Thursday, February 26, 2015

England's Girls are at the World Junior Championship

England's Junior women have arrived in Tallinn for the World Junior Curling Championship and this is a historic moment for  English curling. Three times previously, (1993, 1998 and 1999) a team of English boys had qualified to play in the World Championships with a best finish of 8th in both 1993 and 1998. They had had to play in a World Championship Challenge at that time as well - though their performance in 1998 qualified them direct for the Worlds in 1999, but this is the first time that England has been represented in the Junior Women's World Championship.

Six years ago I took the first team of English girls to play in an International Competition to the European Junior Challenge in Copenhagen. Since the opening of Fenton's Rink in 2004 there had been a steady flow of junior curlers and now we had found a team to go out and challenge the World - well the rest of Europe initially!

Here are the girls at Fenton's before they set off:

Left to right - Anna Fowler (skip), Sophie Hickling (3rd), Kate McKenzie (2nd), Naomi Robinson (lead / alternate), Hetty Garnier (lead / alternate)

And we had our supporting entourage as well - yours truly, Vicky McKenzie, Jules Fowler and Felicity Robinson all ready to wave the flags for England.

It was a small field that year - just 11 countries - and so the girls teams were split into 2 groups - we were in a group of 5 along with France, Germany, Finland and Slovakia - a tough task for our inexperienced team but they got off to the best possible start when they defeated Slovakia by 9-1! The Slovakians had played in  a previous year and so had some experience at this level and so for Anna and her team this was an unbelieveable start and spirits rose. One interesting thing about the Slovakian team was that at least 3 of them were deaf and they used various hand signals for sweeping calls.

After a session off it was Finland next and reality struck hard - we were 7-0 down after 2 ends and eventually lost 11-2 after 7. Next it was France and 9-0 down after 2 ends led to a 16-3 defeat. Finally Germany and a 12-0 defeat after 6!! So a chastening end to a week that started off well but lessons were learnt and thoughts turned to Prague a year later.

One thing that was required was a coach and we found one in the form of Ian Baxter, who was living down South and playing at Fenton's - Scottish Junior Champion in 1990 with Graeme Connal he went to Prague with a revised team. Sophie and Kate were gone and replaced by Lauren Pearce and Madeline Tuz, 2 more graduates from the Fenton's junior programme. Hetty had moved to third and Naomi to second.

Hopes were high that progress would be made in a 10 team competition that meant 9 round-robin games before the play-offs - a tough schedule. By the end of the week though all dreams had been shattered when the team failed to register a win  - Finland (3-7), Slovakia (4-8), Denmark (0-12), Italy (5-6), Spain (7-8), Norway (4-9), Germany (5-6), Estonia (4-6) and Poland (3-7). There were some close games in there though - the Spanish loss was at an extra end -  but still some first end nightmares ( losing a 6 v Norway for example).

Ian Baxter was unable to commit to another year and so we approached Greg Dunn, a Canadian who was playing at Fenton's and had experience of coaching / junior curling at home. Another Canadian recruit was a young girl, just 15 years old, who had been brought up in British Columbia and had taken up curling and been to various camps etc. over there. Her father is English and so when she appeared at Fenton's, having moved to a village just 15 minutes away, she was eligible to represent England without any wait to achieve residency qualifications. Her name was Angharad Ward and she was immediately drafted into the team in place of Madeline Tuz.

It was back to Prague in 2011 and the new coach made his mark by getting the whole team (and the boys team) to do some runs around the rink as a penalty for being late for a meeting! I accompanied them on this occasion and we began to see that week the beginnings of the progress which had been absent the previous year. Another tough week with 8 games to be played in the round-robin and things did not start well - 2-6 v Spain and 1-10 v Italy, but then a win - against Slovakia by 8-3 and hopes rose. A loss against the top team Germany was followed by a second victor, against Estonia by 5-2, and then another one - 4-2 v Poland. Finally two more defeats - 3-5 v Norway and 0-6 v Denmark. So 3 wins and 5 losses and still not troubling the top teams - but the team were starting to understand the nuances of the game and to get the experience of International competition.

Copenhagen called in 2012 and Greg needed some help and up stepped Kerr Alexander - nominally to coach the boys' team but also assisting Greg with the girls. Angharad was unable to play this year as she was involved in the Winter Youth Olympics for the GB team and was needed for pre-Games practice and so Lucy Sparks came in as alternate. This was also Anna's last year and she meant to go out on a high.

Left to right - Greg Dunn Lucy Sparks, Lauren Pearce, Naomi Robinson, Hetty Garnier and Anna Fowler. Compare to the previous picture!!!

