Muirhead and Murdoch triumph: 2017 Scottish Curling Championships round-up

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CHAMPIONS: David Murdoch, Greg Drummond, Scott Andrews and Michael Goodfellow. Pic: RCCC/Brian Battensby 2017

Team Murdoch won the men’s title at the Scottish Curling Championships for the first time since claiming their 2014 Winter Olympic silver medals, while Team Muirhead clinched their third women’s title in succession.

Finals day began with Team Muirhead facing Team Fleming in the women’s title decider, and a three in end five and two in end eight gave Eve Muirhead’s rink a 6-4 victory and the skip her seventh title.

Teams Mouat and Murdoch, both on six-game winning runs, collided later in the afternoon, and David Murdoch’s men were ruthless in punishing Mouat mistakes, scoring four in end three and three in the fifth to triumph 10-4.

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Scottish Curling Championships Ladies Final 25.02.17
WOMEN’S WINNERS: Lauren Gray, Vicki Adams, Anna Sloan and Eve Muirhead. Pic: RCCC/Brian Battensby 2017

Team Muirhead (Eve Muirhead, Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams, Lauren Gray, Glenn Howard (coach)) went unbeaten through the tournament, with six wins in the round robin (see my review here) and victory over Team Smith in the 1v2 page playoff.

They had only just edged by Hazel Smith’s rink in the group stage, stealing two in end 10 to win 11-9, but they did a professional job on the same opponents in the playoff.

Twos in ends four and six propelled them to a 6-3 victory, putting them into the final and tipping Smith into a semi-final against Hannah Fleming’s rink.

Team Fleming (Hannah Fleming, Jen Dodds, Alice Spence, Vicky Wright, Nancy Smith (coach)) had endured a tough round robin, forcing a tiebreaker by beating Team Gina Aitken in their last match.

There they saw off Team Karina Aitken 8-4, putting them into the semi with Smith.

A third consecutive victory followed, as twos in ends one and three, plus three in end six, won them the match 9-6 and booked their spot in the final.

Team Fleming made the better start to that final, maintaining their composure and preventing the Muirhead rink getting an early jump on them, as it was tied at 1-1 after four ends.

Scottish Curling Championships Ladies Final 25.02.17
RUNNERS-UP: Vicky Wright, Alice Spence, Jen Dodds and Hannah Fleming. Pic: RCCC/Brian Battensby 2017

But a couple of fine shots from Sloan, and loose ones from Fleming, gave Muirhead the opportunity to hit for three, which she duly made for a 4-1 lead at halfway.

Fleming took a single in end six and stole one in end seven to narrow the gap to one, but Muirhead hit back with a two in the eighth end for a 6-3 lead which always looked difficult to pull back.

So it proved, Muirhead running out 6-4 winners for a third consecutive Scottish title (seventh in all) and passage to Worlds in Beijing (March 18-26).

Afterwards, Eve Muirhead said: “I think patience was a key factor out there. Right from the off Hannah and the girls played really well, and so did we.

“We knew we had a game on our hands, we expected that, and as a team we never get ahead of ourselves or get complacent, so we stayed patient and then got that little break in the fifth end, scored the three and that gave us a little jump ahead.

Adams added: “This is what we train for, we do a lot behind the scenes, not just on the ice, and we take each game as one game, we don’t get too ahead of ourselves.

“We individualise the games, break them down into stones, single ends, making it much easier to focus on that rather than the bigger picture.”

While Muirhead won her seventh title, and Sloan and Adams their sixth, it was a first success for lead Gray, who capped it with two perfect tick shots in the final end.

She said: “I’m so delighted to have won my first Scottish Championship; it was an absolute joy to be playing with the girls today.

“I’ve been working hard on the tick shots, as this is my first season as a lead, so I was really pleased to make them both in the 10th end.”

 

Muirhead also praised coach Glenn Howard, adding: “As soon as we brought him on board we knew he’d help us in a lot of different ways, especially on the tactical side, and that’s just what he’s done.

“I think he was more nervous than us today! But he’s been fantastic, and absolutely delighted to get his first Scottish title I guess – but now he has the Canadian Championship coming up next week, and we’re all behind him for that.”

Now the focus turns to the World Championships in China, on which Sloan said: “It’s a quick turnaround, so we’ll get back to training pretty quickly.

“We’re really looking forward to getting out there, the field will be tough this year as always, but we’re in a good place and we just need to build on our performances this week – I think we’ve been pretty consistent.

“We’re excited and looking forward to the challenge.”

