Friday, February 20, 2009

2009 Worlds preview

The first thing you notice as you approach the brand new Olympic/Paralympic Curling Centre, site of the 2009 World Wheelchair Curling Championships is that it is still a work in progress. You are entering a building site and this championship is the venue's first event.

A friendly lady handed over a media credential courtesy of the CCA. and pointed to an elevator festooned with sticky tape over buttons yet to be programmed, The "wheelchair media' table, up a ramp to the coaches area, afforded a view of only 5 of the 8 rings across the 4 sheets, so tomorrow I hope to report from the regular press area if I can find someone to pull my chair up the 11 scaffolded steps.

Each team had a couple of 45 minute practice sessions broken into 15 minute segments on different sheets. Attitudes to practice, and the practice teams had at practicing, showed in how efficiently they used their allotted time. Chairs were allowed to enter the ice a couple of minutes before the practice, to cool their tires. Then an official with a microphone announced "You may begin."

Team Korea already had their rocks ready, and had gone through a full rotation before other teams had sorted out who was doing what. Korea probably threw twice as many rocks as any other team, and looked a very efficient unit. I clocked several 7 second takeouts and it would be a brave team who challenges them to a hitting game. Their rotation over, the skip, third and coach took stopwatches and scouted the other teams,

The Scots entered the ice wearing shades; small ones for Michael McCreadie, and a pair that covered the entire top half of Jim Sellars' face. The Scots were throwing from behind the tee line in the near rings, and both team coaches spent a lot of time writing things down. It will be interesting to see how that works for them. Everybody I spoke to was skeptical about their chances.

Team Canada looked very focused. Coach Rea held the broom while Jim Armstrong sat beside him chatting. There seemed to be as much chatting as throwing. Somebody suggested they were trying to psych out the competition. I wonder if anybody was paying attention enough to be psyched.

There were a variety of delivery styles on display. Jim Pearce, USA third, used a two-handed delivery. The Chinese had their chins almost at the level of the rock handles. Team Canada has moved from a pendulum to a piston delivery, while Scotland's Tom Killin continues to use a three-quarter side delivery that lines up head, arm, hand, rock and broom through the length of delivery. I wonder why it is not more widely used.

Team USA were in an ebullient mood. They have a new and very high energy assistant coach and through Coach Steve Brown would not be drawn into a prediction, the players I spoke to felt confident that they could maintain or improve upon last year's success.

Many of the championship's teams draw from very small player pools. Germany have perhaps a dozen wheelchair curlers in the whole country and receive very little financial support. "Before we qualified for this tournament, we were having to pay our own expenses," said Jens J├Ąger, the German skip.

Jalle Jungell, the Swedish skip, said there were maybe two dozen wheelchair curlers in Sweden, though this year they had a four team playoff to decide who would represent Sweden at the Worlds. Three of the Swedish team won bronze in Torino but they only brought four players to Vancouver as one player was too ill to travel. "We'll just have to stay healthy," he said, adding the refreshing comment, 'but we are also here to enjoy ourselves. It has to be fun." Both Jalle and Jens thought Canada should be considered tournament favourites, though Jalle reminded me that Norway were a very strong team, "Rune (Norway's skip) is a very cool person; he has no nerves at all.'

The icemakers spent the day experimenting with different pebble and temperatures on each of the four sheets, balancing the need for fast ice and a manageable amount of curl. "The rocks are brand new," explained Swiss ic maker Peter Luk, who with Denmark's Jorgen Larsen made ice at Torino and tha lat twoWorlds. "New rocks curl a lot. The keener we make the ice the more the rocks will curl, and we're still trying to find a balance." Hog-to-hog tee line draw times were between 12 and 13 seconds, and the ice makers hope to get that to 14 or 14.5 seconds.

So, who's going to win? I didn't see anything today that makes me want to change my mind from the assessment I blogged in the comments a week ago. Canada are favourites: home ice, enormous experience at skip, more than adequate skill throughout the line-up and a Torino gold medalist at alternate. In the blog survey, 90% of respondents put Canada on the podium, with most suggesting gold. Korea was 2nd favourite, with Norway a close 3rd, followed by USA, China and Scotland. Here's my guess from a week ago and I'm staying with it.

Those of you who worry that Armstrong has not been tested have a point, but a small one. He throws well, at least as well as anyone throwing last rocks for Canada, or he would be doing a Ferbey and skipping from 3rd.

He's been curling 50 years, under pressure that none of the other curlers will know. And I think he has had enough success this season, not always with the best possible support, to have confidence in his own ability to draw to the centre of the rings when he has to.

That was what Canada has lacked with past skips; someone who could draw reliably with their last rock, though in fairness to Darryl, I would be comfortable with him throwing 4th.

Jim's understanding of the game is a huge advantage given that he knows that wheelchair curling is not able-bodied curling without the sweeping, but a different game requiring a completely different approach. He won't make the mistake of calling or attempting shots that are not there. He will also understand the point that Linda Moore stresses; assessing risk and reward, and calling for the shot likely to be made.

That's the area where I think he gives Canada its real edge, not so much the ice-reading, or overall strategy which are so susceptible to the fallibilities of throwing without sweeping.

He has also spent a lot of time practicing with Darryl which will help.

Ina is a very strong second. She (and Darryl) threw top of their positions last year. She can throw weight, and also throw guards if as I expect Canada comes into the rings with lead stones.

Chris at lead is the unknown. He has worked hard to earn his place and I suspect that his ability to throw takeouts at opposing leads stones in the rings is the reason he edges out Sonja. If he fails to overcome his nerves, then Sonja is a more than adequate alternative.

The entire Canada squad have improved over the past year, but we won't know until the weekend how much the other teams have improved also. Korea shocked everyone in 2008 by how accurately they threw weight. This year we'll be seeing how accurate they are on their draw game, and how able they are to manage ends with lots of rocks in play,

USA have a team spirit and a confidence that will carry them past other sides, though I don't think they have the opportunity to play enough to challenge Canada and Korea. China is a complete unknown. I suspect they will be too inconsistent to challenge at this level, which is a big step up from the Qualifying Tournament.

I don't think Norway will emulate their recent successes. They have never been a statistically impressive side, but have big game experience. If they get to the semis they could win again, but I don't think they'll get that far.

Strange to leave Scotland so late. They have the most experienced side, but they have shown no form this season, and while I know from firsthand experience just how good a curler Michael McCreadie is, I fail to see how throwing from far behind the hogline helps their cause. Unless Michael gets some early success I fear self-doubt will scupper his team's chances.

Switzerland arrive with a reworked team, Sweden bring Torino medal experience, Germany equaled China at Qualifying, and I'm afraid it will be Italy, despite losing a tie-break for a playoff spot last year, doing a Mike Harris and wondering where the easy games are.

So, as I posted at the top of this thread:



Here are some thoughts from Torino Gold Medal skip Chris Daw on the eve of this event.

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