Scottish Curling Championships 2016: Preview

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).

Men’s championship

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.

Women’s championship

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.

Event coverage

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.

The Roaring Game Blog will be in Perth throughout the week, so watch this space – and my Facebook and Twitter – for match updates, athlete reaction and more.

And there are also plans in the works for some games to be covered shot-by-shot on CurlingGeek – more on that to come.

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Team Murdoch conquer German Masters

Team Murdoch continued their resurgence in form by winning the German Masters in Hamburg, while the last two men’s spots were decided for the Scottish Championships, and in Canada there were shocks in the provincial Scotties.

Teams Brewster, Murdoch and Smith represented Scotland in Hamburg in a strong field that included Team Edin of Sweden and Teams De Cruz and Michel of Switzerland.

There were, however, early exits for Brewster and Smith in the pool stage of the competition.

In Group F, Tom Brewster, Glen Muirhead, Ross Paterson and Hammy McMillan were 9-2 winners over Jiri Snitil’s Czech rink, but then lost 5-4 to Gronbech of Denmark and 6-5 to Baumann of Germany after an extra end.

Smith’s rink (Kyle Smith, Thomas Muirhead, Kyle Waddell, Cammy Smith) also won their first match, 5-3 against Gribi of Switzerland, but were then beaten 5-2 by the Finnish national team Kauste and 6-5 by Michel, which meant elimination from Group B.

No such problems for Murdoch (David Murdoch, Greg Drummond, Scott Andrews, Michael Goodfellow) in Group D, who won their first two games – 6-1 against Mjoen of Norway and 6-4 over Swedish rink Eskilsson.

They were beaten 6-3 by Soo Hyuk Kim’s Korean rink, the current Pacific-Asia champions, in their final pool match, but by then they knew they had made it out of the group – but not yet to the quarter-finals.

With the German Masters having six pools, it necessitated two playoff rounds before the quarter-finals – with Murdoch first facing Michel, and losing 8-6 after an extra end.

But they had a second chance and took it, beating Stjerne of Denmark 5-3 to reach the last eight.

There they saw off Hoiberg of Norway 4-3, which sealed their place in the semi-finals on Sunday morning.

Michel were again their opponents, but this time the Scots came out on top – a two in end four, followed by steals in ends five and six, proving pivotal in their 6-5 win.

The final was another rematch – against Kim, who had beaten European champions Edin 6-1 in the other semi-final.

The Scots scored two in end one and led 3-1 after four ends, but Kim scored two in end five and stole one in end seven to lead 4-3 into the eighth.

Skip Murdoch needed to make a hit to score two to win, and he was spot on, meaning a final score of 5-4 and the team’s second German Masters title, having also triumphed in Hamburg in 2013.

Their form has been excellent since the last few weeks of 2015, and is a real signal of intent ahead of the Scottish Championships next month, as David Murdoch’s reaction to the win demonstrated.

“Obviously we are delighted with another win on the tour with a strong field,” he said.

“Our form recently had been exemplary and again this weekend we showed great determination to continue this trend.

“With the Scottish Championship a few weeks away we feel we have great confidence in our play and we hope we carry this forward and achieve our goals for the rest of the season.”

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Speaking of the Scottish Championships, Braehead was the setting as five teams competed for the final two men’s places.

And it was Teams Brydone and Combe who saw off McCall, Shaw and Taylor to qualify for Perth next month.

Brydone (Robin Brydone, Ross McCleary, Calum Greenwood, Craig Waddell, Gavin Barr) won their matches against Combe (7-5), McCall (7-3) and Taylor (5-4) to wrap up their spot.

Also successful were the Combe rink (Moray Combe, Sandy Christie, Neil Sands, Gary Rutherford), who beat Taylor (9-4), Shaw (9-3) and McCall (8-2).

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Qualifiers were also taking place in Canada – this time for the Scotties Tournament of Hearts (their national women’s championship).

With only last year’s winner, Team Jones, automatically qualified, each rink must get out of their home province to reach the big event.

And with 10 of the 14 Scotties spots decided, there have already been some big shocks – the biggest coming in Ontario.

Team Homan were on fire in the first half of 2015-16, winning titles and cash wherever they went, so were huge favourites to win their province.

But curling’s innate unpredictability means that on any given day, any team can beat any other. Which is just what happened.

Team Hanna defied the odds to steal two in end seven and three in end eight as they beat Homan 10-8 to represent their province in Grande Prairie, Alberta, next month.

And another member of Canadian women’s curling’s ‘top three’ over the last few seasons, Team Sweeting, were beaten by Team Carey in the Alberta final.

Sweeting controlled the first half of the game but Carey scored threes in ends seven and nine to win it 8-5.

Those defeats for Homan and Sweeting show that when a qualifying event comes down to just one game, anything can happen.

In Scottish women’s curling, Team Muirhead may have ruled the roost for the last few seasons, but the slightest loss of focus, or a couple of shots going against them… who knows?

Across the other Canadian provinces, Team Thompson qualified from British Columbia, Team Einarson beat McDonald to represent Manitoba, Team McCarville beat Fleury to the Northern Ontario spot, Team Brothers took the Nova Scotia title, Team Birt made it from Prince Edward Island, Team Larouche qualified from Quebec and Team Baldwin will represent Yukon.

That just leaves New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories, and Saskatchewan to decide their champions.

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Finally, just a wee reminder it’s Burn’s Night tonight…