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Monday, 27 June 2016

#BetweenTheBaselines: Wimbledon 2016 Preview
The green grass is ready for SW19


I must admit I love the end of June...especially this year.  As North American's prepare to celebrate national birthdays (ie: Canada Day on July 1 and Fourth of July in the US), the sports loving community also has additional reasons to celebrate.  Final preparations and qualifications are underway for #Rio2016.  The #Euro2016 has reached the knockout round.  AND....Wimbledon has started!!

Without a doubt one of the most anticipated grand slam events each year is Wimbledon.  The tradition of the All-England Club, with white dress code and strawberries & cream for everyone, just brings a certain level of excitement and elegance to the tennis world.  Personally, one of my big reasons I love Wimbledon is the absence of sponsor advertising.  Usually you watch a tennis event, or any sporting event nowadays, and surrounding the playing surface is advertising after advertising after advertising.  It gets annoying and distracting.  I like the Wimbledon tradition of banning this on court level.  Also, as mentioned above, players will not only play for a grand slam title but try to keep in top physical condition for the upcoming Summer Olympics in Brazil starting in August.

Before we serve up a preview of the action, let's take note of a few minor details to focus on heading into Wimbledon 2016:

  • Tennis parity?  On the WTA?  Could it be? - For many years the conversation on the women's game has been Serena vs. everyone else.  When at the top of her game nobody can beat her and most grand slams revolved around watching the draw to then guess which player would at least have the best shot at the finalist trophy.  Not the case lately.  The past 3 majors have all been won by "upset" contenders.  Serena has not hoisted a grand slam trophy since her win here 1 year ago.  The parity in women's tennis, or at least the excitement of the unknown, is actually what the sport needs.  Sure we all love watching Serena be dominant from time to time but seeing some up and coming players challenge and beat her on a more regular basis is good for the sport too. #growthesport
  • Djokovic vs. The Field - See above and flip it.  Well in the past there were at least a handful of men who we thought could challenge for a grand slam title, now we have the "Serena" issue on the men's side of the game.  Novak is absolutely destroying his competition and looks almost unbeatable.  He currently holds all 4 majors.  He is half way to the calendar grand slam.  Can anyone really step up and stop him?
  • Stay clean Wimby! - There are so many off-court issues clouding tennis right now.  From drug scandals and suspensions (see Maria Sharapova) to match-fixing and bettering...tennis is experiencing it all in 2016.  In fact, in January, Wimbledon was named as one of the tennis tournaments under investigation for serious match-fixing.  Nobody wants to see this in the sport.  Nobody wants to see "cheating" and "unsportsmanlike" behaviour at any grand slam event.  Let's hope we get two weeks of CLEAN action on...and off...the grass courts!
  • SW19...Huh? - Ok, let's quickly clear this up.  I am often surprised how many people follow sports, and tennis, yet do not know what SW19 means.  Here is the quick explanation folks: Postcode area!  London is located within the SW (South Western and Battersea) postcode area.  Wimbledon is specifically located within the SW19 district.  Hence the SW19 reference to The Championships every year!  Glad we got that cleared up....

Bring on the preview!!

The Favourite

Novak Djokovic (#1) - What is there left to say that I didn't mention above?  Defending champion!  Currently holds all 4 grand slam titles!  #1 ranked player in the world!  He is playing tennis at a level above and beyond any of his competitors so why would anyone doubt him repeating his title win from a year ago and advancing to the US Open looking to win the calendar grand slam?  Heading into The Championships, he is on a 28-match grand slam winning streak.  Yikes!  His draw is very friendly as well as the top seed in his section is #13 David Ferrer, not exactly a threat on grass.  Djokovic should coast to the QF where he could find hard hitting, fast serving, sleeve wearing Canadian Milos Raonic waiting for him.  Milos could be the biggest threat he faces all tournament though.

Serena Williams (#1) - Serena is still chasing the elusive 22nd grand slam title.  After being denied the calendar grand slam (and fourth straight) US Open title last year, Serena has somehow managed to make the past two grand slam finals only to be "upset" in the championship match.  Serena has never lost two grand slam finals in a row.  Wimbledon is one of her favourite events and one where she has been dubbed "Queen of the Court" for her dominating performances.  However, the last few years have been suspect.  Sure she enters as the defending champion but she suffered early round exits in 2014 (3R) and 2013 (4R).  One has to wonder if the pressure of the moment is starting to get to here or if the other players have finally caught up and found a winnable formula to knock her off.  Either way, the pressure is on...this time coming from her competition and not just the media.  She will always be the favourite as long as she is playing and remains relatively healthy though.

Watch Out For

Milos Raonic (#6) - Could this be the breakout event from the towering Canadian?  Being a Canadian myself, I certainly am hopeful!  Milos has the perfect all-around game for success at the All-England Club.  His serve is a rocket.  His return game has improved as has his ability to move around the court.  He is a former SF here (2014) and did reach the SF in Australia this season.  The downside to Milos is Rafa Nadal.  No, no...I know Rafa withdrew from the event awhile ago.  I mean Rafa's absence actually boosted Milos seed to #6 and now he finds himself in the same quadrant as Djokovic.  Had Rafa been playing, perhaps Milos would be on the other side of the draw completely and probably would be one of the top favourites to make the final.  A QF appearance should be in the cards, if he can overcome rising star #27 Jack Sock and #11 David Goffin of course.  This could be the year though...#FearTheSleeve


Petra Kvitova (#10) - If there was a female player in the draw I would be most nervous about playing, especially in the later rounds, it would be Petra Kvitova.  Kvitova is a two-time champion here (2011, 2014) and has the all-around game that translates well to success on grass.  While she may struggle at the other majors, Wimbledon seems to be where she is most comfortable and, more importantly, most confident.  Outside of her shocking 3R ouster last year, she has made the QF or better since 2010.  Petra has always been subjected to comments surrounding her mental space in matches and throughout a tournament, often leaving her more susceptible to early round upsets.  Her draw is not easy, opening with Romanian Sorana Cirstea and possibly playing Ekaterina Makarova and Barb Stycova just to make 4R.  However, if she survives some of the early tests in her section of the draw, she could become a huge threat to go far.  I would imagine Kvitova is one player Serena is hoping to avoid in the SF.  Interesting to note, in her previous championship runs Kvitova was seeded #6 and #8.  This year she is seeded #10.  She seems to love these outside the main contender seed spots.