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The men’s final was a meeting of the two form teams, with Team Mouat (Bruce Mouat, Bobby Lammie, Gregor Cannon, Derrick Sloan, Alasdair Schreiber (alternate), Alan Hannah (coach)) and Team Murdoch (David Murdoch, Greg Drummond, Scott Andrews, Michael Goodfellow, Ian Tetley (coach)) both on six-game winning streaks.

Team Murdoch had a slow start, but picked up the pace to finish on a W7 L2 record and top the standings – review of the men’s round robin here.

That put them into the 1v2 page playoff against Kyle Smith’s rink, and after a tight match Murdoch emerged victorious 4-3, stealing one in end six and taking their one down the last to make the final.

Team Mouat had to get there the hard way after a terrible Tuesday – losing heavily to Teams Murdoch and Whyte – and three wins on the trot forced a tiebreaker against Team Hardie, which they edged 5-4.

They faced defending champions Team Brewster in the 3v4 playoff, and steals in ends five and six, then a two in the ninth, gave them a 6-4 victory.

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SECOND SPOT: Bruce Mouat, Bobby Lammie, Gregor Cannon, Derrick Sloan, Alasdair Schreiber and Alan Hannah. Pic: RCCC/Brian Battensby 2017

Their semi-final with Team Smith was dramatic in the extreme, Mouat dominating the opening five ends and leading 4-2.

Two in end seven and successive steals looked to have swung it for Smith, but a disastrous final end saw them give up three, Mouat winning 7-6 to set up a Murdoch showdown.

It was a showdown which saw Murdoch clinically exploit little mistakes from Mouat, who was playing an aggressive game but seemed to run out of gas after their Universiade exploits and long week in Perth.

Draws came up short or were a touch wide, and after the teams traded twos in the first couple of ends, Murdoch exploded into a 9-3 lead after five ends, courtesy of four in end three and three in the fifth.

There were to be no miracles for Mouat to allow a comeback as Murdoch completed a professional job well done, handshakes offered in the eighth end with the score 10-4.

An elated David Murdoch reflected on a ruthless performance afterwards: “That’s how we wanted to be. We didn’t win our last two finals, and we wanted to make sure that as we were the more experienced team we came across with that authority, played our A game and put a lot of pressure on the guys.

“For a first final it’s quite daunting out there and we wanted to make sure we put them under as much pressure as we could.”

On his team, he said: “I’m super proud of them. We’ve had this as our goal for a long, long time and put in a ton of work.

“It’s not easy to win this championship; we’ve had a super week, and we look to keep that going and get a good result in the World Championships.

“It’s something the general public probably don’t see, the early starts, in the gym and on the ice; you need to have that amount of work put in to achieve that type of goal.

“We covered every aspect of this week, we wanted to make sure we left no stone unturned, and we certainly did that.”

Murdoch is under no illusions that competition at Worlds will be fierce, adding: “The World Championship a year before the Olympics is probably the toughest year; every team is coming up to their best at the end of the quadrennial.

“It’s in the lion’s den, in Edmonton, and we know how exciting that is – we’ve been there and done it plenty of times, and that excites us too.

“We need to be at our best as it’s going to be a tough fight. [But] I like our chances.

“I’ve said for a long time, although results might not have been going well this season at times, I always like the way we’re throwing it, and we just needed the extra challenge of the Scottish Championship, some good ice conditions, and we brought our best.”

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#scc2017 women’s round robin review

 

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MAKING IT: Hannah Fleming’s rink have made the playoffs despite a mixed week. Pic: Brian Battensby (brianbatphotography.co.uk)

Seven women’s teams have been cut to three for the later stages of the Scottish Curling Championships, with Teams Fleming, Muirhead and Smith left standing.

Team Muirhead won six from six in the round robin, though it was not easy – they may have started with an 11-1 romp against Team Gina Aitken, but against Team Smith it was very different.

Team Smith stole three in the first end, and although they scored four in end two, it was Smith who led 9-7 into end nine – only for Muirhead to score two and steal two to win a pulsating contest 11-9.

It was, you might say, a dress rehearsal for the 1v2 page playoff between them, and skip Eve Muirhead was pleased to have a tight game as preparation for the weekend.

“We’ve had a strong round robin,” she said, “and it’s always good to have those close games, down to the last stone, and seeing how the ice copes with that.

“It was a close game, but we battled hard after giving up a three early doors, we forced them to play a tough last shot and came away with the win.”

Coach Glenn Howard was equally pleased with how things have been going for the defending champions.