Nine teams again and another 8 game round-robin. Wins were recorded against Denmark (5-2), Slovakia (6-2), Hungary (9-4), Spain (6-3), Poland (6-5) and Germany (8-6) and there were two defeats by Italy (3-5 after extra end) and Estonia (3-8). However this meant that England finished second in the round-robin and would play a semi-final against Denmark. This was a very low-scoring game with neither side willing to gamble but eventually Denmark won by 3-1though they then lost in the final to Italy who therefore went to the Worlds.

It was back to Prague in 2013 and the major change was, of course, that Anna was no longer a junior, and neither was Lauren, and so Hetty stepped up to the mark to lead the team, Angharad returned to the team at third, Naomi stayed at second, Lucy moved in at lead and Niamh Fenton was the new alternate. Neither Greg nor Kerr was able to commit the time to travel with the team and so Andrew Woolston and myself were this year’s coaches for both the girls and the boys.

There were 12 teams split into 2 groups of 6 and it started off extremely well, when following a close defeat by Hungary (3-4), there was a win over old rivals Denmark by 5-3 in a game where Hetty was marked as playing 95%. However this was followed by a 3-10 defeat by Poland although a victory over Latvia by 6-4 meant that there was still a chance of finishing in the top 2 of the group if Turkey could be beaten, but this was not to be and a 5-3 victory for Turkey left England 4th in the group when a win would actually have meant that they finished top based on the DSC which would have been needed to separate them from Denmark and Hungary. So 3 wins out of 5 – close but still not there.

It was a new venue for 2014 – Lohja in Finland and while the team stayed the same the coach changed again and Sara Jahodova was recruited. Sara is from the Czech Republic and has played for her country at the World Championship , though she currently lives in England. Her partner, Radek Bohac provided some assistance but it was a tough time for her to look after 2 teams.

Once again there were 12 teams divided into 2 groups of 6 and the English campaign got off to the worst possible start when they ran out of time in the first game against Hungary and automatically lost the game! However, the girls bounced back and won their next 4 games – Germany (4-3), Latvia (7-2), Estonia (6-4) and Finland (13-0) to finish second behind Hungary and next was a quarter-final v Norway which was won well by 8-2 but the semi-final against Italy saw a disappointing 2-9 loss. With a bronze medal at stake in their final game they won an extra end decision against Poland and those medals by 7-6. So all the time it was getting closer but time was running out a little bit – astonishingly Hetty had now played in 6 EJCC but she still had three years eligibility left, as had Angharad and Lucy, but Naomi was done to just 2 and so 2015 would be a critical year.

This year they did it.

After 6 previous attempts the England Junior Women qualified for the World Junior Championship with a fairly dominant display at the European Junior Challenge in Prague. A look at their scores emphasises how much better they were than the majority of the other teams they met, but it was the semi-final against Hungary that was a true measure of their improved quality and maturity. After wins by 14-1 against Spain, 9-1 against Slovenia and 8-1 against Slovakia there were two narrow wins against Poland (5-2) and Turkey (4-2) before a defeat by Italy (2-7) in the last round robin game when they had already guaranteed finishing top in their group.

A quarter –final win against Latvia by 7-1 was followed by their toughest game of the competition against Hungary who were runners-up last year. It was 5-2 for England after 6 ends and then Hungary scored 3 at the 7th leaving Hetty Garnier with a hit and stick to win the game in the 8th end which she did perfectly. Against Turkey in the final it was back to routine with a staggering 9-1 win in just 6 ends rounding off an incredible week and sending the girls to the World Championships in Estonia at the beginning of March.

Congratulations to Hetty Garnier, Angharad Ward, Naomi Robinson, Lucy Sparks and Niamh Fenton who were ably coached by Sara Jahodova. Unfortunately Sara cannot go to Estonia with them as coach owing to work commitments but they will be coached there by John Sharp who has worked with the majority of the team at the European Championships over the past couple of seasons.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Must do better.....

With best wishes for 2015 to you all, my New Year resolution is to do a lot more posting on this neglected blog - it may take a while for the readers to come flocking back but let us hope I can do better than 2014. It is not as if I have not been involved in curling since then - maybe I have had too much involvement!!

And my first excuse for writing less can hardly be deemed an excuse - after all if I retired in May, I should have had more time to do lots of things but as anyone in my situation will say - I do not know how I ever had time to work!!

To divert from the curling for a paragraph or two - my other passion in life is motor racing - not participating as I have never had the money to do so, but spectating. My father first took me to see motor racing at Ingliston in July 1966 and after a few more visits that year and in 1967 I became a regular at the circuit where the Royal Caledonian Curling Club headquarters are these days. In fact the RCCC offices are approximately behind the building in this old photo of Willie Forbes from Aberdeen in 1966.

