season if Bulgaria had not withdrawn from last year’s Europeans. Croatia have now had two winless European Championships but maybe they can break the sequence in their last game against Belgium.

In the red group the threatened countries are Slovakia on one win and Belarus on zero and they play each other tomorrow. A win for Slovakia will make them safe but if Belarus are victorious then they will be back on the ice for another go at each other.

In the ladies’ competition the top three of Finland, Poland and Hungary are definitely in the playoffs while behind is a bit of a log jam for the fourth and final slot. Slovakia are on 4-3 while Estonia, England and Austria are on 3-4. Austria have the easiest finish with games against Ireland and Wales while England have their fate in their own hands as they have to play Slovakia and Estonia.

It looks almost certain that Wales will be relegated to Division 3 next year although a victory against Spain would help their chances of survival enormously as it would leave them level with Spain before they play Austria in the last game. Ireland and Spain are the other two countries under threat – two out of the three will go down.

England and Ireland Through to Playoffs

The first qualification issue was decided in the B arena this morning, before most of you back home in Britain were up, when the men of Ireland and England were assured of their places in the Page play-offs with a couple of games still to play. The only thing to be finalised is who finishes first and who finishes second and that will be decided in the last session of round robin play tomorrow morning when the two countries meet.

England’s morning got off to a bad start when they lost four to Wales in the first end. But after blanking the second end they picked up two and then stole a three before Wales drew level after five ends. So the second half began back at square one and it was a complete turnaround as England jumped into a lead and held on to win 9-6.

Meanwhile Ireland were suffering their first defeat of the week, losing to Belgium. England’s qualification depended on Estonia beating Poland and this one went to an extra end, Estonia’s third in six games. For the first time this week they won one and thus the qualified teams were determined.

England play Croatia later today but Ireland have only the game against England left to play. No matter the result of the England v Croatia game the top qualification spot will depend on the winner of Ireland v England, because if teams are tied on games won, it is the result between the teams that is the first determinant for deciding ranking.

None of the top teams in the other section were playing this morning and so it is still all to play for among Russia, Austria, Hungary (all 4 wins and 1 loss) and Finland (3 wins and 2 losses).

England’s ladies continued to play well and impress last night but fell at the final hurdle to Hungary when Anna’s draw for an extra end fell half an inch short. That is three consecutive games, against the top three teams in the group, that have been lost by such a small margin. The team were very down and exhausted last night but they can still pick themselves up and qualify. Games left against Wales, Slovakia and Estonia should be easier than the previous three – it may all come down to stamina in the end because that is now five out of the six games that have gone to the tenth end or beyond and on ice as keen as it is here, and as swingy, there is an awful lot of sweeping to be done.

Eve Muirhead is not the only one to be timed-out this week. This morning Belarus started the last end against Lithuania with approximately three minutes on the clock! Ironically, although they were five down at the time, they were lying three when the clock stopped. A quick shrug of the shoulders and a handshake finished the game. It was pretty obvious earlier that they would struggle unless they sped up but that did not appear to be a worry for them and the inevitable happened!

All the results and standings can be found here.

Top: Team England. L-R Alan MacDougall, Andrew Reed, Andrew Woolston, Tom Jaeggi. Photo © Leslie Ingram-Brown

Monday, December 05, 2011

The B Arena

The B arena at a European Championships has its own atmosphere away from the glitz and glamour of the A arena and, as the week progresses, a little community establishes itself therein. Some in the past have been further away than others so that it felt like a different competition – last year’s train ride down the mountain from Champery was probably the most extreme, but the tram ride in Basel and the journey up from the Linx Arena beside the beach to the Curl Aberdeen club were not atypical. In fact is not since 2007 in Fussen that it has been possible to easily see both A and B groups at the same time.

Here in Moscow it is probably a good five minute walk between them but it is all indoors as you wander the corridors of this massive building. We are located in an ice hockey rink though there is very little spectator space so I imagine it is either mainly used for practice or for minor league games. The changing rooms are well fitted and each small bay in the locker room has a lockable box for valuables though not for our use this week. The ice crew is led by Jurgen Larsson and the umpires by Dor Borthwick and both have long days with four sessions beginning at 0800 and finishing at about 2300.

Security is everywhere and without the right pass you do not get anywhere – even if you have been going past the same man every day I can see that there would be a 'Niet' for you if you ever appeared without one – pins are a great bargaining tool of course. A players’ restaurant is open from 0900 to 2100 with hot food, including breakfast, on offer all day.

At the end of a long four game day for the coaches yesterday our women's team gave us an additional present by going to an extra end against Finland! This was a great game and a super fightback from the team who had lost a three at the first end against probably the strongest team in the B Group. Unfortunately Anna’s last draw just refused to turn enough and the Finnish skip was able to tap it back for victory to stretch their unbeaten run to four games (now five after a straightforward win over Slovakia this morning).

Poland are probably the surprise of the Group. The current Polish junior team came through from the C Group after last year’s exclusion of Poland for non payment of subscriptions and have gone four games undefeated including a win over the experienced Hungarians. Their one flaw is possibly their commitment to throwing big weight takeouts which leave little room for error. [Having written this before our ladies played Poland I have now been hoist by own petard as it was only their ability to throw such a big weight that enabled Poland to beat England with a high speed tick-out at the last end this morning!].

After yesterday’s close encounter with Estonia, who also took Netherlands to an extra end later in the day, the England men won a fairly comfortable game against Belgium who had to bring on their alternate after threeends. The game was also notable for the first coach interaction call from an England team when yours truly had to go down and give Alan MacDougall some advice – not something I ever expected to see written down in black and white! So that is three out of three for England with Ireland also undefeated in that group. In the other group it is Hungary who lead the way with four wins out of four.

Top: The B Arena in the Megasport Complex.
Above: John on the coaches' bench.
Photos © Leslie Ingram-Brown

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Day 2 in Moscow

Rodger Schmidt was European Champion for Germany in 1985 and also took Russ Howard to the last end in the World Final in Vancouver in 1987. Since then he has plied his trade as a coach to the World at large including the Czech Republic (1999-2000), Italy (2000-2007) and the USA (2010 Olympic Games). Since 2007 he has been working with the Austrian teams and is sitting next to me as we watch our respective women’s teams in action against each other. (His ex-teammate, Johnny Jahr, is making a comeback at this level in the A Group upstairs.)