He said: “We’ve played really well this week and won a lot of games early, so it’s nice to get a game that goes to 10, as the ice can change, and we learned a ton from it.

“I’ve been so impressed – every game they’ve come out firing, made a ton of shots, high percentages, and not letting up despite getting an early lead.

“We’ve only been down a couple of times in the six games. [The Smith game] showed the girls have grit, they have what it takes to come back, and I like what I’m seeing.”

As for what Howard has brought to the table, Muirhead said: “Loads. We didn’t really think twice about who we wanted to ask to be our coach, and when Glenn said yes, that was special for me because he’s always been a legend to me, I’ve always looked up to him and watched him play.

“He’s brought so much to this team, we’re working well together, getting better and better, and developing a lot of aspects, and so far things have been good.”

In a playing sense, Muirhead said their coach ‘still has it’, and he was keen to get in some practice time himself during the week.

“Ironically I have a big event coming up myself, the Brier – you may have heard of it – and I’ve got to head out to St Johns next Thursday, so I’ve got to get a little practice in,” he said.

“My old body needs a little bit here and there.

“The conditions here are very similar to the ice I’m going to get at the Brier, so that’s a bonus for me.”

And coaching the Scottish champions?

“It’s been a blast,” he said. “It’s something new to me, I haven’t done a lot of coaching in the past.

“Eve sent me a message about a year ago, and because it’s Eve Muirhead and the girls, who I know really well, that was a big plus for me – and I have a big soft spot for Scotland, so those two together meant it was a no-brainer for me.

“It’s been a pleasure. The girls have been incredibly respectful, they listen to me but challenge what I’m saying too, so hopefully it’s a match made in heaven.”

With her Olympic dream on the back burner for now, Muirhead is focused on the weekend and claiming yet another Scottish title.

“Of course [the Olympics are] a motivation – ever since I threw my last stone in Sochi to get the bronze medal, I’m thinking about the next one and wanting to get better.

“So it’s always on your mind, but first things first, this is the Scottish Championships and this is what we focus on.”

The rink in her sights for the 1v2 playoff includes two former team-mates, Claire Hamilton and Sarah Reid, and they have had a fine week with Team Smith.

They won four and lost two, a 9-3 reverse against Team Gina Aitken turning out to be a blip, while they impressed against Team Muirhead in the last round robin match.

Hamilton said: “We were lucky enough that the game didn’t really matter, so it was a nice chance to play them for the first time this season – one of the toughest teams around – ahead of the page playoffs.

“We’re encouraged by the performance and look forward to playing again tomorrow.”

And, given the line-up of Hamilton, Reid, Kerry Clark, Hazel Reid and alternate Laura Ritchie is a new one this season, I asked whether making the 1v2 game was more than they could have expected.

“It probably is, yeah,” Hamilton said.

“We didn’t really know what to expect coming into this week, as although we’ve played a lot this season there’s not been many events where we’ve played all the Scottish teams, so there are some we haven’t played.

“We’ve been abroad on tour, not always on the same style of ice as Perth, so it’s been a good chance to see how we match up against everyone else in Scotland.

“We’re happy with where we are and are looking forward to it, and whatever happens we’ll be proud of how we’ve done so far.”

One of Team Smith’s victims were Team Fleming, as they went 7-1 down after five ends, before pulling it back to 8-8, Smith ultimately holding on to win 9-8.

Defeat pushed Team Fleming to a W2 L3 record, but they won their last round robin game 9-4 against Team Gina Aitken, and then defeated Team Karina Aitken in a tiebreaker, to make the semi-final, where they will play the loser of the 1v2 playoff.

Skip Hannah Fleming said: “We probably haven’t had the week we’d hoped we would have, but we’re doing it the hard way.

“We seem to be on a bit of a roll now, getting some momentum, and we’re into the playoffs so goal one is achieved.”

Did the comeback against Team Smith, albeit not getting the win, add to their confidence?

“Maybe in a roundabout way,” said Fleming.

“We had a really poor first half of the game, so if we are to play them tomorrow we can’t give it away early, and we’ll have a good chance of winning.

“I think we could tighten up on a few things here and there but we’re going in the right direction now.”

#scc2017 men’s round robin review

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CRUNCH TIME: Tom Brewster is in the Scottish Championships playoff mix again. Pic: Brian Battensby (brianbatphotography.co.uk)

The round robin stage of the Scottish Curling Championships is complete, and the men’s section saw less playoff pandemonium than the year before, where five teams finished on W6 L3 records. 