The circuit closed in 1992 but I had long ago moved away by then and discovered the pleasures of the wind-swept spectating facilities at Silverstone and other old airfield circuits in England.

Previous to 1966 I remember having been to a couple of go-kart meetings at Larkhall and Ingliston and so to celebrate my 60th birthday I decided that this year I would celebrate 50 years of being a motor racing spectator and would visit a race meeting at every circuit currently operating on the UK mainland - there are 15 in total and the full story of my travels can be found  on another blog at  while you can see lots of photos at my Flickr page -

Most of those trips did of course take place outwith the curling season and so that is not really an excuse for not writing either!!

So how about a quick catch up on my curling activities since last March!!

As part of my role on the WCF's Competition and Rules Commission I attended meetings of the commission at the Women's World Championships in Saint John, New Brunswick in March. We spent 3 days going through the new rules which we were going to propose to the WCF Congress in September. The Athletes' Commission would receive our proposals for comment and addition / amendment before they were finally worded for the proposals. By the time this happened there were a number of changes to our original proposals and some of them were eventually put aside for further refinement and discussion.

The aim is not to change rules for the sake of change but to try and make the game more attractive to sponsors, television and spectators and to make sure that the skills of the best players are fairly rewarded. We also need to preserve the integrity of the game and not to reduce it to the level say of 20-20 cricket, which to me is nothing more than a contest to see who can hit it hardest and farthest in the shortest time with no nod at all to the traditions of the game.

The English Curling Association, in a change to normal practice, held its AGM at Fenton's rink in Kent in April, combining the meeting with a bonspiel. The aim was to try and attract more people to come to the AGM which had failed to reach a quorum in the two previous years. Unfortunately this disenfranchised the members of the Northern clubs, Glendale and Preston, but it did mean that some changes to the constitution which had been set aside for the previous two years could now be proposed and approved.

There were no major issues to discuss, though some minor changes were made to the rules which govern how we play our Championships and the changes to the constitution now allow for members to call an EGM if they consider it necessary. Membership of the ECA continues to fall in spite of the presence of a curling rink with the Northern clubs in particular losing members at the top of the age range and not attracting younger members to their ranks. A new wheelchair club was accepted into the ECA - the Cumbria Wheelchair Curling Club.

The next stop on my curling tour was Dumfries (the town of my birth) for the World Senior and Mixed Doubles Championships. My role there was to coach the Senior Women's team which had come together mid-season but, until a weekend at Fenton's a month before, had never played together! I was helping out with our Mixed Doubles team. Seen below are the whole squad at the opening ceremony

A great competition all round with a wonderful welcome from the local organising committee and volunteers. The Senior Women (Jean Robinson, Judith Dixon, Susan Young, Debbie Higgins and Jackie Orr) exceeded their expectations and won 3 games against the Czech Republic, Austria and Japan and lost close games to the USA and Sweden, though Slovakia and New Zealand were too good for them. Seen below looking happy before the competition are (left to right) Jean, Debbie, Judith, Susan and Jackie

 And that was the end of the 2013-14 season. Personally I had played 64 games with a success rate of just 43% in spite of winning a couple of weekend competitions. This followed on an even less successful 2012-13 (38%) and it made me look long and hard about the competitions I wanted to enter the following year and also about where (and even if) I should be playing in various teams. I felt certain that I would not be playing mixed doubles for example as watching at the World Championships had made me realise that this discipline was very much for the younger and fitter athlete! Was I still enjoying myself at skip or would I be happy to drop down the order and let others take the decisions. The new season was a few months away and maybe the fact that I would be retired by then would alter my attitude.

Those few months (during which I attended the WCF Umpire course in Fussen and then the WCF Congress in Reno!) passed quickly though  and all of a sudden it was decision time!! I would continue to travel to Kent once a fortnight to play league games there and to help with the junior coaching, I would defend the Welsh Bonspiel I had won with the same team (though there was one late change) and would go to Stranraer for the I'Anson Trophy (again with the same team). I would drop down from skip for the Duncan Stewart Trophy (which is an individual entry anyway) and would not seek to enter a team for the ECA Championships or the ECA Senior Championships but would wait and see if I was asked!! A risky strategy you might say but one I was happy with.

In the end I have been asked to play in the ECA Championships, which will be held at Dumfries in February, when I will be playing lead or second - this will be my 33rd participation in those Championships since 1982, having only missed out in 1984 when I had hurt my back lifting furniture in the office, and I was also asked to play in the European Seniors at Greenacres as a replacement.

