Friday, April 25, 2014

Stones of Destiny!

It is 1972 and we are deep into the final of the World Championship in Garmish-Partenkirchen.  Orest Meleschuk knows that he has to hit and stick within the eight-foot on tricky, heavy ice to score two and take the game into an extra end.  His opponents were team USA, skipped by Bob LaBonte.  Their round-robin records were Canada 7-0 and USA 4-3.  Never was there such a mismatch, yet here we were – it all depended on the big fellow’s last stone.

Cigarette dangling from his lips, he threw his fateful stone; the sweepers give it an early bang with their corn brooms, but the stone suddenly sits back and they are called off quickly; contact is made, but the shooter rolls slowly out towards the eight-foot; and further out; and further out - helped on its way by some furious sweeping from the American third, Frank Aasand.  Finally, it comes to rest, close to lying second, but was it?

Slowly, Dave Romano, the Canadian third moves to look at his skip’s stone.  In his heart of hearts, he must have been worried, but he takes a long hard look despite his opposite number’s celebrations.  Skip LaBonte, taking his cue from Aasand’s leaps of joy, started his own macabre victor’s dance.  The camera cuts to the American front end, who are running down the ice in celebration just as LaBonte begins his tumble.  Don Chevrier pauses mid-sentence as the Americans continue their celebrations, because the unthinkable has happened; LaBonte has slipped and kicked the Canadian stone before Romano has had a chance to either concede or call for a measure.

There is confusion in the commentary box.  With the benefit of hindsight, of course, there should have been none.  The stone had not been measured and Canada had not conceded the game.  Eventually the stones are cleared and the extra end is played.  Meleshuk plays a nice come around a centre guard, though he sits at the back of the one foot.  LaBonte’s attempted draw to face it – predictably in the circumstances – was high, wide and not so very handsome.  The Canadians go home as undefeated World Champions.  The USA, who in their own minds were World Champions for about 7 seconds were left to lick their wounds and think about what might have been.

In the great scheme of things, it wasn’t so much a stone of destiny as a salutary lesson to all curlers everywhere.  Neither team made it back to the World Championships but what, at first, was destined to be a footnote in the history of our great sport began to develop wings and gradually, people began to talk about the “curse of LaBonte”.  It is a fact that Canada did not win a World Curling Championship for the rest of that decade.  Given their dominance in world curling hitherto, it was astonishing!

Then we go the Olympic semi-finals in Japan in 1998.  The GBR ladies are up against Sandra Schmirler who, until this point in the competition had really dominated.  The semi-final was against GBR, skipped by Kirsty Hay, with the Loudon sisters and Jackie Lockhart; no mugs and, truth to tell, they really made the Canadians work hard for their victory, so much so that with Schmirler’s last stone in the extra end, she was facing two GBR stones – albeit with the full eight foot to draw to.  As it crossed the hogline, it’s fair to say that, to use a lovely old Scottish phrase, “it was fully there”!  There was backing, but the line was high and let’s just say that Edith Loudon got her brush to it and had a good sweep, before it stopped – agonisingly beating the GBR stone by inches.  From the semi-final to the bronze medal play-off game – and that is surely the worst one of all to lose; sadly, that is exactly what happened for GBR against the Swedes.

Fast forward a few more years to the Olympic Games in Pinerolo; exactly the same stage in the competition, though this time the GBR men – David Murdoch, Ewan Macdonald, Warwick Smith and Euan Byers are tied at 3-3 coming into the tenth end of a tight, nervy tussle against Markku Uusilpaavalniemi’s Finnish champions.  The Finns hold the crucial last stone.  GBR is lying at 9.00 fully in the four foot and corner frozen against a Finnish stone.  David, with his last stone, plays the perfect shot to about 6.30 at the front of the four foot covering the one foot and forcing Markku to the cold out-turn draw to the button.  The GBR boys must have felt quietly confident.  U15 had to bite the button, whilst coming tight to the guard just laid by Murdoch.  But there was nothing they could do except watch as the stone came perfectly to rest on the button with barely a sweep by the front end.

Heartache twice!

But then you have Rhona Martin’s stone of destiny; enough said!  A month later, Jackie Lockhart’s nerveless hit on a straight piece of ice against Colleen Jones’ Canadian team to win the World Championship.  David Murdoch’s “stone of retribution” – the raised double take out against his pals, Thomas Ulsrud’s Norwegian team in the Sochi Olympics.

