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.