The Dark Horse

Juan Martin del Potro - Ok I get it might be a bit weird seeing a past grand slam champion (US Open, 2009) listed as a dark horse pick but delPo fits the bill I think.  JMdP is on his way back from a wrist injury and is still trying to move his way back up the rankings.  He is only entered into SW19 due to his protective ranking as his tour ranking is currently 165 in the world.  The big Argentine hasn't played a grand slam match since his 2R loss in Australia back in 2014.  But the last time we saw him at Wimbledon he reached the SF (2013).  Is he a contender for the title?  Probably not.  Is he a threat and a player nobody wants to see in the early rounds?  Without a doubt!  He played in Stuttgart as a warm-up event and made the SF, beating Dimitrov and Simon along the way.  He could see #4 Stan Wawrinka in 2R though here....but what a second round match that would be!  Stan could be prone to an early upset on grass too...and if delPo can pull it off, he may just make the second week of his returning major.

Anna-Lena Friedsam - The 22-year old German is probably a player most fans know little about.  Friedsam is at a career high ranking of 48 and should see that ranking continue to rise throughout the remainder of 2016.  She broke through at the Australian Open this year, reaching the 4R and giving Aggie Radwanska a battle once there.  The draw gods also blessed her.  The closest seeds she could face early on, #23 Ana Ivanovic (2R) and #15 Karolina Pliskova (3R), are prone to early round upsets and are not exactly big grass court threats.  Pliskova could be dangerous, especially after her finals appearance in Nottingham leading into Wimbledon, but Pliskova has found success leading into grand slams before and faltered.  I wouldn't be surprised to see an All-German 4R match between Friedsam and #4 Aussie Open Champ Angie Kerber.  With so many strong German female players on tour right now (ie: Kerber, Petkovic, Siegemund, Lisicki, Barthel, Beck), Friedsam needs a strong showing here to start distancing herself from the German Pack.  She already will miss Rio due to rankings and having two Germans ahead of her.

So we have a quick preview.  A small overview of a few players to keep an eye on, especially if you are playing some fantasy sports action or entered in a #SuicidePool.  Let's get to the #TwineTime predictions:

GENTLEMEN

Fourth Round 

(1) Novak Djokovic def. (13) David Ferrer
(6) Milos Raonic def. (11) David Goffin
(3) Roger Federer def. Grigor Dimitrov
(23) Ivo Karlovic def. (5) Kei Nishikori
(8) Dominic Thiem def. (10) Tomas Berdych
(4) Stan Wawrinka def. (14) Roberto Bautista Agut
(7) Richard Gasquet def. (12) Jo-Wilfred Tsonga
(2) Andy Murray def. (15) Nick Kyrgios

Quarterfinals

(1) Djokovic def. (6) Raonic
(3) Federer def. (23) Karlovic
(8) Thiem def. (4) Wawrinka
(2) Murray def. (7) Gasquet

Semifinals

(3) Federer def. (1) Djokovic
(2) Murray def. (8) Thiem

WIMBLEDON GENTLEMEN'S SINGLES CHAMPION:  (2) Andy Murray def. (3) Roger Federer in 5 sets - I predicted Murray to win this championship last year and he failed to get it done.  I don't think he will come up short this year however.  I think RFed will play the match of his later-in-his-career life in besting Novak in the SF but will just not have enough in the tank to outrun, out shoot and out play a more rested Murray in the final.  The UK is looking for a hero right now (more so after all UK teams are eliminated in the Euro..Wales is gone in the QF I predict) and Andy Murray can be that hero!

MEN'S DOUBLES CHAMPIONS: (4) Jean-Julien Rojer / Horia Tecau def. (3) Jamie Murray / Bruno Soares - I bet against Rojer/Tecau last year on this blog, predicting them to make the final and lose.  I will not make that mistake again this year!


LADIES

Fourth Round

(18) Sloane Stephens def. (1) Serena Williams
(11) Timea Bacsinszky def. (6) Roberta Vinci
(3) Aggie Radwanska def. (19) Dominika Cibulkova
(10) Petra Kvitova def. (7) Belinda Bencic
(9) Madison Keys def. (5) Simona Halep
(4) Angelique Kerber def. Anna-Lena Friedsam
(29) Daria Kasatkina def. (22) Jelena Jankovic
(2) Garbine Muguruza def. Sabine Lisicki

Quarterfinals

(11) Bacsinszky def. (18) Stephens
(10) Kvitova def. (3) Radwanska
(4) Kerber def. (9) Keys
(2) Muguruza def. (29) Kasatkina

Semifinals

(10) Kvitova def. (11) Bacsinszky
(2) Muguruza def. (4) Kerber

WIMBLEDON LADIES' SINGLES CHAMPION: (10) Petra Kvitova def. (2) Garbine Muguruza in 2 sets - Kvitova is a dangerous player who loves the grass courts.  She has the perfect game to win many Wimbledon titles if she can just keep her emotions and head space in a positive place.  Plus, when she enters Wimbledon after mediocre results at the other majors and seems to be the player everyone forgets, she tends to be at her most dangerous.  Muguruza will attempt to win the Summer Slam, going back to back at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but will come up just short.  Interesting to note, in the prior years where Kvitova was crowned champion, she never had to play Serena, with Serena losing in the early rounds.  If Serena goes down early again, that could mean another advantage for the Czech!

LADIES' DOUBLES CHAMPIONS: (1) Martina Hingis / Sania Mirza def. (4) Ekaterina Makarova / Elena Vesnina - The "Santina" coupling has been unstoppable.  They are the best women's doubles team in the world and defending champions here.  Why bet against them?  I expect a finals rematch from a year ago...with the same close three set result.