You win some; you lose some.

But spare a thought for Labonte and his mates; that’s a lifetime of heartache right there.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

In Defence of the Scottish

Actually, it all started with a miss by one of the five against the other four.  Otherwise the four would never have become five and, I suspect, we would have had a different team at the recent Winter Olympics.  Confused?  Let me explain.

It is February 2011 at Perth ice rink and the Scottish Championship is approaching its denouement.  In the semi-final, Tom Brewster is skipping a team of young hopefuls – a couple of whom wore the same kind of scars as their more experienced skip had in abundance.  Both Greg Drummond and Michael Goodfellow had recently aged out without winning the Scottish Junior Championship.  Their last chance had been against the Ally Fraser team, with Greg’s brother, Kerr at lead. 

Anyhow.  Back to the semi-final; Tom and company had put up a good fight, but they were up against David Murdoch, with Warwick Smith at third, Ross Hepburn at lead and – Glen Muirhead at second.  David had last stone advantage.  I was behind the barrier and saw the whole thing unfold.  With the skips’ stones to play, here’s what I wrote.

With Tom’s first stone in the fateful last end, he attempted to draw round a short guard but was light and came up short.  David attempted a difficult double clear, but was about an inch tight and ended up clearing Tom’s two guards but left his own shooter in play and covering the edge of the four foot.  Tom’s out-turn draw was perfect and bit a piece of the one foot, showing maybe three-quarters of a stone.  David elected to play the cold draw to the one foot, though he knew that he had a bit of backing with Tom’s stone on the tee line.  Meat and drink.  He slid down to the far end, conferred with his front end – strong sweepers both, settled in the hack, concentrated and began his delivery.  Warwick Smith’s brush was almost exactly where Greg’s had been a couple of minutes before.  David slid out – he seemed to be sliding ever-so-slightly tight from where I was, but that could have been an illusion.  In any case, he released and from there, it was down to Glen and Ross.  Except it wasn’t.  Maybe ten yards along its path, David just dropped his brush and looked heavenwards.  He knew already.  The sweepers stayed close.  Warwick shrugged and shook his head – he knew.  Still the sweepers stayed close, but in their hearts, they knew too.  Handshakes all round.  I looked at Glen.  I knew how he felt.  Shell-shocked.  If you haven’t been there, my friend, you will never, ever know, is all I’m telling you.  Glen’s been there a few times.  He knows.  He will be stronger for it, though that particular platitude wears thin with him at the moment.

Tom, Greg, Scott Andrews and Michael went on to beat Moray Combe in a tense final and then won Silver at the World Championships.  The next year, they repeated the feat – losing a tense World final to Canada’s Glenn Howard and that summer following, the four became five when David Murdoch joined the team.

Question: would anyone have picked Tom and his team to go to the World Championships that year?  I’ll answer that one for you.  No.

Would anyone have picked Ken Horton in 1977?  No.  Mike Hay in 1984?   No.  David Murdoch in 2003?  You’re getting the picture.

Maybe my point is even more tellingly made if we look at the ladies game.  Rhona Howie.  Would anyone have picked Rhona anytime?  No.  She doggedly came back for more heartache after more heartache; she was Mrs second-place Howie year after heart-breaking year.  She was like a punch-drunk fighter coming back for more.  And she kept coming back and finally, splendidly, magnificently, she claimed her Scottish Championship.  She proved herself in the cauldron of competition and did enough to get picked as the GBR skip in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.  Rhona Martin, Debbie Knox, Fiona MacDonald, Janice Watt and Margaret Morton.  What a team of losers they turned out to be.

I am hearing and reading it all over again.  Let’s have picked teams for the World Championships; let’s downgrade the Scottish Championship to a second-rate competition.

Let’s not bother, shall we?  Let’s look at history.  Pay attention, people; we have a jewel in our crown.  Keep it polished.
 
Robin Copland

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sochi's on my Mind (part two)

Well; the dust has settled on the round-robin competitions and we enter the play-off phases of the competition with the semi-finals.  In the ladies competition, Canada find themselves in that most unenviable of positions: top of the table, but about to face arguably the top team in the competition - our own GBR team skipped by Eve Muirhead.