As well as sharing the bench we seem to be stalking each other as we both have similar responsibilities for our small nations, with two teams to coach, and the timetable for a regular day here is 0800 men’s game, 1200 women’s game, 1600 men’s game and 2000 women’s game! When you realise that practice begins half an hour before each game you can see that the time for eating is fairly restricted. Add in the fact that England's men had to play an extra end this morning before finally beating Estonia and you can see why healthy eating and the European Championships are kind of mutually exclusive! Thank goodness for time clocks, but you sometimes pray for a six end game, as long as your team is on the winning side of course! Last night those prayers were answered when, at almost exactly the same time as I was posting yesterday’s blog, Anna Fowler played a delicate backring weight tap back to collect a six against Ireland who then gave up after seven ends with England winning 14-3.

This morning’s game for the men against Estonia seemed to be ours all the way. We scored six singles, including three steals, and headed into the last end 6-4 up. But we lost two against the hammer and then in the extra it required a cold draw to the button by Alan MacDougall to put away the Estonians who had beaten us last year in Champery.

By the way, the 'High-tech' A4 flip chart scorecards (see Blog 1) go up to 29 per side! I think they must have looked at the record books and found that the highest score in International Competition history was 28-3 and just added one! Everything is bigger and better in Russia!

Except the service! When a '4 star' hotel takes an hour to prepare a pizza at 11pm and it then arrives in a box 20 minutes after the waiter has mysteriously dashed out, one does wonder how they ever got a man in space!

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Moscow: View from the B Arena

Well sorry, actually not a view as I forgot the lead which would have downloaded pictures from my phone, so you will have to do with a 1000 words instead ...

English teams arrived safely on Thursday from their various connecting points, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm - geography determined that teams should arrive at Sheremetyevo Airport in the North rather than the other one in the South. Problem is that only Aeroflot fly directly to Sheremetyevo from London and fears, possibly unjustified, of Aeroflot’s reputation led to the option of changing flights midway - and it was slightly cheaper.

I travelled out on Friday, in the company of ECA President Alison Arthur, and got to Copenhagen no problem, only to find that the flight to Moscow had been cancelled for technical reasons and we would have to travel via Stockholm, but we had to wait over two hours! Eventually arrived four hours later in Moscow than expected just in time for the opening banquet. But at least our luggage arrived in spite of the changed itinerary, unlike that of WCF President Kate Caithness which got lost somewhere in Schiphol on her way here.

And so to the Stadium on Saturday morning. A well organised and pleasantly short opening ceremony. This is an enormous building and the B Arena is in the basement - but it is a light airy rink and very similar to curling rinks elsewhere, though it is a hockey rink in everyday life.

Ice is good - as fifth player for the men’s team I threw a few stones in the practice session this morning before the first game against Poland which was won 9-2. And with the ladies winning 6-4 against Spain in their first outing it has been a successful day so far for England. Currently they are on against Ireland and leading 6-0 and so more news in a tomorrow’s blog.

Footnote – all mod cons here in the B arena with flat screen electronic scoreboards – only problem is that they are only at one end below the coaches bench and so invisible to those who matter! So for this session the latest Russian technology has appeared at the far end. Red and yellow coloured A4 pads with numbers to be turned over as the game progresses – no line scores obviously but sufficient for what is needed!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Toothy Travails

The extra spare time in my life forced upon me by Her Majesty’s Civil Service has been put to good use in recent weeks. Before my last blog from the Welsh Bonspiel I took a day trip over to the European Mixed. There can be very few curling rinks which are 20 minutes walk from a major airport but in Copenhagen there is the five sheet Taarnby rink which has recently been expanded by two extra sheets which were finished just in time for the European Mixed at the beginning of October. In addition the high pitched roof on the extension allows for the inclusion of a large function suite at first floor level, which in future plans will have a glass wall overlooking the main rink. Should be spectacular.

The European Mixed is the first of three international championships being held there this season – the European Juniors in January and the World Seniors in April are the others, and it is remarkable how a relatively small club manages to produce the funding and the organisation to run these events. The main promoter is Johannes Jensen and one of the features of the Taarnby rink is the display cases full of just a part of his collection of curling memorabilia.
I intend to repeat my day trip with a visit to the European Juniors and probably the Seniors as well - £45 return from Stansted with Easyjet is less than most internal flights in the UK!

At the Mixed I must admit to getting confused as to which event I was attending – there were juniors, seniors and all ages participating and when you have seen people like Harry Lill of Estonia playing in Europeans as well as the Juniors and now the Mixed, just a quick glimpse on to the ice can be disconcerting.

I am currently in Scotland as I write having just played in the Braehead Mixed Doubles and will be heading off to Stranraer tomorrow to play in the Preston Club’s I’Anson Trophy. There is a full entry of sixteen teams with many new curlers about to enjoy the Stranraer experience for the first time.

It was only my second MD competition (after the English Championships in 2007) and my partner, Dawn Watson’s, first. The rules of MD are a little bit different and I made a faux pas in our first game when I thought that the winning side placed the stones for the next end when of course it is the losing side (as you all knew). So this meant that we had to replay the second end and my apologies to our opponents, Angus Shearer and Nicola Evans who went on to win the best under 25 prize in spite of losing to us.

It was just one of two wins for us in the competition which was two evenings of intense curling – three games per night, five end games for the first four, and then two six end games. If you are throwing the middle set of 3 stones in the team, and getting up to sweep those stones as well, it is a very good work out for your curling muscles. It was great to see so many juniors playing and also the two wheelchair teams.

So those are the travels – the travails are around the European Championships in Moscow. As I said to somebody recently, how did they manage to put a man in space! Maybe that is unfair and it is just cultural differences, but the whole issue of getting a visa has been remarkably stressful and there are still some of my players without them just two weeks before they go.

To summarise - the players were not allowed to apply for their visas before the 1st November – already a tight schedule. To apply for your visa you had first of all to receive a letter from the organising committee inviting you to play in the Championships. The website said that, obviously, this had to done before doing your visa application and a form was provided on the website to supply information about your passport number etc. So in late August / early September I encouraged our players to apply for their letters so they would have them in plenty of time to apply for their visa after 1st November.

Time went on and nothing had arrived in mid to late October and so emails started flying. What transpired was that none of the players’ details were in Russia – and then we got an email in late October saying that we would get on better if we applied for the letters as a group!

Anyway, by this time one of our players was flying off to South Korea and would not be back until late November and another was on business in Europe and would have to apply via the consulate in The Hague! Eventually, after re-submitting the details, the letters arrived last week and visits to Russian consulates in London and Edinburgh (and The Hague) are being undertaken.

