Team Muirhead triumph as Scots shine in Canada

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HDF Insurance Shoot-out winners, Team Muirhead (pic: twitter.com/Team_Muirhead)

Team Muirhead continued their strong start to the season by picking up the HDF Insurance Shoot-out title in Edmonton, while three more Scottish rinks made the playoffs at the AMJ Campbell Shorty Jenkins Classic in Cornwall, Ontario.

Teams Drummond, Fleming and Smith performed well against a class field, only to fall short in the knockout stages.

All in all, coupled with Team Mouat’s double success in Oakville, it’s been a very promising start to the season for the Scots.

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The semi-finals had been the limit for Team Muirhead (Eve Muirhead, Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams, Lauren Gray, Kelly Schafer) in their first event of the season, the GSOC Tour Challenge, and they continued that fine form into the HDF Insurance Shoot-out.

Wins against Teams Scott, Robertson, Kleibrink and Ramsay, before a loss to Team Wang of China, sent them safely into the quarter-finals, where they defeated Team Rocque 8-4.

The semi-finals brought a 5-3 victory over Robertson, which set up a final against Team Hasselborg of Sweden – the rink which had knocked them out at the Tour Challenge.

After the teams traded twos, Hasselborg moved 5-2 ahead after seven ends, only for Muirhead to score three in the eighth and then steal two in the extra end to win 7-5 and claim the title.

It’s been an excellent start from the Muirhead rink – can they keep it up in their big Olympic year?

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At the AMJ Campbell Shorty Jenkins Classic, meanwhile, Teams Drummond and Smith took part in the men’s event, with Team Fleming on the women’s side.

Drummond (Greg Drummond, Ross Paterson, Glen Muirhead, Michael Goodfellow) and Smith (Kyle Smith, Thomas Muirhead, Kyle Waddell, Cammy Smith) were drawn in the same pool, and Smith won their head-to-head 5-3.

Both sat on W2 L2 records going into the final pool matches, where Smith beat Howard 6-5, and Drummond overcame world champions Gushue 4-3 after an extra end – Smith having also beaten Gushue to help them progress to the playoffs.

The quarter-finals saw Smith bow out, beaten 6-5 by Walstad of Norway, but Drummond made the last four by defeating Robillard 8-6.

They could not get past Olympic champions Jacobs in their semi-final however, losing 6-3, with Jacobs going on to beat McEwen 3-1 in the final.

Still, with two wins over Gushue and runs to the playoffs, it had been a very positive event for the Scots.

The same goes for Team Fleming (Hannah Fleming, Jen Dodds, Alice Spence, Vicky Wright), who qualified for the women’s playoffs thanks to wins over Tirinzoni, Arsenault and Belisle.

They lost 8-6 to Duncan in the quarter-finals, giving up a steal of two in the eighth, as Team Sinclair of the USA ultimately took the title, but for Fleming to make the playoffs when the likes of Flaxey and Tirinzoni did not is also encouraging.

***

Finally, the first Asham Under-21 Slam of the season took place this weekend – the Greenacres Junior Masters.

Teams Baird, Carson, Craik and Whyte qualified for the semi-finals on the men’s side, with Teams Bryce, Davie, Farmer and Morrison coming through on the women’s.

The last four saw Baird beat Carson and Whyte beat Craik, while Davie beat Morrison and Farmer defeated Bryce.

The men’s final brought victory for Whyte (Ross Whyte, Robin Brydone, Fraser Kingan, Euan Kyle), who stole one in the extra end to win 7-6.

And the women’s final was won by Davie (Lisa Davie, Kirsty Barr, Anna Skuse, Emma Barr), 7-5 over Farmer.

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Mouat double up with Oakville Fall Classic title

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Team Mouat with their second trophy in two weeks. Pic: facebook.com/teammouat

Team Mouat have enjoyed a storming start to the season, adding the Biosteel Oakville Fall Classic title to last week’s Stu Sells Oakville Tankard win.

Bruce Mouat shuffled his pack over the off-season, bringing in Grant Hardie and Hammy McMillan, and the results have been instant.

More on them in just a moment, but first here’s what happened at the first Grand Slam of the season…

Solid start for Muirhead

First competition of the new season for Team Muirhead (Eve Muirhead, Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams, Lauren Gray), and a run to a Grand Slam semi-final.