If we are truthful, the girls have struggled a bit and there has been some careless shot-play.  5-4 is not what was expected at the start of the week though, and to be very fair, the losses have typically been in tight, tight games.  We approach the business end of the competition; I like our chances.  Eve seems nerveless when she throws these big, big shots towards the end of her games.  She has a wonderful temperament.  If Anna, Vicky and Claire can set things up for her, she will finish them off.

David Murdoch, by the way, really needs to start sending Christmas cards and gifts to Rasmus Stjerne Hansen (not a name for the faint-hearted!).  Not once, but twice, he has ridden to GBR's rescue - first with a bit of a miss with his last stone against the British boys earlier on in the round-robin, then with a great (and somewhat unexpected) win against Norway in the final game.  That win set the play-off game up; had Norway won their game, then it would have been curtains for the GB men.

I really liked the way that the GBR men went about their business and as for David's last stone - have a look at it again on the iplayer!  All I'm saying.  Brilliant!

Men v Sweden and women v Canada.  Business end of the competition.  Bring it on!

Friday, February 07, 2014

Sochi's on my Mind!


It’s not far away now!  There are ten GBR curlers’ hearts beating just that little bit faster as Monday approaches.  Their support teams will be gathered around them – holding hands; supporting; encouraging.  The coaches will be focusing their charges on the struggles ahead.  The clock keeps ticking down.

For some, this is not a new experience.  Both skips have been here and done that in Olympics past – in David Murdoch’s case, not once, but twice.  He has come agonisingly close – who will ever forget Uusilpaavalniemi’s draw to the corner of the one foot in the Pinerolo semi-final eight years ago to snatch victory from the GBR team?  They went on to lose to the Americans in the 3 v 4 play-off but, interestingly, went on that year to win the World Championship – a chance denied them this time around.

Eve, as a young and raw 19 year-old went to Vancouver as skip of a strong GBR ladies team – Jacqui Lockhart at third, Kelly Wood at second and Lorna Vevers at lead, with fellow-golfer Annie Laird as alternate.  They lost more than they won, but many of the losses were tight, tight affairs and she will have learned from the experience.

This time around, I like the look of both teams.  I think that both have great chances of podium finishes – with perhaps the women looking the stronger of the two in their group.  That said, there are a goodly number of strong ladies teams.  GBR start with a game against their nemeses, the Swedish ladies; tough opener, this one.  You look at this Swedish team and think that they are there for the taking; but they are dogged and the sum is very definitely stronger than the parts. 

On Tuesday, they play the USA in a game I expect them to win.  Then on Wednesday, they have a big game against Jennifer Jones from Canada.  Jones has made a habit of winning Canadian championships for fun but, strange to report, this is her first go at the Olympics.  This would be a great game for Eve and company to win!  Jones has one only World Gold to her name – and that was in front of a home crowd in Vernon.  Get the win in early.  Let the Canadians sweat a bit!

Mind you, two of the first three games are tough, tough affairs – and, by the way, I don’t expect the USA to be pushovers either!   

China, Japan, Korea will be doughty opponents.  In round seven there awaits the 2012 World Champions, the Swiss skipped by Mirjam Ott.  The GBR team has two round-robin games after their match against Ott, one against the stuffy Russians in front of a home crowd, and finally they play Denmark.

Look, a game of curling can go either way and, more often than not, will hinge on one or two great stones or marginal misses.  Our team is good though – really good.  Yes, they will have a target on their backs as the current World Champions, but there is a presence about them on the ice and the other teams know just how good they each are.  With David Hay as their coach, a man for whom they all have the utmost respect, I expect them to reach the semi-finals and I hope that they get the wee rubs that Rhona Martin got all those years ago and David Murdoch didn’t get in Pinerolo.  I think that the four semi-final places go to Canada, Sweden, Switzerland and GBR.  GBR for Gold!  There you go; I’ve said it!

Now to the men.  They have the honour of opening their campaign against the Russians.  I like the fact that they get the Russians early, before the crowd has settled down.  I think that their second game is also a good one for them against a strangely out-of-sorts but current World Champion, Niklas Edin.  Germany, Switzerland, USA and Denmark follow and I am really hoping that, by this time, they are on a 6-0 or 5-1 record, for the next two games are the tough ones, and they come one after the other.  Canada, skipped by Brad Jacobs with a really strong third in Ryan Fry, look the class of the field to me; Norway, whom GBR face in the next game, are perennial podium finishers.  The GBR men finish their round-robin with a game against China.  I hope that they have done well enough for it not to matter!