This year it only required one tiebreaker between Teams Hardie and Mouat to give us a final four of Teams Brewster, Mouat, Murdoch and Smith.

The 10 teams involved in the championship all played their part, with Team Telfer – who lost all nine of their games – coming within a couple of shots of beating Team Smith, edged out 7-6.

Kyle Smith and his rink were also glad to escape unscathed from a tough encounter with Team Whyte, who outplayed their opponents for much of the match but lost 7-3.

It was one of a number of impressive performances from the young team, who shrugged off the loss of regular skip Ross Whyte (he’s at the World Junior Championships as Cameron Bryce’s fifth man) to claim five wins.

Their six-man rotation, skipped by Callum Kinnear when he wasn’t working, upset Teams Murdoch (7-5) and Mouat (8-1), took Team Brewster to an extra end (losing 8-7), and were left to rue a few bad shots in defeat to Team Smith.

Kyle Smith said: “They [Whyte] seemed to have a really good week.

“They’re good curlers, and upset a few folk, so we were quite relieved to get over the finish line against them.”

The Smith rink posted seven victories to two defeats, putting them joint top of the round robin standings and into the 1v2 page playoff against David Murdoch’s Olympians.

“That’s 100 per cent where we wanted to be at the start of the week,” said Smith. “So we’re very pleased.

“We’ve been pretty good, we’ve had some tough games and had to dig deep to steal sometimes or create our twos, but we’re all working together so we need to keep that going.

“Hopefully we’re due a win over him [Murdoch], so we’ll see how we get on.”

Team Murdoch lost two of their first four games – to Hardie and Whyte – but since then they’ve won five in a row, meaning they carry the best form into the playoffs.

Skip Murdoch said: “Our number one priority is to get into the playoffs, and it’s a great bonus that we’re in the 1v2 – that’s where we’ve been aiming the whole week.

“We did have a slow start, but we’ve played some great curling this week and bossed some teams around, and beat a lot of teams that have been playing well.”

In fact they have defeated three of the top five in the section, beating Teams Smith (7-5), Mouat (9-2) and Brewster (8-6).

Murdoch added: “We’re in a good place. It’s going to be a tough weekend – everyone’s in it to win it, and so are we, so we hope to bring our best game to the weekend.

“We’ve been on a bit of a win streak, so you feel good and have your chest puffed out from that.

“When you have a good feeling you’re relaxed, and you just need to bring the intensity.”

Rivalling Murdoch for form are Team Mouat who, after their chastening defeats to Murdoch and Whyte on Tuesday, have won four in a row, including the tiebreaker with Team Hardie.

Grant Hardie’s rink enjoyed another good week, starting with four straight wins, but ultimately it ended in frustration as defeats to Smith, Mouat and Brewster pushed them into a decider with Mouat, the latter scoring two in end eight in winning 5-4.

Skip Bruce Mouat paid tribute to his opponents, saying: “They’re [Hardie] really strong, we’ve played them quite a few times this season and it’s probably been 50-50 games-wise, so it was good to win tonight.”

They won gold at the Winter University Games earlier this month, bringing confidence but also, undoubtedly, some fatigue.

Mouat added: “It’s always going to be quite tiring after a week’s rest and then playing another long week, but I think we’ve really managed to rest well over the week – and that’s what we go to the gym for!”

But it’s target achieved for them in Perth, and they’re a dangerous side in the last four.

“Initially [making playoffs] is what we set out to do, and then obviously we want to win it now, so it’s three must-wins,” said Mouat.

“A winning run is always important. We had a rough Tuesday, losing two on the trot, and bad losses, but now it’s four on the trot that we’ve won.

“Going into the games with a bit of momentum is always a good thing, so if we show up and play well we’ll definitely cause some problems for the other teams.”

But standing in their way are reigning champions Team Brewster, who finished alongside Teams Murdoch and Smith on W7 L2, but having lost to both they missed out on playing in the 1v2 game.

Not that skip Tom Brewster has any complaints about his rink’s round robin performance.

“I think we’re playing just as well as we were last year; I don’t see much difference.

“Even the game we lost yesterday to Dave [Murdoch], we probably outplayed them apart from one bad end which cost us the game.”

The concession of fours in end six against Smith and end two versus Murdoch were decisive, fighting back from 5-1 down to 6-6 in the latter match, before being beaten 8-6.

“We’ve lost two games this week where, truthfully, one bad end has cost us the game, so we just need to cut out a couple of those simple mistakes in the ends we’ve given up,” Brewster added.