The Tour Challenge in Regina, Saskatchewan, provided the first real opportunity for the sport’s big guns to size each other up, and it turns out the British Olympic women measure up well.

They made the playoffs the hard way – beating Harrison and Homan, but losing to Wang and Sweeting, meant a tiebreaker against Tippin, which they won 5-4.

Skip Muirhead then shot 88% to guide her side past Pätz in the quarter-finals, but Hasselborg of Sweden were too strong in the last four, winning 6-5 after a crucial steal of two in end six.

Not a bad platform for Team Muirhead to build on for the rest of the season.

Muirhead told British Curling: “Reaching a Grand Slam semi-final on our first outing of the season is no mean feat.

“The competition out here is the best in the world with the highest level of curling there is.”

Also performing well in their first event of the new season were Team Fleming (Hannah Fleming, Jen Dodds, Alice Spence, Vicky Wright), who took part in the Tier 2 section in Regina.

Like Muirhead, they won two (against Eberle and Silvernagle) and lost two (versus Feltscher and Sidorova) in the round robin stage, forcing them into a tiebreaker.

Fleming pushed Lawton all the way, but lost out 6-5.

The eventual women’s champions were Team Sweeting (Tier 1) and Team Einarson (Tier 2).

Struggles on men’s side

Things were not quite so promising for Teams Smith (Kyle Smith, Thomas Muirhead, Kyle Waddell, Cammy Smith) and Drummond (Greg Drummond, Ross Paterson, Gregor Cannon, Michael Goodfellow) on the men’s side at the Tour Challenge.

There’s plenty of work for Smith to do ahead of the Olympics, underlined by four defeats – to McCormick, Edin, Simmons and Epping – in their Tier 1 pool.

In Tier 2, Drummond managed to go one better than at last week’s Oakville Tankard by winning a game (against Jacobson), but losses to Brown, Gunnlaugson and Lyburn ended their challenge early.

The men’s winners were Team Gushue (Tier 1) and Team Gunnlaugson (Tier 2).

Mouat at the double

Away from the Grand Slam, but still in Canada, Teams Brewster (Tom Brewster, Duncan Menzies, Scott Andrews, Alasdair Schreiber) and Mouat (Bruce Mouat, Grant Hardie, Bobby Lammie, Hammy McMillan) took part in the Biosteel Oakville Fall Classic.

Brewster lost their first three pool games (to Mabergs, Kim and Steski), which meant that their victory over Zou was only a consolation.

Mouat, by contrast, cruised through the group stage, beating Retornaz, Baumann, Maus and Dickie to book their passage to the quarter-finals.

Further wins against Horgan (6-5) and Schwaller (8-7, stealing one in an extra end) sent them into the final, where they faced Chang-Min Kim of Korea.

It was a tight match, with only singles scored as it went to an extra end, but Mouat held hammer and scored their one to win 4-3.

That’s two events entered and two titles gained for Team Mouat to start the season, and they’re yet to lose a single match (played 14, won 14).

It’s going to take a good team to stop these boys if they keep this up!

End of season round-up

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PODIUM: Scotland women won bronze at the World Senior Curling Championships. Pic: twitter.com/jlockhart65

It’s been a packed end to the season, with the good (Team Smith’s European Masters win, bronze for Scotland women at World Seniors) mixed with the bad (Scotland/GB missing out on Olympic Mixed Doubles).

Here’s a quick round-up of how the 2016-17 season has come to its conclusion.

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Firstly to St Gallen, where the European Masters involved three Scottish men’s teams – Brewster (Tom Brewster, Glen Muirhead, Ross Paterson, Hammy McMillan), Murdoch (David Murdoch, Greg Drummond, Scott Andrews, Michael Goodfellow) and Smith (Kyle Smith, Thomas Muirhead, Kyle Waddell, Cammy Smith).

Team Fleming (Hannah Fleming, Jen Dodds, Vicky Wright, Alice Spence) were the sole Scots on the women’s side, but after two wins in the opening two matches versus Teams Schöpp (6-4) and Thompson (6-5) they lost their three remaining group matches to miss out on the final.

In the men’s event, it wasn’t a great tournament for Murdoch, as they only picked up one win from seven round robin games – 7-4 against Team Walstad.