Agree with my preview and predictions?  Disagree perhaps?  Either way, share your thoughts with me in the comment section below or on twitter.  Also, follow me on twitter for a daily update on whether I can maneuver my way through the annual #SuicidePool on both the men's and women's draw.

Given the current situations going on in the UK, specifically with regards to #Brexit, a tournament full of history, tradition and national unity like Wimbledon may just be what the people need right now.  Not to mention England being sent home early at the hands of upstart Iceland in the Euro 2016 Knockout Stage.

Enjoy the grass court action everyone....


Friday, 24 June 2016

#BetweenTheSheets: Handing Out The Golden Granite Awards
Special Guest John Cullen joins #TwineTime for a season review


Well #curling friends, the 2015/16 season is now a thing of the past.  The memories we shared.  The moments we celebrated.  The times we cringed.  The rocks we threw.  Add it all together and the past 9 months have been one for the record books.

As the ice melts away into distant memory and many within the curling circle, fans and athletes alike, head out to beach vacations and green grass links, we must first roll the red carpet over the ice and look back at the year that way.  Welcome to the 1st Annual #TwineTime Golden Granite Awards!!!!

Now I could not simply celebrate the inaugural celebration event of an awards blog on my own could I?  Oh no...I needed some celebrity assistance to help build the credibility of these awards.  I needed someone who knows the sport, knows the athletes but is also out spoken and honest in their opinion.  Plus I needed someone entertaining.  We have all seen awards shows where smoeone gets up there and makes a speech and bores the crowd or attempts to make jokes and we hear nothing but crickets in the arena.  I couldn't let that happen...not on the #TwineTime blog...not for an event this special!

Please join me in welcoming my special guest, your Golden Granite co-host if you will, Mr. John Cullen!!  Or as some of you know him, CullenTheComic or CullenTheCurler.  John has been a major supporter of the #TwineTime blog since Day 1 and I feel truly honoured to finally welcome him to the #TwineTime family.

The red carpet has been placed, the Golden Granite awards have been polished, your co-hosts have put on their lucky boxers and fanciest dress socks (yup that's all...it's virtual, why would we wear pants?)....play the intro music, the show is ready to go....

TwineTime (TT):  Thank you for joining us and getting finally on the blog.

John Cullen (JC):  This is it.  This is a big one for me.

TT:  This is a big one.  And you get to join us for the year-end rewind.  That's a big post.  You should feel very special.

JC:  I do.  I feel very special.  Thanks for having me man.  I'm excited.  This is going to be fun.

TT:  Excellent.  Well let's dive right into it.  We have a lot of post-season awards to get through and lots of season to talk about.  Now of course for transparency and fairness, I did let you in on the categories and topics beforehand so you could do a little bit of homework I hope.

JC:  Yes, I did do a little bit of homework.  I'm ready.

TT:  Perfect!  I hate ending on negatives so let's start on the negative.

JC:  I love starting on the negatives so let's dive right into that.

TT:  Ok perfect!  Let's start with our Misses of the season.  We are going to list our Top 3 Misses of the 2015/16 Curling Season.  Let's start with our number 3 and work our way up of course.  What would be your Number 3 Miss of the Year?

JC:  My Number 3 Miss of the Year is tough but I am going to say my own self and not making the Brier.  Personal disappointment.  And it is on nobody else's miss, not trying to sound cocky in saying that, but I am still personally upset by it.

TT:  *laughing*  Yeah?  Is that something that ever goes away until you finally win it?  That is almost an annual, year-end miss for you.

JC:  *laughing*  Yeah it has been.  For my entire career it has been one giant year-end miss.  Thank you for pointing that out.  It needs to get better.  It was definitely disappointing as we had a very good year so it was really disappointing to not make it to the Brier.  So yeah...that is my number 3 miss of the year.

TT:  I was going to ask you about that too.  I figured you might make mention of yourself throughout our conversation, I just wasn't sure where.  But hey I'm glad you start there.  I was going to ask you how that B.C. final was but...oops...you didn't play in that even.  *laughing*

JC:  *laughing*  Wow!  Ok!  Good start to the interview.  Guess we are starting with negativity.

TT:  *laughing*  You opened it up saying you were fine with it so might as well dive right into right?

JC:  *laughing*  Yeah of course.  I'm totally fine with it.  It was unfortunate given how well we played throughout the year.  We definitely were not at our best at provincials.  We went 1-2 to start and won 6 in a row just to make the semi-final.  That was sweet just to pull that off but it was not exactly the provincials we were hoping for that's for sure.

TT:  Fair enough.  But, like you said, at least there is something to take from it in the fact you reeled off 6 straight wins and took the hard road to get that far.  That is still something.

JC:  True.  That is something.  That's what we are saying anyway *laughing*

TT:  *laughing*  Good deal!  I went a little more open on my number 3 miss.  Obviously I have no personal things to talk about.

JC:  Well you are doing it the proper way...

TT:  *laughing*  True enough.  My number 3 miss was Mixed Doubles.  It was a total mess I thought.  I feel like the qualification was up in the air but having your two final teams playing knowing neither was planning to play at World's before the event started, being this the first year to gain Olympic qualification points...there was a lot going on this year and I think it was a huge miss for Team Canada and Curling Canada overall.  I hear things are going to get better moving forward but for this past year, this was a miss.  The way it was handled really lessened having provincial/territorial champions being there in the first place.


JC:  I agree.  I thought that was poor.  I get it because mixed doubles is not seen as an equal but that is disappointing because it is in the Olympics and it is clear there are teams that want to compete in it.  If you look at the field three years ago compared to this year...there is no comparison.  Teams obviously care about it.  But they win and now they don't care.  It was disappointing for me too.  Not that Marliese (Kasner) and Dustin (Kalthoff) are not good curlers and taking nothing away from them, it was just disappointing.  To miss World's for a slam?  There are like 8 slams now.