A number of questions could be asked – why so late for the players to apply for visas as they are the most important people in the competition? What happened to the missing data? Why was the website not clearer about applying as a group if it was that critical?

And then yesterday an email arrived saying that if players wanted to use official transport between hotel and the arena it would cost them £84 for the week. Ours are walking!

And then there are the juniors................but that is another story!

Sorry for being Mr Grumpy but every day my inbox is full of emails – how the hell did I ever manage when I was working!

Hopefully my travels will continue with my trip to Moscow in early December and my travails will lessen as the weeks pass. Fingers crossed.

Top photo is of John puzzling over strategy at the Braehead Open Mixed Doubles. Above is his partner in that event, Dawn Watson. Photos © Skip Cottage.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Manson Wins After Fifteen Years

The one characteristic of the Welsh Bonspiel which stands out, apart from its friendliness, is the loyalty of the teams which enter the competition every year. The first Welsh Bonspiel took place in 1978 and was won by Bill Crichton and many of the other skips that appear on the entry list are no longer with us, but in 1979 a certain Graeme Adam got his name onto the Trophy and here in 2011 he was still winning, this time the Stan Williams Trophy for teams finishing 3rd in their section.

In 1981 Hugh and Christine Stewart won that same Stan Williams Trophy playing with Jim and Liz Jamieson who this year helped Graeme to win it. Hugh also won the main Bonspiel Trophy in 1991 but has so far not won the B Road Trophy which has had various names but is currently the J A M Trophy, after John Stone and Margaret Meikle who have been running the competition since I can remember.

In 1982 a young Adrian Meikle won the B Road Trophy, and this year he was runner-up in the same competition while among the winners in 1984 and 1985 was Chris Wells who was very close to a final this year.

Graeme Adam, Ena Smith, Gordon Crawford, Adrian Meikle and John Brown have all won all three trophies but until this year the main Bonspiel had eluded Janice and George Manson. Ironically their team mates Ian and Pam Paxton had won the trophy in 2004 with David and Mary Robertson when Janice and George had been unavailable but two previous B Road and three Stan Williams Trophy wins could not assuage their desire for the main trophy.

In 2005 they had reached the final, only to be beaten at an extra end by yours truly, but this year there was no stopping them. An undefeated run through the sections games defeating the holder, Adrian Meikle, Graeme Adam and Michael Yuille (twice) led them to a final against Colin Martin, last year’s runner-up who had also won all four of his section games against John Brown, Elaine Semple, Hugh Stewart and Chris Wells (winning by one shot after taking a five at the last end).

As with many games at the weekend the final went down to the wire, only to be spoiled by a pick up for Colin Martin on his first stone which left the way clear for George Manson to place a guard on the shot which Colin had been trying to get at and left no real shot for Colin’s last stone, Janice running out the winner by 8-6.

The B road final was also a tense affair between Lesley Gregory’s team skipped by Andrew Woolston with Lesley at third, husband Martin at second and local girl Lauren Baxter at lead, defeating Adrian Meikle who this year, instead of alternating his daughters at lead had them both playing, Charlotte at third and Danielle at lead. The ever present Andrew Tanner swept his heart out at second (as well as playing some great shots of course). Final score in this one was 8-5.

The C Road Final was the only one of the three which finished early with Graeme Adam, along with wife Julia and Jim and Liz Jamieson, defeating Elaine Semple, husband Colin and Pat and Graham Ross, by 9-1.

As usual the Bonspiel was sponsored by Glenfarclas who provided the requisites for the Saturday evening tasting session before the customary excellent Greenacres carvery served up by Elma Paterson and her team.

Next year will be the 33rd Welsh Bonspiel and also my 20th – see what I mean by loyalty – I hope to get back to winning ways but no matter whether I do or not it will be enough to go back to Greenacres and meet up with old friends and rivals and to enjoy the friendship of curling on and off the ice.

Winners' photos are here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

And here we go again...

As I sit here in an almost deserted office life is about to change – in just ten days time I shall get my last salary from the Government and, a few years early, I will join the ranks of the unemployed / retired – a great opportunity you might think to go and play curling for seven days a week. Just a little snag – the lack of a regular income until I get my pension in three years time.

But I will be frequenting my usual haunts in the coming months – at least until the compensation runs out – Greenacres and Stranraer are on my schedule for October and November and I am also adding a trip to Braehead for the Mixed Doubles because I am aiming to regain my English MD title in the New Year – have always fancied a trip to Turkey ever since I saw Midnight Express. Well, maybe not…

What it does mean is that I will not be playing any Seniors curling this year but will be spending more time helping to build up our Junior squad and set in place the next generation of Juniors following close behind? Tuesday night and it must be Fenton’s Curling Club will be my motto for the next few months. Not being constrained by the ties of an office desk (and enough from those who cannot believe I ever was!), I will be able to take a leisurely drive to Kent and spend a couple of hours with the youngsters before relaxing on the ice with a game in the Fenton’s Leagues.

Ernest Fenton and his son Forbes have run a Junior academy at the club for the past few seasons and it is hoped that some of the graduates from there will be the succession to the current junior teams who added to their experience with a trip to the Sweetlake Curling Camp in Holland over the summer. You can read an article about the camp in the ECA newsletter here.

This season we have timetabled a Junior Championship at the end of October when it is hoped that teams will come forward to challenge the current champions for a place in the EJCC at Taarnby in January.

One of the girls in the Junior team, Angharad Ward, was chosen recently to attend the trial day for the selection of Team GB for the Winter Youth Olympic Games – full details of WYOG can be found here while the details about the curling competition can be found on the WCF website here. The event is only open to players born in 1994 or 1995.

There were six boys and six girls at the selection day and two of each will be required for the trip to Innsbruck. The selection panel is due to meet in late September and so it will be a nervous time for Angharad as she waits to see if she has cracked the Scottish domination of all things Team GB Curling. Also a nervous time for me as the WYOG overlaps with the ECA Mixed Doubles and Angharad is my partner in that event!

With a trip to Moscow to the Europeans on her schedule as part of Fiona Hawker’s team and an EJCC in Taarnby to play in if they win the ECA Junior Championships it is potentially going to be a very busy year for Angharad – on top of which she has her GCSEs to sit!

I am sure the resilience of the youth will keep her going.