“We’ve not played badly in either lost game, just our opponents have been exceptional. So if we cut that out we’ll be in a good place.”

As for the 3v4 match-up, it pits them against a team they’ve already beaten in Team Mouat, albeit after an extra end.

Brewster said: “It’s one extra game, that’s it; you’ve just got to be here at the end of the week.

“I’m confident, we’ve had a good end to the week and we’re improving as the week’s gone on, so that’s what matters.”

Scottish Curling Championships 2017 preview

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LOTS AT STAKE: Glen Muirhead, Tom Brewster, Scott Andrews and David Murdoch. Pic: British Curling/Perthshire Picture Agency (Graeme Hart)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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RIVALS: Eve Muirhead calls the shot while Hannah Fleming watches on. Pic: British Curling/Perthshire Picture Agency (Graeme Hart)

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).

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COVERAGE

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.

Curling 2015-16: Second half season review

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Team Mouat, World Juniors gold medallists (photo: Tom J Brydone (facebook.com/brydoneimages))

Summer is here and the 2015-16 curling season is at an end – so it’s time to look back on the triumphs, disappointments and progress made during the year.

I reviewed the first half of the season in December – you can read that here – so this post will focus on January-May.

From World Championships to Grand Slams, World Curling Tour events to tournaments on Scottish soil, there was plenty for curlers and curling fans to get stuck into.

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Canada and Switzerland won the World Men’s and World Women’s Curling Championships respectively – Scotland failed to make the playoffs at either event.

Team Muirhead were once again the Scottish representative at World Women’s, this year held in Swift Current, Canada, and organised by a former GB Olympian – and Eve Muirhead team-mate – Kelly Schafer.

The current Team Muirhead put themselves in a promising position to make the playoffs with seven straight wins (including a 7-1 victory over Russia), but they slid from 5-1 up against Switzerland to lose 7-6… and further defeats to Japan and Canada saw them crash out.

Skip Muirhead said afterwards: “It’s hard to take that we’re out but we lost the last three games and at major championships you just can’t do that.”

Binia Feltscher’s Swiss rink defeated Japan 9-6 to claim gold – remarkably, that’s Switzerland’s third World Women’s in a row, and a fourth in five years.

Come World Men’s in Basel, Switzerland, Scotland was represented by Team Brewster – their skip Tom Brewster had won World medals before, but as a rink they were relatively inexperienced at this top level.

The Scots won their first two matches, but then lost five on the bounce to see their playoff hopes slip away. They finished strongly though, with wins over Finland, Germany and Sweden – the latter knocking the 2015 champions out of the playoff reckoning themselves.

Skip Brewster reflected: “It’s what could have been, I think. The guys have played great and we’ve learned a lot. If we take that experience and move on we can only be a stronger team next season.”

Team Kevin Koe, who had made it out of one of the toughest Brier fields in history to qualify for Worlds, took gold in Basel by beating Denmark 5-3.

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So a disappointing seasons for Scotland in the World Curling Federation events? Not exactly.

In March, Team Mouat won men’s gold at World Juniors in Copenhagen, Denmark, having recorded W7 L2 in the round robin stage to make the 1v2 playoff.

There they beat the USA 7-5 to reach the final, where they would again face the Americans. Twos in ends two and four proved the difference as Scotland won 6-3 to take the top spot on the podium!

Unfortunately Scotland women (Team Jackson) had a rather more difficult time in Copenhagen, losing seven games and being relegated to the B-Division for next season.

In April, the World Mixed Doubles and World Senior Championships took place in Karlstad, Sweden – with more success for Scottish (and British!) teams.

Jackie Lockhart’s Scottish women won gold in the Seniors event, defeating Germany 5-4 after an extra end in the final, which ensured they went the entire competition unbeaten; Scotland men (skipped by Gordon Muirhead) made it to the quarter-finals before losing to Canada.

In the World Mixed Doubles, Scotland’s Bruce Mouat and Gina Aitken (who had won the Latvian Mixed Doubles Cup just weeks before) scored an excellent fourth-place finish and collected 2018 Olympic qualifying points aplenty.

They had to do it the hard way though, coming through a tiebreaker and stealing one in end eight to beat reigning champions Hungary 6-5 in the last 16.

They recorded another 6-5 win in the quarter-finals, against Canada, before losing to China in the semis – and then missing out on bronze to the USA, as Russia won gold.

England (Anna and Ben Fowler) also performed strongly, taking eighth place overall, as did Ireland (Alison and Neil Fyfe) who came 12th.

