Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Olympics

I have been meaning to blog on the subject of the Olympic curling and now it seems that it may be a little late as both GB teams are out of the competition. I predicted medals for both. They come home with none. Bear that in mind when reading my thoughts below. Do I really know anything at all?

It is a funny thing in curling but experienced curlers will often look back at a game in which they have played and be able to pick out the critical moment - the one where who was going to win was decided. And ususally both winners and losers will agree - which suggests there really is something phsychological about it. Last night GB contributed several candidates by way of missed stones (I wish Murdoch's team had been so accommodating when we played them at the Edinburgh International) but actually you expect there will be some misses - a 100% score for a player is very rare in a game - so the mere fact that a shot was missed does not make it that critical deciding stone. Last night the stone came late in the game - it was David Murdoch's first at the tenth end (at about 1 am in the morning GMT so you are forgiven if you missed it). GB had set up the end well and were lying one counter guarded. GB had last stone. Murdoch initially indicated he wanted essentially to draw behind the guard to prevent Sweden attempting a difficult hit on their own red with the running stone deflecting from the hit to remove the GB stone and lie behind the guard. If Murdoch made that shot then Sweden could not play the deflected hit and achieve the same result. They could either try the same shot but would likely remove only one GB stone leaving Murdoch a draw to the other side of the four foot ring for a two and so win the game. Alternatively Sweden could try a pressure draw around the other side themselves hoping to hide enough that Murdoch could not remove them. That one ranks in the "sounds good in theory but in reality there is almost always a hit left to remove it" category. But then the rest of the team, particularly Peter Smith, the second, intervened with various suggestions. A time out was called. David Hay the coach (and slayer of young Wilson school boy curling dreams many years ago but that was another time and another place) walked down. David is soft spoken at the best of time and with Shona's heavy breathing next to me (she was in that sleep state of drifting off and then denying she was sleeping) it was really not possible to hear what he did say. But what he should have said was - "guys, David is on 50% on take outs and 90% on draws - you have three shot options - two are draws, one is a take out. Today I recommend one of the draw options because this is not David's best day for striking". If he did say that he was ignored. They opted for a hit on the red which would have been Sweden's target but it was essential that they did not just hit it but also rolled in behind the guard. Now it is pretty hard on television to see why shots are not made perfectly - I have a suspicion that Murdoch has developed the tiniest of pushes as he releases on out turn strikes because over this last week a lot of his nearly mades have been on that line but as with most things I could be wrong and probably am - but Murdoch hit but did not roll. Sweden were left able to hit Murdoch's stone and if they got the angle correct use it to also remove the other GB stone in the house. They got the angle right. We will never know what the outcome would have been had Murdoch played either of the draw possibilities. What we can say is that based off his performance in this game there was a roughly 90% chance he would have made the shot and Sweden would have had to play a different and more difficult shot. To me what had been a great contest ebbing one way then the other was decided with that shot.

Another thing that struck me was that Sweden looked like they wanted it more. When they swept, they swept as if their life depended on it. The Murdoch team have far greater sophistication - they have studied sweeping so that they utilise different kinds of brushes to obtain slightly different effects, occasionally swapping the brushes between them. Yet in the basic art of keeping a stone that was drawing further than expected as straight as possible or in making a stone go further, they were second best to what the Swedes achieved. That should not be so.

When the Swedes were playing badly (as they did for three or four ends) the team (less so skip) looked visibly upset. In contrast the effect of experience on the Murdoch team seemed to be for them to show a small spark of emotion and then look nonchalent after a missed shot. Perhaps this is consistent with how Federer, for example, might react or perhaps there is a degree of suppression of true feeling in the same way a spouse might, in company, hide their irritation about some feature of their other half's behaviour but actually they really want to shout at the other half and express their true feelings. (Or maybe only I irritate my spouse that way). If it is the latter then maybe the idea that a curling team can be selected several years in advance of the competition and reasonably be expected to work together intensely for several years without the pressure eventually leading to small breakdowns in the team integrity may be wrong.