As a warm up for the season there was a bonspiel held at iceSheffield last Saturday. Four sheets were laid out but unfortunately there were only 16 curlers in attendance – and quite a mixture too – two absolute beginners (from Australia – though not just for the day!), three who have been playing regularly at Sheffield on Saturday evenings on their half length sheets, a couple of the ice rink staff, an experienced curler who lives in Sheffield together with eight stalwarts of the ECA who had travelled from as far afield as Whitley Bay and Maidenhead.

The ice was available for five hours and after a session of coaching for the new and inexperienced ones and a general limbering up of the limbs for those who already knew roughly what to do, and after a short lunch break, a mini round robin was played at the end of which the ice rink presented a little trophy and some medals to the first three teams, and a wooden spoon to the 4th! Hopefully I will have some pictures soon and full details of the results to accompany them.

So an early start to the season here in England and it all kicks off at Fenton’s on October 3. Good stones and a successful season to you all.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Final Tale from 2010-11

Well here we are at the end of another season and it seems to have been an awfully long one – and maybe it has – the European Mixed in September to the World Seniors and Mixed Doubles in late April mean that the season now stretches for a full seven months and a lot has happened in between.

Our teams returned from St Paul quietly satisfied that they had done a good job. The men were a bit disappointed that they had just failed to beat Australia in the quarterfinal and were more disappointed when they discovered that their draw shot challenge distance relegated them below Scotland in the final standings, even though they had beaten them in round robin play. The quirk of the system is that all losing quarterfinalists, while they all reached the same stage, are ranked on their DSC distances acquired during pre-game practice sessions for the round-robin games.

This also led to the women being ranked eleventh below Russia even though they had beaten them in the round robin. Ironically if New Zealand had lost their last game then we would have been ranked above Russia as we beat them, but the NZ victory over Japan brought them level on two wins with Russia and England, and since each had beaten one of the others the DSC came into play to decide the ranking!

Also, our Mixed Doubles pair of John Sharp and Jane Clark were disappointed that they had let slip a couple of opportunities to win from a leading position, but such is the nature of the format that big leads can disappear in relatively few ends.

And I will only mention it once but we cannot find any other instance in International Championship play where England beat Scotland twice in one week. No further comment.

So, looking back over the season from an English point of view, on an International front it has been disappointing – a fourth place in the European Mixed being the highlight. Poor performances from our teams in the Europeans in December left us as far away from World Championship play as we have ever been recently.

However the performance of our junior women in the European Junior Challenge in January and the emergence of a junior men’s team shows promise for the future which we shall try and maintain with a structured coaching and development programme.

Domestically of course the news was dominated by the uncertainty around the Four Nations with respect to the Scottish representation. As far as we are concerned that is water under the bridge now but I would love to be able to attend the RCCC AGM in June to hear how much the members make it an issue. Unfortunately other domestic appointments make my attendance impossible but I will no doubt hear feedback from those who do attend.

Fenton’s Rink in Kent continues to flourish and will re-open in September for an eighth season, while there is news that ice time has been offered to Preston Curling Club at Blackburn. Ice Sheffield is seeking to develop a curling pathway and to form a club, while Stephen Hinds is pressing ahead with plans for a rink North West of London near Chalfont St Giles. Unfortunately Solihull appears to have been a dead end and the local interest we had there seems to have dried up.

I hope that you have found these Toothy Tales to have been of interest throughout the year – they have been less frequent than I would have liked but other pressures have limited their production.

Have a great summer and hopefully we will all come back refreshed in the Autumn ready for another season of the world’s friendliest sport.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Then there was peace

After the excitement of the last few days it was a pretty uneventful Annual General Assembly of the World Curling Federation today. With 43 members represented and 15 proxies there were more than enough for a quorum. President Kate Caithness started proceedings with a minute’s silence in the memory of the people of Japan and New Zealand and also the recent losses of Frank Duffy and Jim Duff, one of whose roles of course was as Master of Ceremonies for the Pondhoppers Club.

One of the banes of the organisers of major championships is the recent custom for teams to arrive late for things like final banquets or to appear in casual clothes when team uniform has been requested. In future if a complaint is received from an organising committee there will be a financial penalty for the infraction payable by the national association concerned.

I have talked already a couple of days ago (see here) of some of the proposals. Time outs (as coach interactions will now be called) will remain as they are currently operated, with clocks stopped for a specified travelling time and then the coach having one minute to interact with the team with the clocks running; tie breakers will remain in operation for most competitions, but for the WSCC, WMDCC and EJCC, alternative skill based solutions which do not require extra games will be trialled from next season; more detail will be put on the bones for the new World Championship Qualifying system for further approval at Moscow, and the first World Curling Congress will be held in the autumn of 2012 though there will still be a General Assembly at Basel in April.

And that was about it!

And the fun continues...

Yesterday was the Semi Annual General Meeting of the European Curling Federation and just 18 of the 37 members of the Federation were represented in person. The problem was that 50% are required to make the meeting quorate so no decisions could be taken! So bit of a waste of time for anyone who had travelled specially, though most are here for today’s WCF Annual General Assembly.

The meeting got off to a sensational start when President Andrew Ferguson-Smith announced that he had come to an agreement with the municipality of Champery for the setting up of a European Centre of Curling Excellence in Champery of which he would be the first CEO. It was going to be set as a Société à responsabilité limitée, broadly equivalent to a private company limited by shares (Ltd) in the United Kingdom with 49% owned by the ECF and 51%% by the curling club and municipality of Champery. The HQ office of the ECF would also be there and the municipality was giving free office space.

After the good burghers of Champery had given their presentation on the project, uproar ensued as many of the ECF members complained that they were being presented with a fait accompli and that they had not had a chance to see if this deal was the best for their association and members. Even the Executive Board of the ECF had only seen the proposal last night and so were not prepared to fully back their President.

After last year’s stand-off with the WCF this was a further blow to the credibility of the ECF President with his members. At the end of the day he was asked to go away and produce the paperwork for the project, which he hoped to begin in September, so that members could pore over it and check out the details.

That is not to say that the members disagreed with the idea – all who spoke backed the concept of the proposal but unfortunately the manner of its presentation and sudden appearance on the agenda did not find favour. One can only hope that the visitors from Champery will not drop the idea as being too much of a hot potato and that the proposal will get the go ahead in due course.

