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!