I think that the four semi-finalists in this field are Canada, Norway, GBR and Sweden.  I say that because the GBR team has a pretty strong record in recent World and European Championships – two Silver medals and two Bronzes.  There was a time when David Murdoch had the Indian sign over Norway’s Ulsrud, but that time has perhaps passed.  If I were a man who prayed, I think I would want Sweden in the semi-final – and then may the best team win the final!  Can the men make it a golden double for GBR in the curling?  We can dream, but I think a more realistic colour is either Silver or Bronze – depending on whom they face in the semi-final.  I can’t see past Canada for the Gold – but I want the lads to prove me wrong and I promise that my face will be covered in poached egg (the healthier option, after all!), when they come back to Blighty with a Gold medal around their necks.

Best of luck to them all.  They all deserve our 100% support.  The games are all on the BBC red button service and you might find this link useful.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Warhorses, Turks, or Pretenders? You Decide!

Oh – I’m looking forward to the Scottish finals this year and no mistake!  Yes, I am disappointed that the Olympic fivesome will not be there to defend their title.  I think, if I am frank, that it demeans the Scottish as the premier competition in Scotland that a team has to forego playing in and defending their national championship.  I am disappointed also because the winning team will always have that wee question mark against their win.  But hey – remember Randy Ferbey?  He won a good few of his Brier titles in the absence of Kevin Martin and Glenn Howard, to name but two – but does anyone question his place at the legends’ table?  No; so let’s not cry too much over the spilt milk and let’s also remember that Sochi will be on their minds!

But back to the Scottish.  You can only beat those put in front of you and the winner will have played well and be worthy champions.  So who’s who in the final field of ten at the Dewars Centre, Perth from Monday 10th to Sunday 16 February (cue the usual and annual bleat from me about stringing things out, asking people to take too much of their hard-earned holidays, etc., etc.!).

First of all, I like the look of the field.  It has a balance to it – a balance of youth, commitment, experience; it is actually like a field in the Scottish from thirty years ago; and anything that reminds me of my up-and-coming (then – not now!) youth is to be considered “a good thing”!  Why do I write that?  Look at it this way.  You have three teams, McCleary, Hamilton and Combe that have been around the block a few times, that are enjoying a little bit of an Indian summer in a couple of cases, that curl together because they like each other and play for fun.  Some have been through the squad system; a few have challenged for Scottish titles in the past; many have been committed activists in the competitive game – and they all deserve their place in the sun.

Of those three, the McCleary team perhaps has the best chance of causing an upset or two amongst the more established or better known teams.  All are capable on their day of beating anyone and I think that they will all finish respectably.  The key thing for me is that they all enjoy their experience.

Then you’ve got the old warhorses – teams Macdonald and Smith.  Ewan has brought in a fine young curler, Dave Reid, at second.  He has Duncan Fernie at third and specialist lead, Euan Byers.  I saw Ewan and Euan throw in the European Mixed Championships in Murrayfield at the start of the season.  I thought that they should have won the competition and believe me when I tell you that team MacDonald could go all the way.

The same is true, obviously of Warwick and his merry band.  They have also had a change of player in the second position and have brought in Carnoustie’s own Sandy Reid to throw the second’s stones.  He threw top end in the team that ran Tom Brewster so close in his maiden Scottish victory three years ago.  David Smith and Ross Hepburn fill the third and lead positions.  Believe me when I tell you that team Smith could – have I not said that already about another team?

But what about the young Turks, teams Smith (Kyle), Hardie and Fraser?  Kyle, the reigning world junior champion and his team of Thomas Muirhead, Kyle Waddell and Cameron Smith all have the pedigree and the chutzpah.  They thrive on competition.  They are arrogant and confident in their own ability.  They could do the double – though I would perhaps rather that they didn’t.  It’s a big ask to go to two separate world championships and peak for both.

Team Hardie has Jay McWilliam (note to the Royal Club; his name has no “s” in it!  He is a single “McWilliam”!), Hammy McMillan and Billy Morton.  They all have the talent and are specialists in their own positions.  Hanging around their necks though – and it seems strange to say this of youngsters in their early twenties – is the tag of “nearly men”.  They have come up short a couple of times in the finals of major championships; could this be their year to get that monkey off their backs?