The rest of the meeting passed quietly. The one major announcement was that the 2012 EMCC and ECC – C group competitions would more than likely be in Erzurum, Turkey, the recent site of the World University Games. Just a few more details need to be finalised before the venue is confirmed. Interestingly to make the combination of the two championships easier the games in the ECC-C group will be limited to 8 ends, the same as the EMCC.

The International Court of Arbitration of Sport had also thrown out Poland’s legal action against the ECF after the ECF had suspended them from the European Championships for non-payment of their annual subscription. It was also announced that ten countries had still to pay their subscription for this year – including Denmark, Germany and Russia. I hope the last pays in time or they will not be playing at the Europeans in Moscow!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Off the Ice at Esbjerg

While the women battle it out on the ice in Esbjerg, happenings off the ice could change the face of international championships in the near future.

Under the two tenets of the WCF wanting to have control over who plays in their championships and having the best teams on the ice at the major finals, a group was set up following the meetings in Champery last December to iron out the details of a qualifying competition for the Men’s and Women’s World Championships from 2014 onwards.

As a result of that group’s discussions and further talk in the last couple of days it looks as though the following system will ultimately get the go ahead – but not until further details are added to the proposal and so not until Moscow in December.

For the World Championships from 2014 onwards the participants will be decided as follows: the host nation, the top 7 countries from previous World Championships and then the top two teams from at least two qualifying competitions to be run by the WCF.

The top seven countries may be from the previous season or from a weighted average of past performance (say over the previous three seasons) – this is one of the details to be finalised.
All other member nations would participate (if they wanted to) in a qualifying competition – let’s assume there will be two called Red and Blue. If the host venue for one of these competitions is in the entries then they would be placed in the respective group and then all other nations would be placed according to World ranking. Otherwise World ranking would be the sole determinant. Entries would need to be in by June 1st and the qualifying competitions would be held in November, except for an Olympic season when they would be held in January because the Olympic Qualifying Event is programmed for November (see below for details of that!). The top two teams from each event would qualify for the WMCC and WWCC.

So this means the end of regional qualification via the European or Pacific Championships and also ends the almost automatic qualification of Canada and the USA who would have to finish in the top 7 or 8 to qualify for the next year. In the most extreme circumstances it could mean a World Championships made up entirely of European countries or alternatively with only three or four European Countries participating. It also calls into doubt the role and status of the Pacific and European Championships.

With Olympic qualification dependent upon gathering points in the World Championships will national associations be forced by their national Olympic Associations to enter the World Qualifying competitions but then not offered any help to compete in the European Championships which will occur just a few weeks later? Will a country’s best players be able to get time off or to afford to attend both competitions?

From an England point of view for example why should we send a team to the World Qualifying as we do not get any Olympic points even if we get to Worlds and even if we did it is certain that our champion teams could not afford to play in both – so do we send a poorer quality team to the Europeans? But then entry to the WCF Qualifier will presumably be free while an entry to the European Championships costs over £500?

And then there is the Olympic Qualifying Event (OQE) – this was confirmed at the meetings in Champery – it will be held in the November prior to the Olympics and will be for all nations who have played in the three previous World Championships but not gathered enough qualifying points to automatically play in the Olympics. So for season 2013-14 (and other Olympic seasons) the programme begins to look like this: OQE in November, Europeans/Pacifics in December, World Qualifiers in January, Olympics in February and Worlds in March/April – quite a programme and is it sustainable in what is still an amateur sport?

In non Olympic years the World Qualifying Competition will take place in November. One side effect of all this could be that the World Mixed Doubles and World Seniors will not be changed to November as was previously proposed – soundings will be taken of the teams in St Paul at this year’s competitions.

Two rule changes will also be voted on at Friday’s General Assembly. Firstly the issue of time-outs has arisen again. In Cortina it was decided that they would be replaced by coach interactions when the coach could have a minute on the ice with his/her players but the clock would not stop. This led to some dangerous situations with coaches running or climbing barriers to get to their team as quickly as possible. In Champery it was decided to implement a travelling time for the coaches which would be specific to each venue and would be when the clock would be stopped. When the coach reached their team the clock would start and they would have a minute on the ice with their team.

It is necessary for this revised rule to be defined in the Rule Book and so this will be done on Friday if voted for but in addition the option of doing away with time-outs all together will also be put on the table.

The WCF is still keen to do away with tiebreakers as the need to allow time in the programme is not an efficient use of time if it is not needed and situations have arisen recently where insufficient time was allowed in the programme for tiebreakers, leading to the situation at the EJCC in Prague where the Czech Republic played four games in one day.

There is no option on the table to do away with tie breakers but there is a motion to keep tie breakers for the moment in the WMCC, WWCC, WJCC, WWhCC and WMDCC but to try out a number of alternative systems in the EJCC, PJCC, WSCC and WWhQCC – these alternatives include variations on the Draw Shot Challenge, including more than one stone per game, a post round robin shoot out, as trialled at the EMCC last September, or a reversion to a previous system of a post round robin four-stone all team member draw shot challenge.

The final major proposal put forward by the WCF Board was to disconnect the WCF General Assembly from the World Championships to allow attention to be focussed on the curling and allow WCF Board Members more time to network and entertain sponsors. The idea is that there will be a World Curling Congress in the Autumn which will not just incorporate the meetings but could be expanded to include clinics etc. While the WCF wanted to initiate this in 2011, they were persuaded that arrangements were already too far advanced for the semi-annual assembly at Moscow in December and so the likely outcome is for the General Assembly due for Basel in April to be abandoned and the first World Curling Congress to take place in Autumn 2012.
Further information on these proposals will follow the General Assembly in Friday.

Watch this space.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The English Curling Championships

Just ten days after all the foreigners had been seen off the premises following the Four Nations, the ECA’s second biggest event of the season - the English Championships - began at Greenacres. The five men’s teams, playing a double round robin, began on Thursday lunchtime, but they would be nearly half way through their schedule before the two women’s teams joined in for their best-of-five rubber on Friday evening.

Alan MacDougall, Jamie Malton, James Dixon, Neil Maycock and Ben Fowler were the male skips while Fiona Hawker and Sandra Moorcroft skipped the women.

Alan MacDougall, the defending champion and favourite, got off to the best of starts with a 4 at the first end against Neil Maycock and he was never seriously troubled as he raced to a 15-6 victory after eight ends. Meanwhile the two teams expected to offer the best challenge to Alan, Jamie Malton and James Dixon (skipping the Bruce Bowyer team after finishing second with that line-up at the previous weekend’s Haggis competition), were involved in a close struggle which eventually Dixon won by 6-4.