Team Brewster did rather better, with wins against Murdoch (8-2), Pfister (5-3), Walstad (10-1) and McCormick (4-2) qualifying them for the 3v4 game versus McCormick, which the Scots won 4-2.

The best performance, though, came from Team Smith, who won four of their round robin matches – against Pfister (5-4), Murdoch (7-5), Brewster (7-3) and McCormick (8-5) – to edge by Brewster to make the final.

There they faced the ever-menacing Team Edin, and Smith finally got one over on the serial Slam-winning Swedes, as two in end four and one in end eight saw them pinch it 5-4.

***

The Champions Cup – for teams who have won major competitions during the season – took place in Calgary, Alberta, and involved three Scottish rinks – Teams Brewster and Hardie (Grant Hardie, Blair Fraser, David Reid, Duncan Menzies) on the men’s side, and Team Muirhead (Eve Muirhead, Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams, Lauren Gray) on the women’s.

Neither men’s team could progress from the round robin, with Brewster taking a win against Team Morozumi (9-3) but being beaten by Teams Laycock (5-4), McEwen (9-1) and Gushue (6-3).

Hardie, meanwhile, lost all four games – against Teams De Cruz (8-1), Carruthers (6-3), Jacobs (8-6) and Morris (6-3) – but this was undoubtedly a helpful experience for the team in a Slam environment.

The men’s title went the way of Team Jacobs, who overcame Team Koe 6-2 in the final.

Muirhead also missed out on the women’s playoffs – beating Flaxey (9-4) but losing to Pätz (7-2), Jones (7-6) and Wrana (6-2).

The women’s final was contested by Teams Homan and Hasselborg, with Homan scoring two in end eight to pinch it 5-4.

***

The World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship in Lethbridge, Canada, saw Scotland represented by Gina Aitken and Bruce Mouat.

They swept the round robin, with victories over Norway (6-3), Bulgaria (10-3), Ireland (8-5), Wales (11-2), Serbia (11-0), Denmark (8-2) and Italy (8-4).

Also in Scotland’s group, Ireland (Alison Fyfe and Neil Fyfe) won four and lost three (beating Serbia 10-2, Denmark 7-3, Bulgaria 11-4 and Wales 11-2, but losing to Italy 5-4, Scotland and Norway 10-4), with Wales (Dawn Watson and Adrian Meikle) coming in on W2 L5 (winning against Serbia 11-3 and Denmark 9-7, but defeated by Norway 6-2, Scotland, Italy 9-8, Ireland and Bulgaria).

England (Anna Fowler and Ben Fowler) just missed out on qualifying from the round robin, finishing on a W4 L3 record (beating France 8-5, Kazakhstan 17-2, Turkey 10-5 and Germany 9-6, but losing to the USA 7-2, the Czech Republic 6-4 and Canada 7-6).

The quarter-finals saw Ireland face Korea, losing 6-3, while Scotland – despite winning their group – faced Canadians Joanne Courtney and Reid Carruthers, and they were beaten 8-3 after giving up four in end seven.

Now scrambling to qualify for the Olympics, Aitken and Mouat faced Sweden – and scored four in end four as they beat them 9-2 – while the Irish pair lost to Russia 7-5.

It was the Russians Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii up next for Scotland, and again Aitken/Mouat lost to a very strong opponent, 6-5, as Russia scored singles in ends one, three, four, six, seven and the extra to edge a tight match.

Scotland had to beat Italy next and hope. They did that, 7-5, but Norway’s win over Finland denied them a spot at Pyeongchang 2018, with just two points in it on the ranking system.

Sport is seldom ‘fair’, and Scotland had the misfortune to face Canada and Russia after a flawless round robin.

What would seem flawed is a qualification process that places so much emphasis on a couple of games at one event, over the hard work and consistent tournament success of a Scottish duo who have spent the last four years working towards an Olympic spot, and were clearly heartbroken to fall short.

Switzerland, who went unbeaten through the championship, beat Canada 6-5 in the final to win gold, with China taking silver.

***

Lethbridge also hosted the World Senior Curling Championships, with Scotland represented by Ian Drysdale, David McQueen, Ronald Wilson, Graham Lindsay and Andrew Hemming (alternate) in the men’s event.

