The Scottish Curling Championships return to Perth this weekend, with Teams Brewster and Muirhead aiming to retain their respective men’s and women’s titles.
We’ve past the ‘one year to go’ mark to the 2018 Winter Olympics, which means the stakes are raised up a notch – these championships are not just about the Scottish titles, or Worlds qualification, but also about making a statement in the race to Pyeongchang.
With the Roaring Game Blog joining curlers and fans in descending on Perth, here is a guide to the teams in contention and what’s in store over the week.
KEY CONTENDERS – MEN
Team Brewster have put themselves in the box seat for Pyeongchang by winning last year’s Scottish Championships, and then qualifying for the 2016 European Championships in Braehead.
The Euros didn’t go to plan for the Brewster rink, but in the last couple of months they have won the Karuizawa International and Perth Masters, and of course you would expect them to be up there again in the Fair City.
Tom Brewster’s GB team-mates in Sochi in 2014, Team Murdoch, would seem to be running out of chances to return to the Olympics, having failed to represent their country in the three years since those last Games.
They’re the top-ranked Scottish rink this season though – currently 12th in the World Curling Tour Order of Merit, ahead of Team Smith in 14th and Team Brewster in 18th – and skip David Murdoch is a serial winner of this competition (as were his team from 2011-13).
But they have found their route to major championships blocked in recent years – often by Brewster – so, should they both reach the final this year, will Murdoch finally be able to turn the tables?
There’s no guarantee of a Brewster-Murdoch final, mind you, as Team Smith have enjoyed a superb season in winning the OCT Oakville title and reaching a first Grand Slam of Curling final at the Tour Challenge.
If they put a run of wins together they’re very hard to stop, so don’t rule out a first Scottish title for Kyle Smith and co this year.
KEY CONTENDERS – WOMEN
Defending champions Team Muirhead arrive in Perth, once again, as big favourites – their skip is going for her seventh Scottish title after all.
Naturally Eve and co are favourites to represent GB in Pyeongchang too, and have brought Lauren Gray in at lead and Glenn Howard as tactical coach with the aim of upgrading on the bronze won in Sochi.
And it’s not been a bad season so far for the re-jigged line-up, with tour victories in Basel and Glasgow (the Glynhill Ladies International), plus European bronze.
With last year’s second-placed skip, Gray, now in the Muirhead ranks, their main adversaries would seem to come in the form of Team Fleming.
Having brought Jen Dodds and Vicky Wright on board, the Fleming rink have had an excellent season, reaching finals at the Stockholm Ladies Cup, Red Deer Classic and Qinghai China International, and rising to 29th in the WCT Order of Merit.
Their head-to-heads with Muirhead have tended to go the way of the more experienced skip, but these championships gives Fleming the perfect chance to show how much that gap has narrowed this year.
DARK HORSES – MEN
There’s nothing like a gold medal to perk you up before a(nother) major competition, and that’s just what Team Mouat achieved at the Winter University Games in Kazakhstan earlier this month.
The reigning Junior World Champions certainly have the talent and pedigree to cause a major headache for Brewster, Murdoch et al.
As do Team Hardie, who were impressive at the last Scottish Champs and have once again performed well on the Scottish Curling Tour, clinching the overall tour crown with one event remaining.
They like pulling off an upset these boys, so don’t be surprised if they put a few noses out of joint on their way to a playoff spot.
Hardie themselves were upset in the Forfar Open final by relative newcomers Team Fraser – they have a former Scottish champion in Ruairidh Greenwood, and it will be interesting to see how they fare against the more established names.
DARK HORSES – WOMEN
Team G Aitken were, like Team Mouat, at the World University Games, and narrowly missed out on a playoff place after losing a tiebreaker against Switzerland.
They have gained valuable experience on tour this season too, and will be eager to prove that a Fleming v Muirhead final is far from a formality.
(One stone at a time, one game at a time… I know, I know.)
Younger rinks Team K Aitken – Scottish Junior runners-up this year – and Team MacDonald – 2017 Asham Under 21 Slam winners – are also ones to look out for.
THE BIG MATCH(ES)
The 10 men’s rinks and seven women’s will play round robin games from Sunday, February 19 to Thursday, February 23.
Some match-ups to look out for include:
Murdoch v Smith (Monday Feb 20 at noon) – the first clash between probable title contenders on the men’s side.
Fleming v Muirhead (Monday Feb 20 at 4pm) – the two highest-ranked women’s teams look to land an early psychological blow.
Brewster v Smith (Monday Feb 20 at 8pm) – big day for Team Smith this one, with their second game versus a 2016 finalist, and also Glen Muirhead v Thomas Muirhead.
G Aitken v K Aitken (Tuesday Feb 21 at 8am) – more sibling rivalry, this time between skips in the women’s section.
Brewster v Murdoch (Wednesday Feb 22 at noon) – a repeat of last year’s final, the two big favourites… let’s hope it’s better than their 2016 round robin meeting, which was over far too quickly.
G Aitken v Fleming (Wednesday Feb 22 at 4pm) – two teams looking to close the gap to Muirhead. Who will come out on top?
Hardie v Mouat (Wednesday Feb 22 at 8pm) – outside of the big three of Brewster, Murdoch and Smith, these rinks look best equipped to challenge.
Tiebreakers (if required) will take place on Thursday Feb 23 at 6.30pm, ahead of the page playoffs (Feb 24 at noon), semi-finals (Feb 24 at 7pm), women’s final (Feb 25 at 11am) and men’s final (Feb 25 at 4pm).
The Royal Caledonian Curling Club event page will have all the team line-ups, linescores and standings during the week, and of course I will be doing my best to bring updates via the Roaring Game Blog Facebook and Twitter.
Although the BBC will be filming at the championships, with highlights to be broadcast the week after the event finishes, there will be no live streaming of matches.
The fourth best way to enjoy curling, so says the tagline, is CurlingGeek, and I will endeavour to cover as many games as possible from Monday… hopefully with fewer trolls than last year.
That said, if you can make it to Perth for a day or two, watching (for free) from the friendly fans’ viewing area above the sheets is heartily recommended – it’s only the finals on Saturday which require tickets via Eventbrite.