And, while we’re on mixed doubles, a mention must go to Ross Whyte, who claimed a silver medal for GB in the discipline – partnered with Han Yu of China – at the Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, back in February.

***

In tour events, Teams Murdoch and Muirhead had particularly strong finishes to the season.

David Murdoch’s men had to shrug off the disappointment of losing the Scottish Championship final to Team Brewster (the Brewster rink were superb all week in Perth – solid, consistent and in control right to the end), but did so in fine style.

They had already won the German Masters in January, and as the season drew to a close they claimed the inaugural Aberdeen International Curling Championship in March and the European Masters in St Gallen, Switzerland, in April – as well as making their first ever Grand Slam of Curling semi-final at the Players’ Championship in Toronto.

Toronto was also the setting for a Team Muirhead triumph, Eve’s rink winning their third Players’ Championship title in the city (with Cathy Overton-Clapham as ‘super sub’, Anna Sloan having picked up an injury after Worlds).

A couple of weeks earlier, Team Muirhead (with Mairi Milne subbing for Sloan) had won the first ever Perth Ladies International – a competition which they had invested considerable time into getting off the ground and attracting a strong field from across the world.

The Perth Ladies was televised on BBC Alba, as was the 40th edition of the Perth Masters earlier in the year – which also had a strong entry list, including world champions in waiting, Team Koe (naturally, they won in Perth too).

The events in Perth, added to the Aberdeen International and Glynhill Ladies International (another strong field and also won by one of this season’s best teams, Tirinzoni of Switzerland), indicate a bright future for quality, more widely broadcast curling events in Scotland… just in time for the European Championships in November this year (and three more between then and 2020), you might say.

Nor should I forget the Scottish Curling Tour, which continues to provide a stepping stone for Scottish teams to experience high quality competition ahead of potentially taking on the world’s best. This season’s SCT was won by Team Mouat, ahead of Team Hardie in second.

***

So what lies ahead in 2016-17? Personally I’m looking forward to seeing if the younger Scottish teams – like Mouat and Smith – can join the usual suspects – Brewster, Murdoch, Muirhead – in making an increasingly big impact on the world stage.

As the 2018 Olympics draw closer, mixed doubles will surely continue to gain attention as a fresh and exciting discipline full of medal potential at the highest level.

And – there’s no getting away from it – broom technology/technique will also be a talking point. The World Curling Federation has released a survey for curling’s stakeholders and announced a ‘sweeping summit’ will take place later this month… but we must wait until September for definitive new regulations.

Whatever happens, The Roaring Game Blog will continue to cover it. Scottish curling, its players and its fans deserve it – and more.

Eve Muirhead aims to go one better in Swift Current

Eve Muirhead - Tom J Brydone
Eve Muirhead is leading Scotland into another World Championship (photo: Tom J Brydone (facebook.com/brydone images))

Olympic medallist. World champion. European champion. Multiple Grand Slam winner. Eve Muirhead’s won just about all there is to win in curling, but is still on the hunt for more.

She is skipping Scotland at yet another World Women’s Championship from Saturday in Swift Current, Canada, looking for a second gold medal after previously topping the podium in 2013.

The Roaring Game Blog recently spoke to Muirhead about the championship, the team’s preparations and her memories of Swift Current.

***

Team Muirhead (Eve Muirhead, Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams, Sarah Reid) won all of their matches at the Scottish Championships in Perth last month to qualify for this event.

They thoroughly dominated most of their games, and avoided any round robin defeats (having lost to Teams Gina Aitken and Hazel Smith in 2o15).

I asked Muirhead what the biggest positives were from that event, and what they could take from it for Worlds.

“Going through the Scottish Championships unbeaten is something that’s not done a lot, and I think what we did well is we were consistently good from the start to the end,” she said.

“I’m not saying we were at our best; we know we can play better at the World Championships, and we are going to have to play a little bit better, but we’re definitely capable of that.

“So what we take from the Scottish is our consistent play and our attitude – we’re a team that never gets complacent one bit, and we’re very structured and organised.”

 

The team’s coach, Dave Hay, told me in Perth that they had the option of preparing for Worlds by playing in the Uiseong Masters event in Korea – but as it ran from March 4 to 11, it would have meant a great deal of travel in a short period of time with little to no recovery time.

Muirhead said: “I think it was an easy decision to say no. You do a calendar at the start of the year, you pick out the major events, the events you really want to play well in. You want to peak at those events.

