Friday, 6 December 2013

England’s Ladies Win European Bronze Medal

England’s ladies team of Anna Fowler (22) (skip), Hetty Garnier (18), Lauren Pearce (21), Naomi Robinson  (19) and Lucy Sparks (17) came back from the European B Group Championships in Stavanger, Norway at the end of November with a bronze medal. This was a fantastic achievement for such a young team and bodes well for the future if they can stay together through the University years and beyond.

It was a tough week punctuated by illness for a couple of the players who were also not used to playing 10-end games of such frequency. The only previous time they had played 10 ends was in the English Championships where they had 5 games to play before they won it, coming from 2 games down to win 3-2 overall.

There were 10 teams in the B Group which meant 9 round-robin games over 5 days and they got off to the best possible start by scoring a 5 at the first end against the newly promoted Slovenia, eventually winning 15-3 after 6 ends. So that was a gentle introduction to the competition and the next game against Belarus, also promoted from the C Group, started in a similar fashion with England 6-0 up after 2 ends, before eventually winning 10-4 in 7 ends.

Game 3 against Poland was the first big challenge as the Poles, skipped by Elzbieta Ran had beaten England in the last 2 Europeans and this time it looked like a similar thing happening. England were never in front in the game, having to come from behind to draw level 3 times, until the last end when they stole a 2 to win 7-5 and we started to believe that something special could happen.

It was Turkey in game 4 and while we had beaten them in the last 2 Europeans, it had been mighty close in Karlstad. This was another close game initially but 3 stolen ends in the middle of the game to give Turkey a 6-2 lead proved decisive as our unbeaten record went, courtesy of a 7-4 defeat. Things were now tight at the top of the table as after 4 games Finland, Estonia, Turkey and England had all won 3 out of 4 games.

Over the years Austria have proved formidable opponents for England and we had only beaten them 3 times in 14 attempts, the last being back in 2006 in Basel. Constanze Hummelt has moved up to skip this year for them and with a 2-2 record after 4 games they were well in the mix. This game was a thriller and Hetty and Anna kept the best to the end. Fortunes ebbed to and fro and Austria appeared to have made a breakthrough when they stole a single at the 7th end to go into a 6-4 lead. But England came back with a 2 to level it after 8 before Austria took 1 at the 9th to lead 7-6 though England had the hammer.

The last end looked like Austria’s with stones around the button until Hetty played two dead draws to nudge Austria out of shot position. Time was also counting down and though it was never going to be a decisive factor, it did mean that when Anna came to play her last stone, after an Austrian saver had cut us done to lying just 1, she needed time to compose herself to play a delicate tee+ weight tap to get a second stone into the clutch that were lying within the 4 foot. To great roars from the travelling England support of 3, or maybe 4 by that time, she made a great shot under extreme pressure to collect 2 and the victory by 8-6. Meanwhile Turkey had lost to Finland and we were down to 3 teams tying for the lead.

Into game 6 and it was Spain skipped by the big-hitting Irantzu Garcia who, in spite of her youth, has a lot of experience in World level competition at Mixed, Mixed Doubles and Ladies Championships and she is well known to the England team as they have played against each other at Juniors for a number of years. This game started off slowly with 2 blank ends before a  1 and 2 for England gave them an early lead. Some careless play at the 5th end and Spain got 2 back again but a 2 at the 6th and a 5-2 lead seemed to have settled England. However, 2 ends later and it was 5-5 and the spectators were starting to sense that this game might be running away from England until  a 2 at the 9th settled the nerves before we ran them out of stones at the 10th – but it had been mighty close again.

So that had been a manic Monday with those 2 last stone thrillers and the girls were feeling the effect of playing 10 end games on keen ice where the sweeping was critical to dragging that extra foot or two out of a draw. That was 4 games in a row that had been nerve-janglers all the way.

Hungary were relegated last year from the A group and while they were still skipped by Ildiko Szekeres, there were a couple of changes in the team and they were struggling to get the wins on the board, having only won 2 out of the 6 played. Another team against whom England have a poor record, having never beaten them in 4 previous encounters, but as in the previous 4 games this week, this one went to the very end. Hungary led 3-1 at half time, having just stolen a single but the fighting spirit of this England team saw them edge in front by 4-3 after 7 ends. Hungary levelled it in the 8th and then stole a crucial 2 in the 9th before running us out of stones in the 10th.