Session 2 introduced Ben Fowler and his fellow junior, Harry Mallows, to the Championships and in a switchback of a game they were unlucky to lose 9-10 to Neil Maycock after being 9-7 up after 9. Alan MacDougall had another emphatic victory over James Dixon who shook hands after 6 ends with the score at 7-1 to Alan. So already the leading challengers had both lost a game and things were looking good for the defending champions.

Session 3 and the MacDougall team were on a bye as Dixon and Malton both won, Dixon by 7-5 over Maycock, helped by a run of four singles, and Malton more easily by 10-3 against Fowler who was unable to repeat the form of the previous evening.

The next session is quickly dealt with - Malton beat Maycock 13-1 and MacDougall beat Fowler 15-4 but this then leads us to the third and last session of the day on Friday - and the closest and longest game of the weekend! The session began at 20.45 and finished nearly at midnight as Ben Fowler and James Dixon slugged it out. The other game in the session had seen Alan MacDougall deal Jamie Malton a serious blow to his Championship challenge by beating him 7-5 and so James Dixon needed to win this one to keep that one win ahead of Malton and be in prime position to attack Alan MacDougall over the weekend.

And he started off well and led 6-1 after five ends but then 'one of those ends' happened and before he knew it he had lost a 5 as Ben Fowler produced two great shots. Dixon nosed ahead with a single at the 7th but then lost a 3 at the eighth. However he then won the 3 back at the ninth before Ben Fowler levelled the game and forced the extra end which a last stone hit and stick secured for Dixon as the weary spectators prayed he would not roll out and force a twelth end!

So by the end of Friday and after the first complete round robin it was MacDougall on 4 wins, Dixon on 3, Malton on 2, Maycock on 1 and Fowler on 0.

The second half of the competition was due to begin at 0830 on the Saturday but an extra hour was found from some ice cancellations and the weary warriors trooped back on at 0930. The key game in this session was that between MacDougall and Dixon as a win for the former would open up a two win cushion between him and the chasing pack. And so while Malton sent Maycock off after seven ends for an early bath after an 11-3 win, all attention turned to sheet A and a thrilling game that was all square after 6 ends (3-3) and 8 ends (5-5) and which hinged on a 9th end where a complete miss by MacDougall gave Dixon a stolen 1 and a one shot advantage going down the tenth, but without the hammer.

Probably not the best position to be in and so it proved as MacDougall was eventually left with a straight draw to the rings for 2 and the game and a buffer between him and the opposition. Now he would have to lose both of his remaining games to take the competition to a tie break.

The first of those two games was in theory going to be the easier – against winless Ben Fowler, but it proved to be a tough battle only won by running the opposition out of stones deep into the tenth end and by a 6-4 scoreline. In the other game Neil Maycock’s team (now skipped by John Brown) went down 4-9 to James Dixon.

And so to session 8 and would we see the crowning of the champion - a simple win would do and this was achieved by 8-4 against John Brown, though once again the first half of the game was close and finished at 4-3 before Alan stole a couple of 2s to make things safe. It was irrelevant therefore that Jamie Malton finished with a repeat 10-3 win over Ben Fowler.

So an unbeaten campaign gave Alan MacDougall, Andrew Reed, Andrew Woolston and Tom Jaeggi their second championship in a row and they will head to Moscow in December hoping to improve on their 21st place in Champery.

Fiona Hawker and Anna Fowler first played together last year and they continued their partnership this year as one of only two entries for the women’s Championship. After eight years of representing England at the Europeans Kirsty Balfour had not entered and Fiona’s opposition came from the team that will represent England at the World Seniors in St Paul in April, skipped by Sandra Moorcroft who plays lead stones while Susan Young throws last stones.

The fomat was a best-of-5 rubber but only 3 games were necessary as Fiona won 13-1, 15-9 (12-6 after 5 ends!) and 14-4. Included in her team is Angharad Ward who will become the youngest player to represent England in a major International Championships at just 16 years and 4 months. The fourth player in the team is Debbie Hutcheon.

One other Championship was settled at the weekend. If you have been following this blog you will remember that the ECA Senior Men’s Championships was unfinished back in December after all three teams tied and only one tie break was possible. The final tie break took place alongside the main National Championships and was won by Michael Sutherland who defeated John Brown 9-0 after just 4 ends. It was one of those games that I was never going to win.

And so Michael Sutherland returns to the World Seniors for the first time since 2008 and is joined by Tommy Campbell, John Summers and Phil Barton. Only John Summers is new to the Worlds as Tommy (2002) and Phil (2006 and 2009) have previous experience there. The defeat brought to an end the amazing record of John MacDougall who had qualified for every World Seniors since they began in 2002, though the ash cloud meant he could not get to Russia last year to play in his ninth event.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Reflections on the Four Nations


In addition to all the reporting from Bob on his blog from Fenton’s here are just a few thoughts from me on what was a successful weekend.

A lot has been written and said about the actions of the RCCC with respect to their selection policy and then the decision (later overturned) to withdraw their trophies from the competition. Ultimately this had no effect on the actual running of the weekend as we still had to deal with four teams curling, eating, drinking, needing transporting to and from airports and hotels.

Obviously it had an effect on how I used my time in the run up to the weekend, at least until the Scottish team had organised themselves, as it meant that I had an additional task of trying to raise a team to fill the gap which had appeared in our schedule.

At no time were the ECA ever intent on showing up the RCCC or causing them or certain individuals to suffer some of the name calling and vitriolic comment appearing on other Fora. Yes, we were disappointed by the RCCC’s late decision not to send a team but with the other countries having already booked flights and hotels, with the ice booked for the whole weekend and with a dinner and band booked, we had to run a viable competition or lose a lot of friends and money.

As president, secretary and competitions convenor of the ECA for many years combined I have often had to struggle to raise teams for the Four Nations when it is held in Scotland because of previous commitments and the time and cost elements so I can appreciate the difficulties which the RCCC had at this busy time of year. The difference may have been what each of us then did when the usual channels were not successful. I am not ashamed to say that in years past I have used Scottish friends living locally to the venue of the event to bolster the English teams (and also to help out the Welsh and Irish teams)!

What this year has done is, and it may be only temporarily, to raise the profile of the Four Nations so that for at least next year there will be a lot more scrutiny about how the teams are selected, particularly in Scotland. What is important is to know that the Four Nations is not one competition, it is simply a convenient way of packaging seven individual trophies into a time and money saving package – but it works. I am sure that the four of us will sit down or hold conference calls to decide on the future of the weekend in the light of this year’s events.