Ally Fraser also has a strong team in front of him, with a bit of experience at second where the excellent Neil Macarthur will keep a calm head.  This is a new team, put together this season, though Blair Fraser and Ruairidh Greenwood played together last season.  Ally himself proved in the final of the Scottish Junior a couple of years ago that he has the big shots in his pocket.  But I think that winning the Scottish in this field may prove too much for them this season.

Which leaves the Pretenders, Teams Logan Gray and David Edwards.  Personally, I think that the champion comes from one of them.  Both have experienced players down the rink, who have specialised and are top curlers.  Logan has Glen Muirhead, Ross Paterson and Richard Woods.  David has John Penny, Scott Macleod and Colin Campbell.  David and his team won the Edinburgh International in November and Logan won the Perth Masters in January.  It is evenly poised between these two teams, in my view.

Mortgage time?  Well, maybe Logan; they do more curling; they wear more outrageous clothes and they have recent form at Perth.  Oh, but then maybe David, who has been knocking at the door for longer and has a more consistent record in the Scottish.

Cigarette papers, me thinks.  Two fine teams.  And the others aren’t too bad either!

Monday, November 04, 2013

The Runners and Riders in the Scottish Ladies Championship

Now, here’s a rum thing.  Hot on the heels of my thoughts on falling numbers, tippex-scribbled laptops and recruitment officers, I have just taken a look at the 2013-2014 Scottish Ladies Championship runners and riders.  You would have thought, would you not, that, in the absence of the reigning Scottish and World champions (and that’s another discussion), the cream of Scottish Ladies curling might have thought to themselves, in a moment of blinding logic, that, if you had an ambition to win your national championship, this might be about as good a year as any to wander off to the curling cabinet, get out the old Bally shoes, scrub down the Thistle brush and wander down to the rink for a wee practice before the championship onslaught. 

I would have thought so anyway.  You would not have seen me for dust.  In fact, so enthused was I about the whole thing that I got as far as the cupboard before I realised that there was just one small thing I had forgotten about and that was that.

So – how come only seven entrants?  Search me.  And who is going to win.  I think the answer is – well, it depends.

Regular readers will remember that I wrote a couple of months ago about the fifth player for the Olympics.  Since I wrote the blog by the way, it has been announced that Scott Andrews, Tom Brewster, Greg Drummond, Michael Goodfellow and David Murdoch, who will skip the rink, have been chosen to represent GB at the Olympics in the men’s competition.  This is a good thing, in my view and all of British curling wish them well.

But, the fifth lady has not yet been announced.  There was much harrumphing when I suggested that Kelly Wood might be a surprise choice (Kelly currently lives in Canada).  Assuming that she is not chosen, then it seems only logical that the fifth player will come from – one of the seven teams competing in the Scottish.  This will make life very difficult for the rest of the team for the simple reason that they have been robbed of a quarter of their team, and most likely a top-end player, to boot.  Presumably, the player concerned will not be able to compete in the Scottish for the same reason that Eve Muirhead, Anna Sloan, Vicky Adams and Claire Hamilton are not able to compete.  And that will be that, then.

So, I repeat – it depends!

The most obvious contender and heir apparent is Hannah Fleming’s strong team.  They were runners-up last year and in fact had the beating of Eve’s team in the round-robin.  They did not perform as well as they might have in the final, but they are still a strong looking outfit.  Former team mate, Alice Spence replaces Abi Brown who is concentrating on her fourth year studies at university.  Alice and Jennifer Dodds are a strong front end.  Lauren Gray remains at third.

Team Fleming is a funded team so, logically, there is a fair chance that the fifth player will come from their number.  Both Alice and Lauren have been fifth player to Eve and co in the past (and Lauren is going to the European Championships in that capacity this time round), but all four are fine curlers, so any one of them could be picked.

Lorna Vevers, Sarah Reid, Rebecca Kesley and Rachel Hannen look strong as well.  I should report to an enthralled readership that Rebecca recently won the Currie and Balerno points competition, so her confidence is at an all-time high!  Lorna has been there and done it for longer than she will care to remember, Sarah is a gold medal winning World junior champion skip in her own right and Rebecca and Rachel again are a strong front end.