They finished the round robin with a W3 L3 record, as they saw off Finland 6-3, England 4-2 and Russia 12-2, but were beaten by Canada (7-2), Wales (6-4) and New Zealand (5-2)).

That meant a tiebreaker against Wales (Adrian Meikle, Richard Pougher, Chris Wells, Gary Waddell, Alistair Reid (alternate)), who had also won three and lost three, and again the Welsh came out on top, 5-4 this time, to put the Scots out.

England men (Thomas Campbell, Philip Barton, Mike Spain, Alastair Fyfe) ended up on W1 L5, with Ireland men (Peter Wilson, Johnjo Kenny, Bill Gray, David Whyte, David Hume (alternate)) on W5 L2.

Wales beat Israel 8-6 to make the last eight, but there they succumbed 8-1 to Canada; Ireland, though, qualified for the quarter-finals with a 5-4 win over Denmark.

Canada proved too strong for the Irish in the semi-finals, winning 5-2, but the Irish did secure bronze with a 6-3 win over Germany in the 3v4 game, while Sweden pipped Canada to gold.

As for the women’s competition, Scotland (Jackie Lockhart, Christine Cannon, Isobel Hannen, Margaret Richardson, Janet Lindsay (alternate)) qualified from Group B with five wins (against the Czech Republic (9-2), Slovakia (15-1), Australia (9-1), Finland (7-6 after an extra end) and Switzerland (8-4)) and one loss (versus the USA (6-4)).

England women (Judith Dixon, Val Saville, Helen Forbes, Deborah Higgins) were W3 L4 for the event, with Ireland women (Carolyn Hibberd, Marie O’Kane, Louise Kerr, Clare McCormick) W1 L6.

Scotland, having finished second in their group to the USA, had to beat Russia to make the last four, which they did 10-0.

Their semi-final pitted them against Colleen Jones’ Canada, and it was the host country who emerged victorious with a two in end eight to win 5-3.

Canada took gold and Switzerland silver, and Scotland ensured they joined them on the podium by beating the USA 8-5 (scoring four in end five) in the bronze medal match.

Skip Lockhart said: “It feels really good to get a medal and to go back with something after not playing quite the ‘A’ game we wanted against Canada.

“We had to fight really hard for that. It’s been a tough week but every medal makes the season worthwhile and we’ve still got years to play in seniors, so…bring it on.”

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.

***

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.”

***

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.”

#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.”

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.

Scots dominate podium at Dutch Masters

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SECOND SPOT: Bruce Mouat and Gina Aitken (pic: Tom J Brydone)

Scottish curlers filled out second and third place at the Dutch Masters Mixed Doubles this weekend, with Gina Aitken and Bruce Mouat only just missing out on the top prize.

Three Scottish rinks competed at the Bernese Ladies Cup, but only Team Fleming made the playoffs – where they were beaten by eventual runners-up Team Tirinzoni.

And Team North America continued their domination of the Continental Cup, taking their fifth title in a row versus Team World.

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Gina Aitken and Bruce Mouat, fresh from winning the Scottish Mixed Doubles Championship at the end of 2016, went into the Dutch Masters Mixed Doubles event as one of the favourites.

And they secured passage from Pool A of the round robin stages with a perfect record – winning against Molder/Lill of Estonia 10-3, Bryzgalova/Krushelnitsky of Russia 8-6, Fowler/Fowler of England 8-3 and Turto/Turto of Finland 9-3.

That record was emulated by Judith and Lee McCleary, the runners-up at the Scottish Championships, who finished Pool C on W4 L0 after beating Walczak/Knebloch (Poland) 15-4, Fyfe/Fyfe (Ireland) 10-3, Norberg/Stenberg (Sweden) 10-7 and Kalocsai/Van Dorp (Hungary/Netherlands) 6-5.

The English team, Anna and Ben Fowler, and Irish, Alison and Neil Fyfe, both finished the group stage on W2 L2 records – both missed out on the playoffs, but the English pair did at least take third spot in their pool (the Fyfes were one of three rinks on W2 L2 in their group but placed fourth), meaning they were into the Consolation event.

There they took down Menard/Baker of Canada 8-5, before losing out to Kalocsai/Van Dorp in the Consolation final, beaten 9-6 after an extra end.