While the happenings of the last month will continue to have a high profile in Scotland, as far as the ECA is concerned what is done is done and we can look back on a very successful weekend. We raised a lot of money for the Make-A–Wish charity from our raffle – approx £1300 I believe and the first prize of the laptop was won by Ross Barr (ENG), the £100 M and S voucher went to Richard Pougher (WAL) and the third prize of a silver necklace to Catriona Cooper of Scotland – all very equitable so far. Unfortunately for the Irish the fourth prize of a bottle of brandy went to Bob Cowan! The Irish team apparently only bought green tickets but only one was drawn out throughout the whole raffle which featured more than 20 other prizes.

The shot of the weekend was undoubtedly Lana Watson’s draw to lie three within the four foot against Scotland which pinched the Connie Miller Trophy back from Scotland, but it is also pertinent to say that in the next session she took seven at one end off an Irish team skipped by…….no that would be unfair – he knows who he is!

My apologies also for the lack of scores on any website owing to an administrative cock-up involving cooks and soup – and not the ones producing the stovies, toasties and breakfast rolls!

As to who won – well all the countries won at least something but interestingly six of the seven trophies changed hands this year and only one was retained by last year’s winners. The Irish were the most successful, winning all three of their contests but only by the smallest margin of one shot against England and Wales and relatively comfortably by seven shots v Scotland. Wales beat England and Scotland, England won one (the Connie Miller Trophy v Scotland) and Scotland won one (the Tom Ballantyne Trophy v England).

So on the whole a successful weekend but one that I am glad we do not have to repeat for four years!

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Czech and Norwegian Juniors for Perth

It started at 8 am and finished just a shade after 7 pm and in another extraordinary day at the curling club in Prague the local boys team skipped by Lukas Klima climbed back from the depths of despair yesterday morning after losing to Germany and seeming to be out of the competition only to be rescued by Austria beating Italy, to win the European Junior Challenge and the last place in the World Junior Championships in Perth in March. To do so they had to play and win four hard games of curling – beating Italy 8-5 after an extra end, Poland 6-4, by means of a three at the last end, Estonia 6-5, having to repel a great fightback, and Russia by 8-4 as a result of a four scored at the sixth end through a double take out by the skip.

In contrast the Norwegian girls skipped by Kristine Davanger and including Pia Trulsen (two Olympic gold medal winners’ daughters) had it easy as they only had to beat Italy 5-4 and Germany 6-4!

As for the English teams, the girls finished sixth in the final rankings on 3 wins and 5 losses while the boys were fifth in their group just ahead of Wales, both teams on 1 win and 5 losses. Overall this equated to ninth for England and twelth for Wales based on comparative draw shot challenge distances against the other group.

And now it is time to party.......alcohol free of course!

You can find all the results and standings on the event website here.

Friday, January 07, 2011

An extraordinary afternoon in Prague

An apology and an update from Prague

Apologies to Russian and Estonian readers as I was wrong in my assertion that Netherlands had already qualified for the semi-finals of the Junior Men’s Challenge here in Prague in my piece last night. I had ignored the one possible option which ultimately came to pass and saw the three teams finish on 5-1 records. Today Russia beat Netherlands and Estonia won both their games, easily against England by 11-1, and against Slovakia by 6-2. This brought the Draw Shot Challenge into play to decide who had automatically qualified. Before Estonia’s last game – they were one session behind - their DSC distance was 30.5cm while Russia’s final DSC was 39.6 and Netherlands was 45.1. So For Harri Lill, the Estonian skip, there were two challenges in his final game – mainly to beat Slovakia but also to ensure his last stone draw before the game was closer than 75.8cm to the centre, which would keep his DSC distance below Russia’s and give him direct entry to the semi-final and make Russia play the Netherlands again. The first part he completed in style by covering the hole for the second game in a row and then he played a fairly clinical game to earn that place in the semi-final. So first thing tomorrow morning Russia will try and repeat their victory over Netherlands.

In the other group Germany qualified by beating the host nation in the morning session and then the stage was set for a remarkable finish to the round robin play in the final session. The one basic outcome was that if Italy beat Austria they would qualify top as they had beaten the Germans way back in the very first session of play and no tie breakers would be needed. As the session progressed Italy were 5-2 up on Austria and Poland were similarly edging ahead of France. But then things changed and Austria came back to 5-5 going into the last end (Italy had last stone) while Poland led France 5-3 and were lying first and third shots when their skip went to play his last stone of the game – and lo and behold he jammed the French stone he was trying to remove onto his own shot and then the French skip drew for 2 and an extra end. This would be the third extra end in 5 games for both teams – Poland had won both of their previous ones while France had lost both of theirs.

Over on Sheet D Austria were determined that things would not be easy for Italy and when their skip drew a perfect draw behind a guard it needed a gentle tap back from the Italian skip to win the game, but unfortunately for him he was heavy and slipped through the house. Cue scenes of equal despair and delight as the Czechs were let back into the competition with at least a tie break against Italy. But things were still going on on Sheet B and with a Polish stone biting the front rings it just need a hit and roll from the Polish skip on a half guarded French shot to win and enter the tie-breakers. This was successfully achieved and what’s more their DSC distance gave Poland the bye to the second tie breaker leaving Italy and Czech Republic to fight it out in the first!

And now the story was – when would the tie breakers be played. For some reason there is only one time slot in the programme for tie breaker games – Saturday morning, but as two are needed would it be fair to ask either Czech Republic or Italy to possibly play 4 games in one day? Other options were play the first one late tonight (Friday) or delay the finals until Sunday. In the end there were no objections to starting early tomorrow morning and so the first tie breaker is at 8 am.

So to summarise: Tie Breaker 1 in Group B is Italy v Czech Republic, winner plays Poland, winner plays Estonia in semi-final. In Group A tie breaker 1 is Russia v Netherlands and winner plays Germany in semi-final. So how about the girls – well it was all rather tame and over in the first session of play today – Norway, Germany and Italy all won and finished in that order and so Germany will play Italy in the semi-final and the winner will play Norway in the final. The second session was all about bragging rights for those teams below. Final report on what will be a long day tomorrow though I shall be spending a lot of it anywhere else than the curling club as I try and see more than one square mile of Prague!