“With Korea, if we were to go, I think it would put a big question mark on whether we were preparing correctly for the World Championship.”

However, next season could be different.

“I guess you could look at the big picture – if that event carries on we’ll definitely look at maybe attending next year if we can schedule it in right. But it all depends on what we can plan.

“With the Olympics being in Korea in 2018 and our team looking to be in the running for those, you’d want to get the chance to play a little bit in Korea to work out how to acclimatise, how many days before you’d need to go, that kind of thing.”

Team Muirhead with Coach David Hay - Tom J Brydone
Team Muirhead with coach Dave Hay (photo: Tom J Brydone)

But for now, the focus is purely on Swift Current – a place with fond memories for Muirhead, as the place where she won her first Worlds medal.

Having missed out on a medal with Great Britain at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, she won silver in Swift Current – Andrea Schöpp and Germany pipping her to gold.

I asked whether she had been back, and what her memories of the city were.

“I have been back once, not for a tournament though,” she said.

“My team-mate back in 2010, Kelly Wood, met the local mayor, that kind of kicked off and she now lives in Swift Current, has a kid and everything! So we stopped by once to see her.

“It brings back lots of good memories – I won my first Worlds medal at Swift Current. That was a silver so I want to go one better.

“It’ll be great to see Kelly again as I curled with her for a number of years.

“For her to move away was obviously a massive step but it’ll be good to see her again and relive some good memories.”

In terms of the difference between the Eve Muirhead that went to Swift Current in 2010 and the one competing in 2016, she said it was ‘huge’.

“Back then I would say I was a curler, not an athlete,” she explained.

“Now I’m more an athlete. I realised after the Vancouver Olympics, where we wanted medals and were capable of medals but didn’t [get them], we came back and I realised what I needed to do.

“It was a kick up the butt to train harder and practise harder, and that’s exactly what I’ve done.

“I realised what it takes to be a top class curler, and that’s what I’ve been doing the last few years.”

 

Another developing curler is Rachel Hannen, who was Team Muirhead’s alternate at the European Championships in November and – having been at the World Juniors at the time of this interview – will travel with Muirhead’s rink again for Worlds.

Muirhead was full of praise for their fifth player, saying: “Rachel was fantastic at the Europeans.

“She played the [European playdowns] as Sarah unfortunately had an injury, so we know Rachel really well.

“She’s currently at the World Junior Championships, so it’s good for her to have Scotland on her back again before she comes with us.

“She was a pretty automatic [choice for Worlds], as she seemed to fit in really well with the team and she’s a great player as well, so if we ever needed to use her she’s definitely capable of stepping in.”

Muirhead knows there are tough matches ahead in Swift Current, especially having kept a close eye on the teams who qualified.

“When we were playing the Scottish Championships, the Swiss nationals were on, and you’re always checking the scores,” she said.

“When the [Canadian] Tournament of Hearts was on I think I watched just about every game.

“You always watch the other championships, how they’re going and who you’ll be competing against.

“You get a lot of people who say they don’t really mind who they play, but you do really.

“Secretly you’re watching every game, and you’re looking to see who your competitors are going to be when it comes to the major championships.”

But ultimately, when play gets underway against those competitors, the only thing Team Muirhead can affect is their own performances and how they handle the pressure.

“Every year as a team we’re getting better and better,” Muirhead said.

“All the time, as Scotland, you’re going to have a target on your back and that’s just the nature of the game. But we’ve just got to concentrate on ourselves.”

And to win gold?

“It’d be huge – we’ve won World Championship medals before but you always want more, it’s what we work so hard for.

“And [for 2018] we want to make sure the Olympic selectors have no choice but to pick us.”

***

The World Women’s Curling Championship takes place in Swift Current from March 19 to 27 – event website here.

Stay up to date with Team Muirhead’s progress through the Roaring Game Blog Facebook and Twitter, plus the Royal Caledonian Curling Club website.

Try Curling: Sport targets more grassroots players

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Can’t hack it: Yours truly on the ice in Perth (photo: Aline Hardie/RCCC)

Family success stories are great – but for curling to thrive, more people (especially youngsters) from outside the sport’s traditional community need to fall in love with it.

The Roaring Game Blog spoke to Fiona Kennedy, development manager at the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, about the Try Curling initiative and its impact in Scotland.

And yes, I did also get down on the ice while in Perth… more on that later.

***

Curling family dynasties are great for players, fans and journalists – the headlines are almost too easy to write.

First this week, in Canada, we had the Scotties all-star team… all with Brier-winning dads.