Back to the main event, and the quarter-finals, where Aitken/Mouat found themselves 3-1 down to Szekeres/Nagy of Hungary after four ends, only to explode with a six in end five – which meant that two successive steals to end the match were not enough for the Hungarians, as the Scots took it 7-6.

Again the McClearys matched their compatriots, reaching the semi-finals with a 7-3 victory over Palancsa/Kiss (Hungary), who were the winners of this competition in 2016, having scored four in end one and stolen singles in ends six and seven.

That meant a head-on collision between Scots, and again it was Aitken/Mouat who took the spoils – scoring two in end one, one in end two, three in end three and four in end five to wrap it up 10-1.

The McClearys had one last match, the third-place playoff against Norberg/Stenberg of Sweden, which they won 11-5, with fours in ends three and six.

The final brought Aitken/Mouat a rematch with Russian world champions Anastasia Bryzgalova and Alexander Krushelnitsky, and the Scots enjoyed an ideal start – three in end one.

But the Russians hit back hard, scoring four in end two and stealing singles in ends three and four to lead 6-3 at halfway.

It wasn’t over yet, as Aitken/Mouat scored ones in ends five, six and seven to tie it up 6-6 – but two (thanks to a fine runback double) in end eight for Bryzgalova/Krushelnitsky gave them the match 8-6 and the title.

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Scottish women’s teams were back in action following a few weeks off over Christmas, with three taking on a world class field at the Bernese Ladies Cup, a triple knockout tournament.

Team Muirhead (Eve Muirhead, Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams, Lauren Gray) started with a big win over Team Mathis, 10-2, but were knocked down to the B-Road by Team Schöpp of Germany, beaten 8-7.

They bounced back well, cruising past Team Kauste 10-2, and then beating Team Nielsen 7-3, but a loss to European gold medallists Team Moiseeva, 5-4, put them one defeat away from elimination.

Muirhead kept themselves alive on the C-Road by overcoming Schöpp at the second time of asking, 3-2, but a 7-2 loss against Team Sigfridsson in the C-Road final knocked them out.

Team Smith (Hazel Smith, Sarah Reid, Claire Hamilton, Kerry Clark) opened by edging Team Hegner 8-7, but there followed two straight defeats – against Team Wang 10-1 and Team Koana 5-4.

They kept themselves alive by overcoming Kauste 6-2, but Koana beat them again (7-5 this time), and they then lost 9-2 to Nielsen in the Consolation Cup to exit the event, which Nielsen went on to win.

Team Fleming (Hannah Fleming, Jen Dodds, Alice Spence, Vicky Wright) began their competition by defeating Team Keiser 6-5, then saw off Team Babezat 5-4, before defeat in the A-Road semi-final to Team Tirinzoni, 8-6.

They lost again on the B-Road, 7-2 to Moiseeva, but won 5-4 against Team Jentsch and then scored two in end eight to edge Team Christensen 7-6 – thus making the playoffs!

The quarter-finals proved to be Fleming’s limit, however, as they met the in-form Tirinzoni and lost out 7-3.

That shouldn’t take away the added level of consistency we’re seeing from Fleming this season compared to the last couple of years, as they continue to narrow the gap at the top of the Scottish women’s game.

The final was contested by two Swiss rinks, Tirinzoni and Pätz, and it was the latter who took the title following a 4-3 victory.

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Finally, the Continental Cup – the Ryder Cup-style tournament between Teams North America and World – was held in Las Vegas, but for once there was no Scottish involvement.

Unlike the most recent Ryder Cup, there was no reversal of fortunes for the most dominant side in recent years – North America winning their fifth in a row.

The teams were level at the end of the first day, on 4.5 points apiece, but from there North America steadily pulled away – eventually winning 37-23.

So congratulations to the winners – Kevin Koe, Marc Kennedy, Brent Laing, Ben Hebert, Heath McCormick, Chris Plys, Korey Dropkin, Tom Howell, Reid Carruthers, Braeden Moskowy, Derek Samagalski, Colin Hodgson, Chelsea Carey, Amy Nixon, Jocelyn Peterman, Laine Peters, Jamie Sinclair, Alex Carlson, Vicky Persinger, Monica Walker, Jennifer Jones, Kaitlyn Lawes, Jill Officer and Dawn McEwen.