TT:  Exactly.  It almost says that Curling Canada is ok with the already widening division we are seeing between "Elite" curlers and "B-level" curlers because they are willing to pull the strings allowing them to compete knowing beforehand they were not going to play World's.  It's like nobody cared about World's, at least that is how it comes across to fans.  They wanted to go there, play another event, win a Canadian championship but, at the end of the day, the money speaks louder than representing the country.

JC:  Totally.  For that event anyways, it does.

TT:  Ok so what is your Number 2 Miss of the Year?

JC:  My Number 2 Miss of the Year is Homan not making it out of Ontario.  It almost speaks for itself.  They had probably the greatest women's season of all time but didn't make the national championship.  It was also the way they played in the final.  It was probably their worst game of the season.  That was not the Team Homan we are used to seeing.  I'm sure they were extremely disappointed.  And Jenn Hanna played great, not taking anything away from her.  It was not Team Homan's best game though, that's for sure.

TT:  Oh for sure.  I agree.  I went a different route with my second miss.  I went with the #FallHeardAroundTheWorld and Mr. Brad Gushue's big fall at the Masters.  It was a horrible thing to happen.  But what I think it did more was bring a new element to the sport that is rarely talked about.  Maybe from your player's perspective it is but not from the fans, injuries do happen in curling and on a regular basis.  Concussion protocol is not there for the sport.  Whether the hospital should have released him or not, the fact he still went back on the ice and finished that game, if this was any other sport that probably never should have or would have happened.  That is something Curling Canada and the sport in general might need to take a look at and put those protocols in place to protect the athletes.

JC:  Yeah they happen a lot.  I will say people went way too overboard.  People saying curlers should be wearing helmets?  Come on!  I mean there has been one major fall in pro curling people can think of where a curler smacks their face like that and now we all have to wear helmets?  That is a bit much.  But, if you curl in clubs, you do see it all the time.  We had a club curler here in B.C. who fell on the ice, hit his head and it caused him to have a heart attack.  Luckily someone was there to save him and he is fine now.  But curling injuries happen for sure.

<Editor's Note:  Since this interview, Curling Canada has released a statement and concussion policy.  It would appear #TwineTime was accurate on making this call!  For more info, click HERE

TT:  Yeah, I think we started hearing a lot more stories of similar incidents happening at provincial events in the past.  More curlers were talking about it.  I think the handle of it though, at that time, was a clear miss.  The more power to Brad on being very competitive and wanting to get back on the ice, great to TV, but end of the day...you hate to say Big Brother needs to be watching but in the best interest of the curlers and the sport sometimes someone does have to step in and have a say.

JC:  Yeah for sure.  I think Brad just wanted his Canadian hockey player moment *laughing*

TT:  *laughing*  Yeah, that is very true.

JC:  I'm tough, I am coming back!

TT:  Plus who gets to curl with a hospital bracelet still on?  It's also a cool story for us.  So now, what is your Biggest Miss of the Year?

JC:  I think it is obvious isn't it?  The Biggest Miss of the Year is the whole broom-shit.  God, what a disaster!  Honestly, everyone has talked about it and wrote about it so I am not even going to talk about it but absolutely that is the biggest miss.

TT:  100% that was my biggest miss as well.  As you said, everyone has talked about it.  There isn't much more to say about it.  My only hope is the summit and off-season, in a year or two from now, it goes from this year's miss to that year's win.

JC:  Oh and I think it will.  I think they will have it solved by the fall.  Or at least have a protocol in place.  The kinks will get ironed out.  By the fall, things will change for sure.

TT:  I hope so and I agree.  And it has to.  I think everyone is tired of it.

JC:  For sure!

TT:  Excellent.  We had some very simple negative misses for the season.

JC:  *laughing*  Absolutely.  It's not easy being so negative.

TT:  *laughing*  Exactly!  So let's go the positives and the hits now of the season.  What is your Number 3 Hit of the Year?

JC:  My Number 3 Hit of the Year is Chelsea Carey winning the Scotties.  A lot of people had many things to say about Chelsea and not being able to finish in the big game.  Now I have to admit I am a little biased as Chelsea is a friend but that was definitely a hit.  Obviously they did not have the World's performance that everyone was hoping for but I think it was nice to see them win and it was well-deserved.

TT:  No for sure.  I will say, I was reviewing my season preview article before we sat down and I have to give myself some props because I called them to be my Dark Horse Team of the Year and they won the Scotties.  I got your back on that one there Chelsea!

JC:  Oh nice...impressive.  That is good.  Not a lot of people were saying that about that team, especially how they came together.  It was pretty amazing.

TT:  Yup, I agree.  With my number 3 hit, I also stayed with the women's game and went with the domination of the Swiss.  The Switzerland women continue to dominate the world stage.  Paetz winning it last year.  Going into this year, Tirinzoni was on fire all season.  Then Feltscher goes on to win Switzerland and win the entire World Championship.  Whatever is going on over there, it is amazing!  Nobody called Switzerland to win last year.  Nobody thought they would do it again this year.  Yet here we are once again looking up at the Swiss sitting on top of the curling world.  Whatever they are doing, they are doing it right!

JC:  Totally!  I am with you.

TT:  *laughing*  Well I also must say I do love my Swiss teams.  All of their teams have been very supportive of the blog and super friendly to me.  So I give them a little love in return too.

JC:  *laughing*  Oh ok...now I see how it goes.  Now we see where this is going.  It's all about the people that like you.  I can respect that though.

TT:  *laughing*  I like the friendliness of them and their overall support of the sport media in general.

JC:  Oh no, I agree.  They are great.

TT:  I am excited to see if the trend continues.  Going into the big Olympic push right now, it is hard to bet against anyone who comes out of Switzerland on the women's side heading into 2018.

JC:  Yup, for sure.  I agree.

TT:  Cool.  Ok, so now what is your Number 2 Hit of the Year?