Had I been there and able to express a view (and immediately before Murdoch smacked me with a broom and challenged my credibility) I might have had Hay spend a little more time on releases - there was little consistency across the team - perhaps it was always so with this team but it surprises me; I would have had a long chat with Pete Smith - his interventions seemed to me to destabilise the team and his suggestions were nearly always for very aggresive and technically difficult shots - generally the higher a player's percentage is in a game will correlate not only to how well he is playing but also to how difficult are the shots he is being asked to play. Making a Murdoch who is not playing at his fabulous best play very difficult shots when there were easier alternatives is not sensible. Finally maybe I would have had them have a "no holds bar here is what I really think" session to clear the air. And then maybe not. You would have to have an incling as to what would be said to ensure it could be turned into a positive session before embarking down that route.

In the end all very disappointing. Particularly for the team. Despite appearances against Sweden the efforts this team have put in are only consistent with wanting to win Olympic medals very, very badly indeed. They will be hurting.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Rusty Nail Weekend 2010

This week the eyes of the sporting world may be focused on the Champions League football or, if you are a Liverpool fan, the Olympics but last weekend saw a sporting contest of far greater signicance than either of these - at least to the Wilson household. I refer - of course - to the Rusty Nail International Curling Competition.

The Rusty Nail competition is played in a picturesque Scottish setting which, when the mist clears and it isn't raining (this is the West of Scotland [actually not sure why I wrote that, like it does not rain in the east, north, south etc of Scotland!?]) reveals a beautiful sea loch amidst steep mountainside glens. The journey there from Glasgow Airport is not particularly long at about an hour and a half but involves driving over the "Rest and be Thankful" - a name which describes the slopes leading to it and the response of walkers on ascending to it. This year was snow free but in previous years there has been a wait at the Rest and be Thankful car park for the snow plough to clear the single track sheep path that is the main road in. Oh and no reception on most mobile networks - we are talking isolation. Beautiful isolation.

So put a group of healthy, young (I speak here of mind and spirit if not body) people in such a clean, stress free environment with a multitude of outdoor activites available and what do they do? They spend the weekend indoors. That's what. A few hours on the curling rink (indoors), feeding (indoors) and a few more at the bar (indoors) and the day has passed. So we might as well hold it in an industial estate so long as it has a liquor licence and a curling rink.

Ten successful Rusty Nail competitions have taken place since the inaugural competition in 1998 (I think). Some infamous names are on the trophy - teams skipped by "God" Lumsden (a founder of the Rusty Nails "Club", now father of three), "I'll do it my way or I'll get grumpy" Grant Farquarson, "The Wetzikon Cigar" Harry Burger from Switzerland and more recently "Put your brush down here it comes" Ronnie Wilson (no blood relation) from the Markinch club in Fife. Others have gone home with the wooden spoon - The Wetzikon Cigar again (an exchange: the trophy won the year before for the more practical kitchen implement), the new boys and girls this year - first time we have had a team with average age under 30 - and many others.

But really its not about the winning and losing (and I am not just saying that because we did not win this year). It is about the camaraderie on and off the ice; of friendships made and revitalised over shared experience. Each year we have a "reception" hosted by one of the nationalities present or celebrating a significant birthday. This year was a (most excellent) Norwegian/Scottish affair with a birthday celebration for one of our number. The birthday girl was unaware of the plans and when the cake came out she was fumbing for her camera to take photographs of whomever we were toasting this year. Only when her name was mentioned in the birthday song did the truth dawn. The few seconds when Susan's face went spontaneously but in slow motion (without the need of a replay) from "Oh that's nice, I wonder who's birthday it is." to "Susan? That's my name, is there another Susan?" to "Oh doh, I just had my [significant] birthday, it must be me" was priceless. Susan Young, welcome to eligibility for senior competitions.

Later, like much, much later within the same 24 hour period, and more facial expressions. Again surprise but this time turning to alarm for one of our more modest number when the entire bar erupted into a spontaneous rendition of the Simon and Garfunkel song "Cecilia" when she walked into the bar. You can guess her name and I guess it does not happen all the time in Norway - hence the alarm.

For the record Markinch made off with the silverware for the second year on the trot - if they win it again they get to keep the curling hall. The boy with the guitar who is there the same weekend as the Rusty Nails every year, is this coincidence? I think not. won the singing contest for the second year on the trot - if he wins it again he gets to keep his voice till sunday. And the rest of us made off with happy memories for the eleventh year on the trot - if it happens again we'll be back for more.