Then, back in Scotland, we had Gordon Muirhead skipping his way to another Scottish Seniors title, after his kids Glen and Eve had won the men’s and women’s titles respectively at the the Scottish Championships the week before.

They’re fantastic stories, part of what makes curling a delight to watch and write about.

But it’s just not sustainable for the future of the sport – in Scotland or worldwide – and so players need to be found in non-curling families.

There have been some success stories. Sophie Jackson, who is skipping the Scottish women’s team at the World Juniors in Copenhagen from tomorrow, had no family history in curling – she got into it through her school.

But more need to be found and nurtured.

Fiona Kennedy, RCCC development manager, is responsible for the governing body’s schools programme, summer camps (for adults and juniors), seminars and workshops, and disability curling projects.

As she puts it: “It’s all about trying to get more people curling through these different programmes.”

She manages the development officers and groups at ice rinks across Scotland, who put the projects like Try Curling and virtual clubs – into practice.

Try Curling is an absolute beginner’s guide to the sport, with sessions running throughout the country. It involves how to (safely) get on the ice, how to deliver a stone and how to sweep – with a game at the end too.

Asked how well Try Curling is progressing, Fiona said: “Really well. This year so far we’ve had 146 sessions offered – not all of them run but most do, depending on the time of day and where they are.

“I think our numbers are going to be about 800 participants at the moment, more by the end of the season.”

There is a ‘huge mix’ in terms of the people who come to the sessions, Fiona said.

“We have some specific Try Curling sessions – some are open to all, some areas are now doing specific ones as well.

“For example: stick curling, those who are maybe not as confident on the ice, are older or have a disability, so they can use a stick to deliver; junior specific; wheelchair specific.

“So it can be anyone in an ordinary Try Curling session but we are trying to do specific ones to target different audiences.”

Try Curling has been running for three years or thereabouts, Fiona said – she is relatively new in her RCCC role, so it was well established when she came on board.

“It had huge success off the back of the last Winter Olympics,” she added.

“We’ve kept it going and hope to retain it for the Europeans later this year in Glasgow and the next Olympics, and other events.

“It’s been a very successful programme in terms of a pathway for people to follow.”

That pathway takes Try Curling attendees onto beginners courses hosted by ice rinks – six to eight hours’ coaching – and then either into a club, or into a ‘virtual club’.

This, Fiona explains, is an in-between set-up, where you are a member for two years, still benefiting from coaching to really build up the skills needed to play matches, giving you every preparation for entering a club environment.

As already mentioned, this is a big year – the first of five big years – for curling in Scotland, with the European Championships coming to Glasgow (Braehead) in November.

After that, Aberdeen hosts the World Juniors in 2018, Stirling hosts the World Wheelchair Championship in 2019 and Glasgow hosts the World Men’s Championships in 2020.

That means looking at ‘legacy’ – using high-profile events to boost the sport in the country and drive up participation.

Fiona said: “We have a legacy project, a big one with Europeans this year.

“We’re looking at branching out and upskilling some of the people in the Glasgow and Renfrew areas, and getting children along.”

That legacy will be stretched through to 2020, with programmes designed to target regions and different audiences.

“The makeup of those will be slightly different, but I think we’d be stupid not to try to utilise these events and make sure we get in as many people as possible – even just raising the awareness of the sport, if not getting them on ice,” Fiona added.

***

So, as promised, my own curling taster session in Perth.

Sadly, residing in southern England, I have not been able to put my affection for the sport into practice since I caught the curling bug in 2013 – my nearest rink is Fenton’s in Kent, 165 miles away!

Therefore, I had the rare treat of getting on the ice thanks to the RCCC staff at the Scottish Championships, with Simon Elder on coaching duties.

Simon, who coaches in Perth on Try Curling sessions and the schools programme, took four of us through the basics.

It was a condensed session before the Championship semi-finals, so aside from a little bit of sweeping practice, the focus was on the stone delivery – stance in the hack, body position when sliding out and making an in-turn or out-turn rotation.

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‘Where do I put my chronically uncoordinated limbs?’ (photo: Aline Hardie/RCCC)

It was tough. Unfamiliarity with the ice and a lot of thinking (which body part goes where?) meant there wasn’t much force in my slides… and I hogged every stone. Comfortably.

Still, Simon remained patient and helpful – pointing out the key things I was doing wrong and passing on the tips to improve.

The men and women I was watching in the Championships had been doing this for years, which made all of it second nature.

It’s fair to say I have a long chase ahead of me!