JC:  I am going to have some parallel with my number 2 miss, I am going with my number 2 hit being Team Homan's overall season.  Besides the miss, and I have tweeted about this, I think they have had the most impressive women's season of all time.  People tweeted at me saying they didn't even make the Scotties and the grand slams don't mean anything but you are crazy!  They made the finals in every spiel they played in except for 1 I think this year.  They got the first Olympic trials spot.  They won more money than the top men's team, which I think has never happened.  They had a crazy, mental year.  We may never see another year of statistical dominance like they had this year.

TT:  Yup, I totally agree.  And we will get into more detail about Team Homan and what I think about Team Homan as we move along here.  My number two hit was Team Koe turning around their season on the second half.  They started the year still strong but putting it together.  When we got to the second half of the season and the calendar switched over to 2016, they were unstoppable.  I don't know what they did over the Christmas break or what they ate or drank, but they better keep the secret to themselves because it worked!  People expected them to do well but to pull off the winning streak they did, and look just dominant in some wins against some very good teams, it was a huge hit for me.

JC:  For sure.  Actually that was my Number 1 Hit of the Year.  Same thing, in terms of the way they were playing at World's, it was great to watch.  They looked unbeatable.  I haven't seen a team look unbeatable like that since maybe Martin in 2010/11.  Kevin himself...that was some of the best curling for a fourth player in consecutive tournament (Brier and World Championship) that we have ever seen.  So yeah, their play towards the end of the year was my number 1.  I love watching teams be really dominant.  I know some people don't like that.  But to me, when I look back and things I remember about the sport and the season, the teams that truly were the best and played the best are what sticks out for me.

TT:  Yes, I completely agree.  And, interestingly enough, my number 2 was your number 1 and your number 2 was my number 1.  I can't deny Homan the top spot of the year.  She was the story all season.  The fact she has the chance to pull the calendar year grand slam, we have never seen that before in curling, men or women.  People were starting to compare their year to Serena Williams going for the calendar grand slam.  When was the last time curlers were in the same conversation and being compared to a champion as great as Serena Williams?  They were basically chasing history at the same time.  Serena was just finishing and Homan was just starting.  Both fell short almost the exact same way too.  It was too weird almost.  I will correct you on one point though.  They did finish with less money than Gushue at the end.

JC:  Oh they did?

TT:  Yeah, but they did finish higher than Koe.

JC:  The fact we are even having the conversation of where they finished overall has never happened.  It's usually a foregone conclusion that the top men's teams will finish above the top women's teams money wise.

TT:  And props to them on also playing in the Elite 10.  That is a huge thing.  When you look at other sports around the world, there is a lot of talk on equality issues and Title IX in every sport, curling is just getting into the conversation now too.  There was Rachel competing at the Elite 10 and picking up a win.  Sure I don't like the Elite 10 and I think it's a joke to be included as a grand slam but that's not on her competing.  She did go there, compete with men's teams and pick up a victory.

JC:  Yes, totally!

TT:  So our hits and misses for the season are pretty close actually.

JC:  We are kind of on the same page.

TT:  Yeah, it is a bit surprising but kind of good too I suppose.  That really tells us what kind of season we had.

JC:  Exactly!

TT:  Ok well let's go now into our more specific year-end awards, the #GoldenGranite.  Now, again, let's start on the more negative side of the coin.  Who was your Underachiever of the Year - Men?

JC:  Ok hold on...I need to think about this for a second.  I want to revisit the money list.

TT:  This was a hard one for me to choose as well.

JC:  It's hard to just say someone underachieved and sucked on the season.

TT:  Yeah, exactly.

JC:  *laughing*  Especially when you play.

TT:  *laughing*  Ok, true enough.

JC:  I'll say my team *laughing*  Just joking....

TT:  *laughing*  I was actually going to say that but then I thought that might actually be too mean of me.

JC:  No, no it's ok.  I would say we actually overachieved, aside from not making the provincial final.  This is hard because I don't think there is one team that really stands out.  If I had to pick one I would say Team Simmons.  Just because their run to the Brier was kind of cinderella to begin with but it sort of felt like a throw together year.  Here we now have Carter (Rycroft) and Nolan (Thiessen) retired, at least for the foreseeable future.  It just felt like they never got on a roll this season.  They had some good results and finished just outside the Top 10 of the money list I think.  They never really felt like the defending Canadian champions.  Even we beat them *laughing*  Come on....

TT:  *laughing*  Right?  Exactly, I mean if you beat them come on.  You couldn't even make the final in B.C.  Come on now...

JC:  *laughing*  Exactly!  And we beat them...and they shook, they shook in 7.

TT:  I guess we know what your personal hit of the season was then?  *laughing*

JC:  *laughing*  It was funny actually.  I think we were up 3 playing 7.  It was a wide open end basically.  I think John then hogged a rock and basically just turned around and shook hands saying we are done.

TT:  *laughing*  Oh nice.  I agree with you though.  There were lots of rumours going around in Calgary at last year's Brier even about them being done after the season.  Then they go and win and I remember walking out of the Saddledome in Calgary and listening to fans around me basically asking the same thing on "what do we do now?" and "what's going to happen next?"  Nobody expected them to win and everyone already assumed they were not going to play together this season.  Having said that though, my underachiever of the year was Brad Jacobs.  It's weird to say.  I had the same problem as you did in looking at the rankings and money list and results.  There was no men's team who really struggled bad all season.  But Jacobs didn't pick up a win all season and in the past three seasons that hasn't happened.  They were very vocal about their early season struggles and sure they repeated their TSN Skins Game title in Banff back in January but that is a bit different.

JC:  Yeah, you only have to win two games there.

TT:  Exactly.  I give Brad and Ryan Fry props on being open with the struggles the team was having early on.  I love to see that honesty with their team and sharing with the fans.  But they were an underachiever to not win and being at Champions Cup and not seeing them there....everyone was still talking about how weird it was to not see them.

JC:  Yeah, totally.  Especially in seeing teams like Meachem but not Jacobs.

