Today sees the start of the qualifying showdown for the European Curling Championships, as four men’s and three women’s teams battle for the right to represent Scotland in Esbjerg, Denmark, next month.
Which teams are competing in Perth this week, and who stands the best chance of emerging victorious? Well, let The Roaring Game Blog be your guide to the European Playdowns.
Team Brewster (Tom Brewster, Glen Muirhead, Ross Paterson, Hammy McMillan)
The Brewster rink have gained experience aplenty on the Curling Champions Tour and World Curling Tour, this setting them up well for a shot at the main international stage.
In last season’s European Playdowns they were beaten by Team Edwards in a tie-breaker, and then failed to make the playoff spots at the Scottish Championship.
They nearly got this season off to a dream start, reaching the final of the Baden Masters in August, only to lose to Team Edin of Sweden. However, from there, results have been on something of a slide downwards – semi finalists in the first Grand Slam of Curling event of the season, the Tour Challenge (tier 2), quarter finalists at the HDF Insurance Shoot-Out, and going out with a W1 L3 record at the Swiss Cup Basel earlier this month.
Given the team’s quality and Tom Brewster’s experience in the big games, though, you’d be wrong to rule them out of having a good week here.
Team MacDonald (Ewan MacDonald, David Edwards, Ruairidh Greenwood, Euan Byers)
A team packed with European and World Championship nous, reigning Scottish champion Ewan MacDonald has added David Edwards, Scotland’s skip at last year’s Europeans, to his World Championship rink from last year.
Last season’s European Playdowns saw Team MacDonald finish bottom of the pile on a W2 L4 record from the double round robin, only to pip Murdoch to the national title in February, going on to finish joint 10th at the Worlds in Halifax.
There hasn’t been a great deal of competitive ice time for these boys yet this season. In the first Scottish Curling Tour event, the Braehead Open, they reached the final, but lost 6-5 to Team Hardie.
With all of their rivals in Perth playing tournaments on the continent and in Canada before these playdowns, Team MacDonald are underdogs. But what pedigree they have – and you’d just be silly to dismiss a rink skipped by the 2014 and ’15 Scottish champion.
Team Murdoch (David Murdoch, Greg Drummond, Scott Andrews, Michael Goodfellow)
These have been tough times for GB’s Sochi Olympians, as last season they were outshone by Team Brewster in Curling Champions Tour events and they reached the finals of the qualifiers for Europeans and Worlds, only to be foiled by Teams Edwards and MacDonald respectively.
Their limit this season has been the quarter finals – reaching that stage at the Baden Masters, Stu Sells Oakville Tankard and Shorty Jenkins Classic. They finished the Tour Challenge tier 1 event on a W1 L3 record, and then their most recent competition, the Swiss Cup Basel, on W2 L3.
Time for a change in fortunes? They’re a solid unit, honed through training and competition time together, and Murdoch is always capable of the big shots when needed.
Team Smith (Kyle Smith, Thomas Muirhead, Kyle Waddell, Cammy Smith)
Having built up their experience at the World University Games and junior tour events, Team Smith are ready to challenge the heavyweights.
They did not compete at last year’s European playdowns, and they narrowly missed out on earning a tiebreaker for a playoff spot at the 2015 Scottish Championships.
This season, with the return of Thomas Muirhead to the rink, they have been on fine form at the big events. Like Team Brewster, they reached the Tour Challenge tier 2 semis and the HDF Insurance Shoot-Out quarters. Then, at the Swiss Cup Basel, they defeated Team Ulsrud of Norway en route to the semi finals, where they lost to eventual winners Team Gushue, the Canadians hoovering up titles everywhere at the moment.
So Team Smith look to be the most in-form Scottish men’s team going into these playdowns. In what appears to be an incredibly open competition, that form could well carry them to the final. Qualification? Perhaps just a step too far, for now.
Team Fleming (Hannah Fleming, Lorna Vevers, Alice Spence, Abi Brown)
Hannah Fleming’s rink are showing the signs of having a very positive season, and probably their best chance of really challenging Team Muirhead.
Last season they finished bottom of the women’s European qualification standings behind Teams Muirhead and Gray, but in February they reached the Scottish Championship final, only to lose 6-5 to Team Muirhead… their fourth defeat to Eve’s rink of that competition.
The opening months of the 2015-16 season have seen them win three and lose three at the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard, lose all four games at the Stockholm Ladies Cup (caveat: they nearly beat Olympic champions Team Jones) and then reach the Women’s Master’s Basel quarter finals this past weekend, having beaten Team Nielsen of Denmark (fourth at the 2014 Europeans) on the way, only to lose to the eventual runners-up Team Tirinzoni.
Could they make it to Esbjerg? Of course. Naturally they will focus on their own game and playing to their maximum, but a lot too also depends on how Team Muirhead perform (see below). Qualification is certainly possible, but it’s still an outside chance.
Team Gray (Lauren Gray, Jen Dodds, Vicky Wright, Mhairi Baird)
Team Muirhead’s closest challengers at last season’s European playdowns, Team Gray made the best-of-three final but lost to Eve and co 9-1 and 5-3. They then failed to reach the Scottish Championship playoffs with a W4 L6 record.
This season has seen them compete at the Shorty Jenkins Class (W1 L4) and the Stockholm Ladies Cup – where, like Team Fleming, they lost all four games (caveat: they nearly beat world champions Team Pätz).
It looks to be an uphill struggle for Team Gray to again make the final in Perth, never mind qualify. They’re going to need to find the form that took them one end away from victory over Pätz, and this time finish the job.
Team Muirhead (Eve Muirhead, Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams, Rachel Hannen)
It’s very generous of Team Muirhead to inject some extra intrigue into this women’s competition. Their lead Sarah Reid picked up an injury in Basel last week, leading to this tweet:
The fact is, Team Muirhead are well rehearsed in qualifying for these events – they’ve competed and medalled at every European Championships since 2010. They cruised through the playdowns last season, although they were given a tougher test at the Scottish Championships, losing twice in the pool stage before edging past Team Fleming in the final.
Their first three competitions of this season have seen them reach the Tour Challenge quarter finals (beaten by eventual runners-up Team Homan), the Stockholm Ladies Cup final (beaten by Team Homan again) and then the Women’s Masters Basel semi finals (beaten by eventual winners Team Sidorova).
Organising committee member Janine Greiner subbed in for them in Basel, and Rachel Hannen comes in for this week. It’s near impossible to describe a team containing Vicki Adams, Anna Sloan and Eve Muirhead as vulnerable, but losing their regular lead is certainly a blow – although probably not enough to prevent them going on to compete for yet another European medal.
Like last year, the competition will be played in a double round robin format (i.e. each men’s and woman’s team playing their male and female rivals twice), with the matches (up to 10 ends) deciding which teams make it into the best-of-three finals.
The event gets under way tonight at 7pm, with Brewster v Smith and MacDonald v Murdoch in the men’s competition and Fleming v Muirhead in the women’s – see the full draw here, with live scores appearing here.