My tour of the motor racing circuits of Britain finished on the 5th October and the curling season began with a league game at Fenton's on the 7th October!! My first weekend was the ECA Duncan Stewart Trophy at Kinross in October - great to be back there in the new rink and it was good to have a full turnout of 24 players to remember Duncan's work for English curling. His widow, Mary, was there to present the prizes to the winning team of John Sharp, Susan Young, Val Saville and Carol Lyon.

As the Welsh Bonspiel was the following weekend I stayed in Scotland and thence to Greenacres to defend the trophy I won last year with Lana Watson, Alison Barr and replacement Steve Amann (Donald Forbes had to drop out because of a new arrival in his family). A good start in winning the first game by 13-2 was followed by a disaster against Andrew Woolston when we lost a 7 (with the hammer)!! Andrew went on to win the competition and we struggled through 2 more games (winning 6-5 and 4-3) to surprisingly find ourselves in the B final against Ken Horton in a repeat of last year's A final. As last year it was a close game decided really by a 3 at one end - last year we got the 3 and this year it was Ken and so 4th overall was our final position.

Back home for ten days and then it was back to Greenacres for the European Invitation Seniors where I played for ECA President Tommy Campbell as a replacement for Mike Robinson who was unable to travel up from Kent. Five games there playing lead and second were enjoyable and mostly stress - free as I stayed for the most part out of the decision making process and concentrated on surviving more sweeping in one week than I think I had done for quite a few years!

After 4 days at home, it was another drive up to Scotland, this time to Stranraer for the Preston CC I'Anson Trophy weekend - always good fun but now packed with a lot of good teams practising for various Championships! The Welsh National men's team, for example, skipped by Adrian Meikle won for the third consecutive year while the English National women's team came second!! A full turnout of 16 teams reflected the hard work done by Phil Barton of the Preston club and my main achievement of the weekend was to avoid either of the early morning starts which are reserved for those teams in the bottom half of the Schenkel rankings though I did manage to cement my reputation as the king of the peeled game - two finished at 5-5, a similar situation to 2 seasons ago - and with the same scores too!!

Another 4 days at home and it was time to go to the European Championships, but in those 4 days I paid three visits to the Beckworth Emporium which is about 40 minutes from my home. This was prompted by an email I had received which said :

Each year the Emporium undergoes a major transformation when part of its garden nursery section is turned into a 520 square metre ice rink for the winter – and new for this, its fifth year in operation, it is offering visitors the chance to try their hand at curling! It has sourced some stones specially and I know that a number of local bowls clubs (among others) have booked to try their hand at the ‘winter version’ of their sport!

My first visit was on the Monday on the way back from Stranraer and the ice rink was flooded - the plant had broken down but I did get to see the stones they had sourced:

These are two of them - apparently they had bought 8 of them from somebody in Scotland for £900. They had no idea what they were buying and had not thought to contact anybody in the ECA until they had done so. They were due to start curling sessions the following week and so action was required, especially as one of the stones had a rusted together loose handle and another had a bolt standing proud of the bottom of the stone and therefore catching on the ice.

Of course they would not be playing 'real' curling - the rink was not long enough, the ice was not going to be properly scraped or pebbled (it was only a small rink), they had embedded circles in the ice which were about 4 feet in diameter (as used in New Age Kurling in church halls). Also they only had two (admittedly new) brushes and had not thought about hacks!!!

The following day (Tuesday) I returned to the emporium with 12 brushes and a pair of hacks I had in my garage - the ice was melted again - another call to the suppliers and it looked like it would be OK the next day. As it was a Tuesday I was going to Fenton's to play and at Fenton's the London Curling Club has stored its supply of brand new reconditioned stones (well half of them are actually in Sheffield) and so I quickly put 4 yellow handles and 4 red handles on 8 stones and took them home with me that night and delivered them to the Emporium on the Wednesday (my poor car was racking up the miles at an exponential rate it seemed). At last there was some ice and so a quick lesson with the staff who were going to be running the curling and they were all set.

Now they were not going to be sliding at all and the distance between hacks and circles was a maximum of 12 metres - and sometimes reduced because of ice conditions - so what they were playing was target curling - but all 8 stones would never fit into the small target area anyway!! The curling was advertised for a maximum of 8 people - so one stone each but with an 'end' taking perhaps just 5 minutes they got plenty of throws in their 2 hour slot.

To add another surreal element to the game, the players were equipped with anti-slip protectors such as elderly people might wear to stop falling over on icy pavements!!