TT:  Now, to be fair, didn't Meachem win like three events on tour this year?  *laughing*

JC:  *laughing*  Oh yeah, for sure.  They had a good year.  I'm not saying they didn't.

TT:  But I get what you are saying.  It is weird to not see the Olympic Champions at a big event like that.

JC:  Exactly.  It's not a dig on Team Meachem.  It's just they were the team that was closest to us all year.  Same amount of points and money almost.  They got in because they won a higher qualifying event.  That was kind of stupid but don't get me started on this qualifying thing.  *laughing*

TT:  *laughing*  Oh I was going to mention it in my misses for the year on how these points are done up per event and qualification for the year-end now.  It's a whole blog post to itself though because it is a bit of a joke.

JC:  Oh at least!  Next time you interview me we will just talk about that alone *laughing*

TT:  *laughing*  Ok, that's a deal!  So what about your Underachiever of the Year - Female?

JC:  Female underachiever I'm going to go with (Margaretha) Sigfridsson.  International teams are always hard.  They can sometimes be inconsistent because they play so many events.  It is hard to say if they really had a bad year.  But just based on what we expect from them in the past and usually being a perennial contender, I just felt like we barely even say them in the news.  They were almost considered an afterthought and we just aren't used to seeing that from them.  Of course, now the team broke up so clearly the Swedish Curling Federation saw something there as well.  But clearly, for me, that is what stuck out the most for me on the women's side.

TT:  Good choice.  They were actually my runner-up for this award.  My underachiever of the year went to the US women as a whole.  I also went international.  Erika Brown, great season for her!  It was almost a revitalization year for her in coming back after not having the greatest past few seasons.  But the US women, as a collective, underachieved.  The big one for me was Jamie Sinclair.  Everyone talked about her in the off-season.  The US women's nationals was wide open this season and everyone assumed it was her's for the taking.  She should have able to go through it.  Her schedule was easy enough I think for her and the team to walk right through and qualify for World's.  They just did not perform.  A complete disappointment for me.  Also, with them being a HPP team, I just expected a lot more from that.  It worked for the men with (John) Shuster.  Brady Clark as well really stepped up even though he isn't a HPP team.  We are seeing the US men pick up but the US women and that program are not working.  I don't know what they are going to have to do but with this being the first year in Olympic qualification points, they missed big time.

JC:  I agree with you.  Many people certainly did think they were going to take over and she was given the better players.

TT:  Exactly.  I did feel like US Curling and HPP was trying to hand her the women's championship at the beginning of the year and gave her everything she could have needed and, unfortunately, they just fell completely flat.

JC:  Yup, totally.  I completely agree with you.

TT:  I would say now the biggest advantage perhaps for US Curling is Cory Christensen.  Give her the reigns, help her grow and see what happens.  2018 is a reach perhaps but 2022, she is going to be there.  That is there Olympic hopeful and perhaps best shot at a podium finish.

JC:  Yup, I agree.  Jamie will get better and improve but this year she seemed to struggle.  But also, good for them with Curling Night in America.  That was smart.  All the twitter followers and Barstool sports writing about her...that is all really good!  They are sponsored by Nike so that helps.

TT:  Yup agree.  Ok now let's look at our surprising teams of the year.  Let's stick to the women's tour.  Who was your Surprise Team of the Year - Women?

JC:  I am going to say Team Tirinzoni.  Not that she wasn't good before now but just in terms of how well and consistent they played.  Again, the Europeans play these crazy schedules and a lot of times I think they have a hard time finding the consistency because of that.  I think Canadian teams and North American teams are starting to play more like that but I mean this is full time jobs, on the ice all day every day, that catches up to you.  For a European team to be as consistent and play as well as they did, they are the surprise team for me.  Again, it's not like a huge surprise where you were watching and going "What the hell?"  But it was the way they were dominant that was so impressive.

TT:  That was my pick as well.  I completely agree with you.  From day 1 when they won the Tour Challenge and beat Homan in the final, that was the turning point where people wondered if this was a one-off or not and they followed it up all season with consistency, as you said.  Going off your point of European teams vs. North American teams is what we don't give the European teams enough credit for is they went back and forth a lot.  Nik Edin's team stays in Canada for a few weeks and plays a bunch of events and that works.  Tirinzoni played events in Canada, played events in Europe, went back and forth across the pond a few times throughout the season and was successful every time.

JC:  Yeah, it's crazy.  That's what Eve (Muirhead) does too.  I don't know how they do it.

TT:  I know, it's crazy to just think about all that travel and still be competitive and consistent.  I think the sport in North America take what we have for granted.  For Tirinzoni to do what she did, the results they had, it was amazing.  They finished number 2 on the money list, who saw that coming?

JC:  I totally agree.

TT:  Ok excellent.  We actually agreed on that one too.  Now what about your Surprise Team of the Year - Men?

JC:  Well I feel like we are going to agree on this too.  It's got to be Matt Dunstone.

TT:  I actually didn't agree with that.  *laughing*  We will get to that in a minute though.  I was very close to saying Mr. Dunstone though.

JC:  *laughing*  Well I hate boosting his ego because I really don't like him.  No just kidding....

TT:  *laughing*  I'm totally printing that by the way.

JC:  *laughing*  I don't want to boost his ego but how can he not be?  He made the Manitoba final.  Perhaps you could say that was it too because they were expected to win the juniors.  But he did beat Mike (McEwen) twice this year.  They were very consistent.  For a junior team to be that good....that was a surprise.  You would have never put them in the Manitoba final.

TT:  Very true.  Plus they beat Edin a few times this year as well.  They were beating everybody they stepped up against it seemed.

JC:  Yeah, totally!

