Teams MacDonald and Muirhead look to retain their respective men’s and women’s titles at the Scottish Curling Championships 2016, in Perth next week.
The event (sponsored by Go Coco) takes place in Perth’s Dewars Centre on February 14-20, and involves 10 men’s and eight women’s teams.
At stake: the Scottish titles, and to right to represent Scotland in Basel, Switzerland, from April 2-10 (for the men) and in Swift Current, Canada, from March 19-27 (for the women).
The teams fighting it out for the men’s title are those of Tom Brewster, Cameron Bryce, Robin Brydone, Moray Combe, Grant Hardie, Ewan MacDonald, Scott Macleod, Bruce Mouat, David Murdoch and Kyle Smith.
The holders, MacDonald, have entered fewer events than many of their rivals – their highlights being runners-up at the Braehead Open in September, semi-finalists at the Edinburgh International in November and winner of the Aberdeen City Open just last weekend, although of the teams they’ll face in Perth, only Macleod were in Aberdeen.
Like last year, where they beat Murdoch in the final, MacDonald go into this as underdogs, bizarre given they’re going for three in a row.
So who are the favourites? Going on form, it can only be Team Murdoch. They shook off a slow start to the season, reaching the GSOC Canadian Open quarter-finals in December and, later that month, winning the Karuizawa International.
Last month, they made the last four at the Perth Masters and then won the German Masters in Hamburg. Simply put, they’re the hottest Scots form-wise.
But Murdoch won’t have it easy, not least from Tom Brewster and Kyle Smith’s rinks. Brewster’s season has been somewhat up and down, but they have been runners-up at the Baden Masters (August) and Dumfries’ Lely Challenge (December), as well as winning the men’s title at the Curling Night in America event, also in December.
Smith, meanwhile, won the European playdowns to represent Scotland in Esbjerg – they had a shaky start in the playdowns, and at the Europeans themselves they fell to a W1 L4 record before winning four straight games to force a tiebreaker with Team Edin… the Swedes squeezed through that match and went on to win the title.
So just as it would be silly to dismiss MacDonald’s challenge, don’t rule out Smith – even if (or perhaps especially if) they start with a few losses. Once they’ve got momentum, they’re hard to stop.
Those teams aside, it’s a field inexperienced at the top level. Team Hardie won the first two Scottish Curling Tour events of the season, in Braehead and Dumfries, while Teams Bryce and Brydone have had success in the Asham Under-21 Slams and European Junior Curling Tour events.
But if you’re looking for a dark horse, how about Team Mouat? They started winning events in November and haven’t really stopped.
Having made the last four at the Challenge Chateau Cartier de Gatineau, beating Teams Michel and Epping (twice!) and only going out to Team Gushue, they won the OVCA Junior Superspiel in Ottawa, then the Forfar Open on the Scottish Curling Tour and Lely Challenge on the Champions Curling Tour.
It’s a season which has also seen skip Bruce Mouat win the Scottish Mixed Doubles with Gina Aitken, the team make the Perth Masters quarters before succumbing to Team Ulsrud, and just a couple of weekends ago they won the Scottish Junior Championships.
The variety of those events, at both junior and men’s levels, shows the Mouat rink can stand toe-to-toe with the big boys. So a serious challenge from them in Perth would come as no surprise.
Verdict: Murdoch’s rink have the experience and pedigree – they also have the form. But it’s a competitive field, with both established teams and hungry youngsters. Mouat in particular are capable of making the playoffs like last year… maybe even the final.
Eve Muirhead’s defending champions face the rinks of Gina Aitken, Karina Aitken, Hannah Fleming, Lauren Gray, Sophie Jackson, Katie Murray and Lesley Young.
The Muirhead rink are big, big favourites. So consistent have they been over the last five years it’s now almost impossible to think of another women’s team representing Scotland at a major championship.
As if to underline the gap, while Muirhead were in Las Vegas as part of Team World at the Continental Cup, the six Scottish teams competing in the Glynhill Ladies International all missed out on the playoffs.
It’s been a satisfactory few months for Eve’s ladies. Coach Dave Hay told me in Esbjerg that he felt they were playing considerably better than at this stage last season. And many of their defeats – in the Stockholm Ladies Cup final, GSOC Canadian Open semi-finals and European Championships final, for example – have come against some of the most in-form teams in women’s curling: Homan, Jones and Sidorova.
But even if you remove form, focus and fitness from the equation… well, I have two words for you: Team Hanna.
Team Homan were the best rink in the world between September and December, but won’t be at their national championships after Hanna beat them in the Ontario Scotties final – shocks happen, and especially when it comes down to one game, the ‘big name’ doesn’t always win.
So who are the teams looking to shock Muirhead? Teams Fleming, runners-up last year, and Gray again look likeliest to push them closest.
Fleming made the semi-finals of the Medicine Hat Charity Classic in November, but otherwise the quarter-finals have been their limit – although their run to the last eight of the Bernese Ladies Cup in January was an impressive one.
Gray took a few months to really get going this season but finished runners-up to Muirhead in the European playdowns in October, won the Lely Challenge in Dumfries in December, and this last weekend finished third at the Aberdeen City Open.
Dark horses? The most impressive junior teams this season have been those of Jackson and Murray.
Murray were overall Asham Under-21 Slam winners after claiming titles in Kinross, Inverness and Lockerbie, and came fourth at the EJCT event in Thun in November, while last month they were runners-up at the Scottish Junior Championships…
…To Jackson, who also won the Braehead Junior International in September, were semi-finalists at the Kinross U21 Slam and Forfar Open, and gained international experience at the OVCA Junior Superspiel in November – more of that to come at the World Junior Championships next month of course.
Verdict: Muirhead are expected to do the business once again, although the no-second-chances final increases the chance of an upset. Gray look best placed to profit from a slip-up, while it’ll be interesting to see how Jackson and Murray manage the step up from their success at junior level.
The championships begin with the first men’s draw at 1pm on Sunday, February 14. For the full draw, team line-ups and (when the event has started) linescores, see the Royal Caledonian Curling Club competition page here.
And there are also plans in the works for some games to be covered shot-by-shot on CurlingGeek – more on that to come.