Prague, Thursday

So with just one day of round robin games to go we know at least one of the boys’ semi-finalists in Netherlands who maintained their unbeaten record with a win over Wales. And they are guaranteed to finish top of the group after Russia lost to Estonia in a result which gives Estonia a chance to grab the other semi final spot, either directly if the Netherlands defeat Russia and Estonia finish their campaign with wins over England and Spain, or via a tie break if they lose one of those games. After Slovakia scored their first win by defeating England 6-2 no other team has a chance of making a play-off spot.

The other section is still wide open – the easy option will be if Italy beat Austria as they will qualify along with the winner of Germany v Czech Republic. However if Italy lose to Austria who won their first game in beating France, then the winner of Germany and Czech Republic will qualify top and the loser will have to play Italy and possibly Poland if they defeat France. That would mean two tie breaks and would they cancel the banquet?.........

Clear as mud then! Wait there is more...

Then there are the girls – Norway extended their undefeated record with a win over Poland and then came through against a determined England team at the last gasp. After six ends England led 3-2 but a couple of misses let Norway pick up a three at the seventh and they ran England out of stones at the last end. Earlier in the day England had beaten Poland in an another low scoring game by 4-2.

Meanwhile Germany clung to their coat tails with a fairly easy 10-2 demolition of Slovakia and then an amazing low scoring 2-1 victory over Poland. Italy won their only game of the day 6-3 v Estonia but they still have to play Norway and Denmark and so are by no means secure in third place. And I had better not tell Alex Tordrup, the chief umpire, that a certain combination of results could end up with five teams tied for third place – Italy, Denmark, England, Poland and Spain – and the way the results have been going.......

One feature for me at this competition has been the relatively low scores, certainly compared to previous Junior Challenges. So far we have had the 2-1 German victory over Poland mentioned above, a couple of 4-2 scores, a 4-3, and numerous 5-2, 5-3, 6-2, 6-3 scores. Only five victorious teams out of the 56 games have scored ten or more shots to win. Does this mean that the weaker nations are becoming stronger or does it represent a growth of more defensive curling, playing the simple game and refusing to take a gamble with some guddling. Over three games last night there was only one score of more than one shot in the first six ends – and that was a 2.

Probably a combination of the two and I have seen some brilliant shot play but also some really naive tactics – to be expected from juniors of course.

One interesting contrast – in 2005 Poland’s girls played in the Challenge and lost to Germany by 19-0 – this year it was 2-1. They also lost 24-0 to Russia and 24-1 to the Czech Republic in 2005 – this year their scores have read 7-2, 5-3, 1-2, 5-6, 2-4, 3-6 – that is an aggregate tally of 23-23 for 6 games!

More tomorrow night when hopefully we will not have too much bad news for the Chief Umpire!

You can find all the results and standings on the event website here.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Prague Notes 2

So here we are halfway through the week and things are definitely looking up in the English camp as the girls recorded their second win this afternoon against a useful Estonia team, three of whom had beaten the full English team in Champery just a few weeks ago. It was a low scoring game and, without the hammer, England played well to steal ones at the first three ends. However the Estonians responded and had a chance to square the match at 4-4 in the seventh when lying one with last stone to come, but a bizarre choice of shot, which had the Estonian coaches in despair, resulted in them giving us another one and it was a measure for two which just went to them. So it was 5-2 instead and we ran them out of stones.

Earlier the girls had lost to the strong German team, though only in the last couple of ends, and the boys lost to Russia. There had been great celebrations last night after the boys defeated Wales and the girls Slovakia – it may not have been Germany and Russia but the thrill for the juniors of winning their first games in this company was palpable.

In the girls' event the two undefeated teams, Germany and Norway, met this afternoon and it was a tense thriller which was resolved by a very delicate tap-up by Norwegian skip, Kristine Davanger, to break a 3-3 deadlock after seven ends. Italy, Spain and Poland follow next on two defeats after Denmark continued to struggle yesterday, though they bounced back with two wins today over Slovakia and Spain, to leave themselves on three defeats, Poland having inflicted the third of those in a surprise yesterday. This is level with England and Estonia, with Slovakia bringing up the rear and still to record a win. Denmark could still get into the top three and a semi-final place, but it could all come down to their last game against Italy on Friday morning.

In the boys event, Group A is as expected the preserve of Netherlands and Russia, both undefeated after four and three games respectively and Group B is proving as tough as predicted.

France lost both games played until tonight at extra ends, and have just lost a third game to Italy and so are therefore not going to get to the semi-finals, a surprise after coming so close in the final last year. In another shock tonight Poland beat the Czech Republic at an extra end and have become a factor in this group instead of France.

So it could come down to tiebreakers and surprisingly there is currently no room in the programme for two tiebreaker games and when this question was raised at the team meeting the answer was not very satisfactorily answered – cancel the banquet, we have curling to play! And I thought it was only the ECA who failed to programme enough time for tie-breakers!

You can find all the results and standings on the event website here.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Prague Notes 1

Day 2 of the European Junior Challenge at this super Prague venue. My first visit and it is such a great facility but I reckon that might be all I see of Prague as there is a big schedule of games with two English teams involved.

And this is a serious competition with coaches of the calibre of Dan Raphael (ex Chinese coach and now coaching Italy), Tormod Andreasson of Norway with the task of coaching the daughters of two Olympic champions - Trulsen and Davanger, and Markku Uusipavalniemi on the bench for Estonia.

I am here assiting our new English Junior Coach, Greg Dunn, formerly of Holland and originally from Ottawa. I think we are going to be a bit thinner by end of the week - from nervous tension and a lack of time to eat! Today for example we have games at 0900, 1230 and 1600 - following a late night game last night at 2045! But at least we have the evening off.

I was last at this challenge two years ago and it is amazing how the standard has increased even in that short space of time. A bit too early to summarise form, but one surprise is that the Danish ladies, who last year just lost out to Germany on getting to the World Juniors, are already on two losses having lost to Germany again and, more surprisingly, Poland by 2-7. Having come down last year Germany are probably favourites to go back up but could still face a challenge from Denmark if they recover, Norway and maybe Spain and Poland with Italy an outside bet.

There are two groups of men and the balance does not seem quite right. In one group it is difficult to see beyond Netherlands and Russia for the semi-finals, though Spain and Estonia could cause an upset, but unlikely to go all the way, while in the other group there are strong teams from Germany, Italy, France and the Czech Republic. My tip for a quick return to the Worlds is Russia with Italy a strong second chance.

All the results are here.