TT:  Yes, Matt was my runner-up pick.  I actually told Matt month's ago they had it locked down for this award but when I sat down and really looked at it a bit more...it's a bit of a weird one when you look at it because you don't usually pick your number 1 money winner to be a surprise but I did pick Gushue as a surprise.  It wasn't so much that they finished number 1 it was just how they did it.  They won 8 events this year!  Their success was literally all over the map.  In looking at Brad's history on tour, he usually averages two to three wins a year.  He is not known to have a dominant factor.  He has never been a dominant curler.  He is not going to be a Kevin Koe or known to pull a Mike McEwen year...although this year he did.  Nobody really saw that coming.  Now again, reading my preview I did say he would be the best on tour this year and finish the year number 1 in the ranking so I did have confidence in Mr. Gushue.

JC:  *laughing*  Oh wow...there you go...

TT:  But I don't think anyone saw them winning 8 events and doing so in a dominant fashion.  There was a time during the season for months where it just seemed like nobody could beat them.

JC:  Yes, I agree.  They would have been my number 2 choice here.  It is tough to pick the team that finishes number 1 but I totally agree.  They had a crazy year for sure.

TT:  It was amazing.  They won $195K on tour this year.  Wow!  We went into the season thinking we would see more parity amongst those top 8 to 10 teams and see them fighting it out more and we saw one team just come through and dominate and win at every slam was awesome to watch.  So our one's and two's are relatively similar.  Ok now let's go to our Rookie of the Year awards.  Now, to be fair, this has to be teams that did not play on tour last season or were with different teams.  It can't be someone or some team in their sophomore year.  Who was your Rookie of the Year - Men?

JC:  Ok Matt Dunstone.  I mean I don't know who else you would pick really?  It was weird, they didn't really play on tour but he, himself...I mean I've never played in a slam and he played in two this season?  To have all the things happen that did for him, I would say he is my Rookie of the Year.

TT:  That's fair.  I do agree with you on that.  Again, Matt was a tough choice for me and tough decision not to side with.  But for me I went with Charley Thomas.  As a whole team collectively, they are a new combined team.  They did not play together last season.  They were exactly the model of what we hope to see out of the tour season.  They started the season not qualified, no real points, nowhere really close to qualifying and playing in grand slam events at least, and by the end of the year they were playing in back-to-back grand slam events.

JC:  Yeah, true.  I know, that's what we were hoping for.

TT:  Exactly.  That's what every team, outside the regular slam teams, are hoping to achieve and they are the poster child for showing it can be done.  They played an aggressive schedule and put that together to accomplish what they wanted to do.  Props to Charley for making that happen.  You know he kind of drifted off the radar a bit.  He had the mixed doubles wins but then to come back, put a strong men's team together and fight for a provincial championship.  Going into the provincial championship this year, I think they are the favourites now, even with Pat Simmons playing with Bottcher in Edmonton.  I still think Thomas has a great shot at being at the Brier next year and I kind of hope that they are.

JC:  Yeah I agree, I agree.  Oh, I almost forgot something.  Something I wanted to add in my surprise team conversation.  Not really a surprise team but more a surprise thing: Mary Fay quitting!

TT:  Oh yeah, good call.  That was surprising.

JC:  It's not surprising because I interviewed her and got to know her a little bit.  It's not surprising when you get to know her because she is super intelligent and wants to be a doctor.  But, in terms of curling, this could become the norm in the sport.  People need to start realizing this could happen more often.  When I was coming up in juniors it was totally possible to go to university, play a decent spiel schedule and get better.  Maybe you weren't going to be a slam curler but you could get better and play in a bunch of spiels.  All these little spiels are going to die because of the slams.  If you are good in junior, you are going to have to decide right away if you are going to fight for the slams and kill it or decide to quit like Mary.  It's interesting that she is the first person we see that with and I think it is going to happen a helluva lot more.

TT:  I agree.  The way the season is set up and the slams and the division line between the "elite" and the rest of the curling world, you are telling juniors right from the young age their goal is to win a Canadian and World Championship and after that you have to make a choice.  You cannot have it both ways.  Either pursue the risk of being a curler or you go pursue the dream of education and having that plan A, B or C.  It's a tough call.  And it's going to be tough for curling to market itself to a younger generation when you are creating a large divide.

JC:  I completely agree.  Sorry to sidetrack a bit there.

TT:  No not at all.  It was a nice sidetrack path to walk down and discuss.  *laughing*  And props to Mary on her decision.  I always believe picking education is never a bad decision and I think this is a great call by her.

JC:  Totally.  With World Junior and Youth Olympics, might as well go out on top.  She has had a great year.

TT:  Exactly.  And who knows, she can always come back after anytime.  That's the good thing with the sport.

JC:  Yup, totally!

TT:  Ok so Rookie Team of the Year - Female?

JC:  I am going to go with Kelsey Rocque.  I was thinking more about her individually.  I know they struggled at times this year but I was thinking more about her individually for this award.  It's never easy to transition and sure they had a rough provincials.  But that shit happens all the time.  Look at Charley.  It took him almost 10 years to really build up a team and get competitive and play in slams.  She is only one year out and seems totally confident in calling the game, throwing the last rock and really crushing it.  She, herself, would be my choice for Rookie of the Year.

TT:  I think that is very fair.  Her future is the sport is looking really bright!  She has the pedigree to find success, we saw it already on the junior side.  Coming up towards those 2022 Winter Olympics...definitely I would say she is a strong contender to represent Canada.  100%.

JC:  Yup, without a doubt.

TT:  For my rookie, I went with a full team and I went with Krista McCarville.  Not a full rookie in theory but taking three years off and coming back and winning the way they did.  They only played five events and they won four of them.  They went on a 4 event winning streak entering Northern Ontario provincials.  I don't think many team gave them a chance to beat (Tracey) Fleury because Fleury was also having a great season.  They dominated her at provincials though.  They went to the Scotties and had a great shot at beating Chelsea and winning.  McCarville looked amazing this season and I hope they continue to do well next season.  I expect to see them shoot up the money list next year and I expect to see them at grand slam events next year too.

JC:  Oh for sure.  They did have an amazing year and they had a great chance to beat Chelsea in that Scotties final.