The good thing from our point of view in this session was that Estonia also lost and so, although Finland were now clear in front with 6 wins, England were level on 5 wins with Estonia and still one win ahead of Turkey on 4. Meanwhile Spain were slipping into the danger zone with only 2 wins, the same as a resurgent Poland, (who after 5 straight losses had won 2 in a row) and Slovenia, who had beaten both Spain and Hungary as they fought to put behind them that first game drubbing by England and further big losses to Finland by 12-2 and Estonia by 13-1. In the end that was as far as they would get and they ended up back in Group C for next season along, surprisingly, with Spain who failed to win any of their last 4 games.

Two games to go then for England, and against the top 2 teams  - quite a challenge and while they were actually now guaranteed at least a tie-breaker, one more win would get them over that hurdle if other results went their way. So it was important to try and beat Estonia in the next game as they were possibly an easier team than Finland. Estonia are a country who England had the slight edge over having beaten them 3 times out of 5 over the years, but the games have been ever more closely fought as the years have gone by. 

Not since the second game of the week against Belarus had England played fewer than 10 ends and this game continued that sequence. 

This time the 5-2 lead at half-time was in favour of the Estonians who had out-thought Anna to take a 3 at the 4th end. This really was a game of two halves though and by the 9th end we had scored 4 shots without reply to lead 6-5, but in the tenth end, without the hammer, we were unable to get the stones in place for a chance of a steal, Estonia got their 2 and England lost by 6-7.

And so to game 9, the last of the round-robin and all sorts of permutations were possible – obviously if we beat Finland then we were into the play-offs, but if we lost there could be a nightmare scenario of having to play 2 tie-breakers to qualify, though other results could send us straight through without any. There was only one thing for it and that was to win against a Finnish team that had already qualified for the play-offs. 

England had not beaten Finland since 2002 and had won only 5 out of 18 games between the two countries but by this time the girls were determined to get their hands on a medal and they produced a great performance against a country who were relegated from the A group last year. A storming start saw them take 2 shots in each of the first two ends and maintain that 4 shot lead (6-2) at half time. A further steal of one in the 6th and then an exchange of 2s and it was 9-4 for England after 8 – would Finland shake hands or carry on – they had nothing to lose and it was into a 9th end. For maybe only the second time in the week, the England girls looked a bit vulnerable and maybe they thought that they had the game won because suddenly Finland scored 3 shots at the 9th and it was now 9-7 – the game was still on. However England pulled themselves together and, with the spectators more nervous than the players, they held on and won by 10-7. 

And that was the end of the first stage – 9 games played, 6 games won and 83 ends played,  and 3rd place in the final round robin standings. Not only that but also Anna’s Draw Shot Challenge of 30.6cms average was nearly 10cms better than the next country, Estonia at 40.3cms and would have been 5th overall if she had been playing in the A Group!! A great performance which meant that they had had last stone at the first end in 7 of their games.  In addition they never lost more than 3 at any end and they only lost two 3’s, while scoring three 4s and a 5.

Now they had to wait to see who they would play in the Page 3 / 4 game as Austria, Turkey and Hungary had tied for 4th place on 5 wins. The Draw Shot Challenge scores meant that Turkey would play Hungary in a tie-breaker, the winner of that game would play Austria and the winner of that second tie-breaker would be England’s opponents. In the tie-breakers Turkey beat Hungary 7-6, but then lost to Austria by 10-5 and so it was another chance for England to improve the record against the Alpine misses.

Austria had not lost a 3 at any end in any of the round-robin games but in this 3 / 4 play-off against England they lost 3! However, that fact does not adequately define England’s victory because after 7 ends it was 7-6 to Austria. Then the dam burst and a 3 at the 8th was followed by a 3 at the 9th and it was 12-7 for England and a place in the semi-final against Estonia. This was also the 100th win for an England ladies team in European and World Championships.

Still no medal was guaranteed but victory would mean gold or silver and a place in Group A for next season and a chance, if they won that final, to play-off against Germany for a place in the World Championship. Defeat by Estonia and it would be back to the bronze medal game – against Austria (again)!!
Estonia began the semi- final by blanking the first three ends and then scoring 5 shots in the next 3 ends. A single for England at the 7th was followed by another 2 for Estonia at the 8th and after scoring one at the 9th the English girls shook hands and prepared for their 12th game of the week and their third against Austria! England coach, John Sharp, reckoned that the Estonians missed nothing at all in the game, the best performance in the Group all week.

And so to game number 3 against Austria, and another close one, but this time, apart from after the first end, England were never down and from a 5-2 position at half time they kept their game together to win 7-5. Bronze medals – the first for the ladies team since Kirsty Balfour and her team won gold in Fussen in 2007 and the first for a team of English born and bred players, raised through the Junior ranks at Fenton’s Rink in Kent. For three of the team the next challenge is to qualify for the World Juniors at the European Junior Challenge in Finland in January and this performance in Norway must give them so much confidence for that competition.

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