Major, huge thanks to Mr and Mrs Ewan for the hard work organising the event.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Anyone who knows me well also knows how competitive I am. I can't let my children win at football easily (they have to work very hard, I have to suppress my natural instincts - pathetic really) and I doubt there has ever been a curling game that I have been relaxed about not winning. Just the way I am. So losing a game for the Championship, losing the chance to go to Champery, Switzerland for the European Championships cuts deep. It is the same for Jamie, skip of our team - chips off the same block. Michael and Henry will also be hurting right now - probably equally. We have played hard, we have trained hard - for goodness sake, I gave up beer - there is no doubting our commitment but there is also no disputing we came up short against another very good team.

It is tempting at moments like this to focus on what went wrong and there are rights and wrongs in that. Absoultely wrong if it personalises it - play as a team, win or lose has to be the right maxim in a team sport. And I am proud to have been part of my team and WE lost, not any individual. At the same time you need to try and hold on to what went wrong - even if it is as simple as not playing all the shots we were called to play - so we can work on it in the future. Without that there is no improvement.

The rest of the team are in the jacuzzi back at the hotel. I am at the airport listening to a baleful Neil Young at the Starbucks hoping I can get back on an earlier flight so as to see more of the family. We will all need time to reflect on whether we are together as a team for the future with all the training and playing commitment that involves. For me, at my advanced age, the doors of the last chance saloon are swinging (until I reach seniors age at least) and for all of us balancing career and family against the fitness training, the weekends away and all the other bits and pieces that being serious at a sport (even a seriously minority sport like curling in England) involve is a tough and often unpopular choice.

And the standard in England is now high. I don't think a team without dedication can achieve the standard required. This is as it should be in an enjoyable Olympic sport where most of the other teams in Europe enjoy financial support from the state. The shame is that curling is not more widespread in England and there are not more facilities. Fentons Rink in Kent is excellent and is the source of much new curling blood (thankfully not literally!) of English heritage and shortly Sheffield should be up and running. There are outposts in the North of England playing over the border in Scotland but this remains a very minority sport. If you are reading this and don't play - watch it in the Olympics in a couple of weeks. GB has very good medal chances male and female. Then come to Kent or Sheffield or Scotland and give it a try. Try curling: it is fun.

Thanks to James Hustler for his sensible, pragmatic but accurate umpiring through-out the competition. Even more minority than English curling players are English curling umpires. James offers a model of dedication to the sport - not easy standing watching games for 3 hours in a cold ice rink. James, thank you.

Enough. Next weekend is the Rusty Nail International a competition based on the ethos of heavy but social drinking rather than ambition - I will be there to win it on and off the ice. Watch this space...

New Champions

Congratulations to Alan MacDougall and his team of Andy Reed, Andrew Woolston and Tom Jaeggi on becoming English Champions. They played very well and will represent England well in Champery, Switzerland. We wish them every success.

A bit gutting for us but no public tears and, at long last, a nice cold beer.

Over and out.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Round 5

Quickie as heading to dinner: MacDougall wins again but Malton narrowly edged (7-6) by Bowyer. Justice done? Certainly Bowyer deserved it with some good shots. So tomorrow morning at 9.30am the game between MacDougall and Malton is effectively a final with the winner taking the Championship. Bring it on. Big style. And with fries on the side.

Men Round 4 - a tribute to John Brown

The heading is not intended to be misleading: John is very much alive and well - we have just shared the same ice sheet for the best part of two hours so we are well placed to judge. Unfortunately the game ended in defeat for John and thus any remaining hope of skipping his team to the Championship were eliminated. John is Mr English Curling and, to some extent, Mr Curling. His log of statsitics is legendary (every game he has ever played plus the English curling annals), his service as a member of the English Curling Association and as their representative on European curling committees, our fifth man at the Euopeans in December last year, a long term contributer to "Scottish Curling" flying the St George's flag and still a strong player representing England at senior level. And still very competitive at national level. So it was not to be this year but stick in John, English curling absolutely needs dedicated people like you and we look forward to competing against you next year.

So that said, a win for Team Malton and a win for Team Macdougall so standings Malton 4 wins, MacDougall 3 wins, Bowyer 1 win and Brown being the strongest team supporting the rest.

Bananas! It seems we are the banana team. We respond by playing strongly immediately after a banana. Steal our bananas and we will be in trouble! Must be something to do with blood sugars but we will work on that another day. For now we are guarding our bananas.

Its toasties for now with next game at 2.30 (do the organisers not know about the Six Nations Rugby?!)