So all the elements you might think for a PR disaster of immense proportions. To try and add a bit of background and to explain about the differences between real curling and Emporium curling I went up a further 5 times to the sessions (which were only held three times a week owing to pressure from skating - sounds familiar) and you know what - everybody was loving it!! I got a few brave souls to take off their protectors but most were happy to keep them on. The last day I went up was very mild and it had been raining and there they were splashing around in an inch of water and still having fun (and still getting the stones to the house)!

The Emporium plans to run it again next year but with a bit more advance notice maybe we can improve things - watch this space next year for an update. What it did prove to me was that as long as people can achieve their aim - which in this case was getting the stones into the circle  - and there is a competitive element, especially among work colleagues or family members it does not really matter that the conditions were pretty poor - they are generally going to enjoy it. We also had a group of people with learning disabilities who thoroughly enjoyed pushing the stones to the targets with the brooms - again next year I shall source some cues instead.

After setting the up at the Emporium it was off to Champery for the European Championships. The England teams were both down in Monthey in the B Division - a 20 minute bus ride from the main centre. This was a repeat of the arrangements in 2010 but this year there was a total lack of snow except on the mountain tops which helped with the transport efficiency.

The men finished top of their group, with just one loss in their last game against Israel when they were already assured of their top position. This meant a 1v1 play-off against Finland which was lost 2-8 and to cap a disastrous Thursday this was followed by defeat against Netherlands by 4-10 in the semi-final, including the loss of a 6! The next day, however, a battling performance against Hungary saw a win by 8-5 and the bronze medals. The team was Alan MacDougall, Andrew Reed, Andrew Woolston, Tom Jaeggi and Ben Fowler, with myself as the coach.

The women had won the bronze medal in the B Division last year and this year they were very keen to improve on that. One change in the team saw Angharad Ward replace Hetty Garnier at third while another was the replacement as alternate of  Lucy Sparks by Sarah Decoine. The girls won 5 of their 9 games to finish tied in 4th position in the Division with Hungary and Turkey. However, under the new rules introduced by the WCF only one tie-breaker is now played in competitions and with each team having one win and one loss against the other two it went to the Draw Shot Challenge scores and of the three countries England had the worst which meant that they were eliminated while Hungary and Turkey played the tie-breaker. So heartbreaking all round for the girls who had played very well to beat Italy in their last game to keep their hopes alive.

The England women with their coach John Sharp. Left to right - Angharad Ward, Sarah Decoine, Anna Fowler (skip), Naomi Robinson and Lauren Pearce.

And that was me nearly finished with curling before Christmas - but not quite! Two days back from Switzerland and another trip to Kent for the final league game which we lost 1-10, but even with that result we finished second in the league and thus qualified for the final two weeks later.

And then a final trip to Scotland, to Dumfries for the ECA Senior Championships. And for the first time we had a women's Championship alongside the men. Last season's women's team at the Worlds had split into two separate teams and added some extra players including the return of Joan Reed who had played for England at the Senior Worlds in 2003 -2005 and 2007 and 2008, winning a bronze medal in 2003. This best of 5 Championship went all the way to a 5th game before Judith Dixon (skip), Joan Reed, Val Saville and Debbie Higgins (pictured below) finally subdued Jean Robinson, Susan Young, Jackie Orr and Wilma McIntyre. For Val in particular it was an amazing experience - she had first approached us in Dumfries at the Worlds back in April as an English curler living in Stirlingshire and she was quickly embraced by the ECA as a possible member. Now here she was winning the right to represent England at the World Championships just a year later!

Having come so close last year (the 6th end of the 5th game when he lost a 6), John Summers won the men's Championship this year, beating Tommy Campbell by 3 games to 1. He and his team of Charles Jackson, David Sillito and Andrew Taylor will therefore join the women in Sochi in April.

And then there was just time to play the league final at Fenton's before Christmas - and to finish off the first half of the season with first competition victory - coming from behind to win 7-6 and to qualify for the all-league-winners event in April.

The final news before Christmas was that Stephen Hinds' application to build a three lane curling rink in an existing barn near Bracknell in Berkshire hadd been turned down by the local Council Planning Committee. Stephen will be going to appeal and we can only hope that the Inspector is more enlightened than the local Councillors.

The first main event of 2015 is the 4 Nations weekend which the ECA is hosting at Fenton's Rink between the 16th and 18th January.With 30 players arriving from Scotland and around 16 from Ireland and from Wales we are in for a busy time with 9 sessions of play between 1800 on Friday and Sunday afternoon. More about that in a future blog.

With lots of good wishes for 2015.