Gail Munro will be back, though there is an element of uncertainty about exactly who she will be with at the championships, given that her three team mates are listed as TBA, TBA and TBA!  It must be the water in Stranraer, or something.  Suffice it to say that if Gail gets her mojo going, the others had better play well to get past her.

There are three younger teams taking part, skipped by Gina Aitken, Jennifer Marshall and Jennifer Martin.  I think that they will compete and will have the beating of some of the other teams.  Will they win the championship?  One of these days, many of them will, but maybe not this season.

So I am leaving Kerry Barr until last.  She is flying quietly under the radar and she and her three team mates, Rachael Simms, Rhiann Macleod and Barbara McPake are all bloody good curlers and chums as well.  They are playing entirely for the fun of it and I think that their innate talent mixed with a wee hint of devil-may-care and topped by some luck along the way – well, you never know!

The competition dates are Friday 29th November to Sunday 1st December 2013 at Dumfries Ice Bowl and then from Monday 10th to Sunday 16th February 2014 at Dewars Centre, Perth.  The format for this year will be a double round-robin followed by a mini page play-off with the top 3 teams from the round-robin progressing.

Ah.  Maybe that’s why there are not so many entries.  Most of the competitors have jobs and other pesky things like that.  You know the kind of thing: you get up in the morning at some ungodly hour; you get on a bus; you commute into your place of work and you earn enough spondulacks to put the tatties on the table.  That pesky thing.
 
Could we not have devised a system to pick a winner of our national championship from seven entrants that was slightly less pedantic and involved?  Just saying!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The One about Falling Numbers of Curlers in Scotland

Computers are great things.  They add up; they subtract and they let you correct typing errors without using Tippex (other correction fluids are available).  I only discovered this, mind you, when a nice lady asked me what all the white scribbles were on my laptop screen.

But they are also a bit bad.  Apparently you can play games on them and this, so I am told, has led to a generation of feckless wasters spending all of their time glued to a screen playing computer games instead of getting out and doing things: things like tanner ba’ kicking against a wall; golf; swimming; rugby; tennis; cycling and, yes, curling.

Although we talk a great game and arguably, to the outside world, our sport has never been healthier with medals galore and all of the reflected glory they bring to armchair fans, the stark reality is that the numbers of participants has fallen dramatically these past twenty years or so.  I used to boast in the pub that Scotland was the second biggest curling nation after Canada (where there is, of course, absolutely hee-haw else to do in winter) with upwards of twenty-five thousand participants (I had made the number up, but I was not that far away from the truth of the matter).  Well, it ain’t twenty-five thousand participants now and nor are we the second biggest curling nation any more.  The USA, where for years curling was somewhat in the doldrums, has perked up.  Curling is a growth sport over the pond and they have leapt ahead of us in terms of the membership of their national body versus ours.

At this point, you will expect me to have a dig at the Royal Club.  I don’t think that would be fair.  The RCCC has been proactive in their activities to develop the sport.  Think of all the initiatives that the Royal Club has come up with in the past decade or so. 
 
·         For the younger generation, there is the Curling’s Cool programme, the annual summer camps and the revamped skills awards.  The club has also taken an active role in coordinating the universities curling programme and, for the past forty-odd years has run the Scottish schools championship as well, of course, as the Scottish Junior Championships.
·         For adults, there is the annual adult “camp” (some camp – it was at the North-West Castle hotel in Stranraer!) and the Virtual Clubs.
·         The club actively promotes disabled curling – not just for wheelchair users, but also now for visually-impaired and deaf curlers. 

For further information on all of these initiatives, go to http://royalcaledoniancurlingclub.org/development/ and have a look at what is on offer.  I would argue that, were it not for these initiatives, the sport might well be in a far worse position than it is now. 

The Mother Club’s job has not been helped by the closure of a number of curling centres – places like Lochgoilhead, Forest Hills, Pitlochry, Letham Grange, Brora and Gogar Park.  I admit that many of these venues were kind of built in the wrong place and did not have a population hinterland large enough to sustain them.  That is not true though of the likes of Gogar in Edinburgh and Forest Hills just to the north of the Glasgow conurbation.  With the demise of each rink, the sport quietly lost many a curler.

At the current leakage rate, we will be plum out of curlers in about twenty-five years or so.  OK – so there is an element of hyperbole in the figures and someone once said something about “lies, damned lies and statistics”, but you get the picture.  The trouble is that all of this is happening over the long term.  It’s a bit like global warming; small changes every year that you don’t really notice until you take stock and compare things to fifty years ago (or in Scottish curling’s case, twenty years ago).  Perhaps most worryingly of all, to the likes of me at least, is the fact that at the recent AGM, there was much talk about ten curlers not being allowed to play in the Scottish Championship this coming year – important issue though that is, especially to the ten curlers involved - but not a lot of talk about the falling numbers playing our great sport!

At this point, let me introduce you to Logan Gray.  No – not that one; not the competitive curler Logan Gray with the loud trousers on the telly.  The one I want to introduce you to is a bit more thoughtful and contemplative.  He is the one who cares deeply about the future of his sport and is currently employed as the Ice Sports Development Officer in Stirling.  He is perhaps less well-known, but I would argue that he is the more important of the two – certainly when it comes to the good of the sport and its future. 

Logan was telling me about a couple of initiatives that he has introduced up in Stirling in which he is trying to enlist the support of the various clubs to back up his development programme.  Let him take up the story:

What I’m doing is asking the clubs to get their members to go out and find people to come to TryCurling sessions.  Once the members have found these new recruits they should accompany them to the session as a familiar face for support and also to socialise with them. It should make the new and very alien environment a little less daunting for the new curler!  The attraction to curling for the masses is the sociability of the sport and if you don’t know anyone it isn’t going to be very sociable at first…

The role the club has here is twofold.  I’m offering them a day and time suited to their club to maximise their opportunity to recruit but also to retain new curlers in the long run. So they need to pick a date and time that suits their club and members.   Secondly they need to motivate their members to get out there and find people.  We need to be more proactive and by having one session (per season) on a date tailored to a club, the whole membership can focus on it and all push to get people signed up.  It’s a more focused approach and once the date has passed the obligation is gone until next season. 

I think all clubs serious about their future should consider having a recruitment officer, as you mentioned, to carry out this role as when I speak to clubs and ask what they need help with. Every single club says “we need more members”.  This is very different to clubs being represented at TryCurling sessions – they need to go out and find people to attend the sessions. 

We need to play to our sport’s strengths and for me… that is acknowledging that people who curl are not randoms who come in off the street (Olympic fever aside).  People do not wake up in the morning and have an overwhelming urge to try curling.  A huge majority of people who currently curl have been brought into the sport by people they know who have targeted their friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, so curlers need to take responsibility for the future of our sport.  Curling clubs are lucky that they have a fantastic resource available to them in most ice rinks where the facility / development group/development officer / curling school arranges coaching opportunities for new curlers, unlike clubs in other sports who have to provide this for themselves to enable them to grow.  I’ve spent a lot of time with clubs over the last 6 months meeting them to explain that this resource exists for their use and encouraging them to use it more.  Don’t bring people in off the street and toss them straight into a league.  Clubs will have a better chance of retaining these new curlers if they have had a proper introduction to the sport from qualified coaches and learning alongside other novices.

Essentially what should happen is this.  The clubs actively recruit new people, book them onto our TryCurling sessions, the new curler advances through the new curler pathway by going to beginner classes then virtual club and within a year, Bob’s your uncle – the club is rewarded for their efforts and has a new member, with no financial cost to the club, just a little effort annually from their members to try and find one person to enrol for a TryCurling class.

Logan’s work is bearing fruit and this year more than three times the number of curlers have come through the TryCurling programme than last.

So, in conclusion, I think we need to have a care.  Our sport – in common with others, let it be said – is going through something of a crisis at grassroots level.  We have a particularly interesting year coming up with the Olympics and we have a chance to use them as a springboard to introduce new curlers to the sport.  Link that with the kind of initiative that Logan is introducing in the Stirling area and we have a chance to grow our sport again.  Our clubs, maybe with a recruitment officer in place, need to get together with their local development officers so that there is a connect between their development activities and active recruitment of new curlers.  Finally, and let this be shouted from the rooftops, every rink should have “come and try” days from February onwards, to build on the interest that two Olympic Gold medals will engender!

No pressure on the Olympians, then!