TT:  So we have come to our final award, obviously the big one being team of the year.  I don't think we will see much of a shock on this first one but who was your Team of the Year - Female?


JC:  Rachel Homan!

TT:  It has to be Homan.  They were my pick as well.

JC:  Yeah, I mean we have talked about it already but definitely the best women's season of all time.

TT:  I agree with you 100%.  I hope they actually have another dominant season on tour next year and come back hungry for more.  I actually want to see that calendar grand slam feat be accomplished and they can make a run at it.

JC:  Oh man, totally.  Yeah I think they will be fine.  Rachel is a machine.

TT:  Oh yeah without a doubt.  It is business as usual as soon as she hits the ice.  It's great to watch.  It will be fun to see how they follow-up this year with next year, good luck it will be tough.  But I think they are a team up for that challenge.

JC:  I do as well.

TT:  And finally your Team of the Year - Men?

JC:  I know I said my number 1 hit of the year was Koe but that was more in the back half.  So with my men's teams of the year I am taking Team Gushue.  They were the guys all year.  When talking about a team of the year, Koe was better at the Brier and towards the end of the season..obviously since they won.  But people forget Brad did win the 1 vs 2 game.  And it's not like Koe played like shit in that game either.  They played great all year.



TT:  That's very fair.  I actually did go with Koe as my team of the year.  Winning the Brier and winning the World Championship and how they did it was just too much to pass over for me.  I think the problem I always have with Brad is still him getting it done and finishing at the Brier.  We know Kevin can come through clutch at these big events.  It is still one thing holding Gushue back.  He was actually my Brier pick at the beginning of the season.  I really wanted to see those two teams in Newfoundland at next year's Brier.

JC:  Yeah I know.  It is really disappointing that it won't happen now.

TT:  Yeah, it just seemed like stars aligned perfect for him going into that Brier too.  It is almost still too disappointing to hear or believe that it didn't happen.  I can't deny Kevin though of the title of Team of the Year after winning both of those big events.  Canada hadn't won a World Championship in years.  He brought the title back.  We always expect to be at the top and we hadn't even made the final the last few years let alone win it all.  It was nice to see Kevin get us back to the top and win.

JC:  Totally!

TT:  Team of the Year man...

JC:  Oh yeah, I mean I am not going to argue with you that's for sure.  We both have good cases.  I think it you picked anyone other than those two then I think I would have some beef with you.

TT:  Yup, I completely agree.  Well now, I have one last question specifically for you.  I stole your #AskTheCurler thing from back when you used to interview a bunch of junior hockey players and I absolutely loved the idea.  Obviously I have taken it from you over to my blog (with Cullen's support of course!!).  So it only made sense when I started the season that I asked you to be the first person to ask a curler a question and it needs to come full circle that the final ask a curler question should be directed at you.

JC:  Thank you!  I don't even remember what question I asked.  What was it?

TT:  The question you asked was "Who is the smelliest guy on tour?"

JC:  Oh yeah, ok.

TT:  And now your question comes from Mr. Dunstone, who I know you and him have such a great relationship.  He wanted me to ask you how funny you really think you are and if you are really telling jokes on the ice does anyone else actually laugh and think you are as funny as you think you are?

JC:  *laughing*  I don't think anyone thinks I am as funny as I think I am.  I mean I have toured the country and people do pay me to do comedy so I can't be horrible at it.

TT:  *laughing*  I tried to defend you to Matt.

JC:  *laughing*  I know, I know.  No, it's good.  He is giving me some shit and I appreciate that.  On the ice, honestly I don't think really get too into it.  I was asked this when I did The Curling Show with Dean Gemmell as well.  I don't want to bug anybody.  I mean if there is a good opportunity to crack a joke then I will but I'm not like going over the top and everything has to be a joke all the time.  We are still playing a game.  I don't want to get in anybody's way.  I think it's different too if we are playing different teams.  I mean if we are playing B.C teams 8 or 9 times a year and we are friends with them, I will be ok with making a joke with them.  But if it is a team that otherwise I don't know as well or play as often then I am not going to be out there bugging them.  Certainly in the locker room, most people would say I am one of the loudest people in there.  I don't mind cracking a few jokes, usually at other people's expense.  *laughing*  But I don't think I go out of my way on the ice.  I've curled against guys who go out on the ice and try to be funny and it can be annoying.  I don't go out of my way to be funny anytime.  I just try to be a regular person and if an opportunity comes up to make people laugh then I will take it.  So yeah, to answer Matt's question, on the ice not too much, I don't go too crazy.  In the locker room definitely.  And I am definitely not as funny as I think I am but then again who is?

TT:  *laughing*  No one!

JC:  Everyone thinks they are the funniest person in the world.  At least I hope they do.

TT:  That is very true.

JC:  Although I guess when it is your job you need to be a bit more realistic about it.  I definitely don't think I'm the funniest person in the world at all.  There are a lot of comedians out there I would put above me.  Maybe when it is your job you have to be a bit objective.  Some people are delusional enough in thinking they can do stand up tomorrow.  "It's not hard, I can make people laugh."  Some people are that delusional though.  I have to be a little honest.

TT: *laughing*  So there is a little humbleness to you?

JC:  No, not really.  But maybe a little bit.  It's career humble.  When it's your career you have to be a little bit humble when you don't get selected for things or don't get selected for festivals or you see other people getting festivals that you wanted.  You do have to think maybe you aren't as good as they are.

TT:  That is very fair.  In looking at you, I would have to say you are one of the hardest working people in curling.  You are a teacher.  You are a stand-up comedian.  You do curl full-time during the season.  What else do you do?  It's amazing you can do all this at the same time.  Plus, somehow, you even managed to land a very attractive girlfriend.  I don't know how you pull that all off but props to you man.

JC:  She is very understanding and that is why it works.  She is the first girl I ever dated who really gets it and understands that is my life and this is what she signed up for.  She is very independent.  I write...we can talk about that?

TT:  *laughing*  Oh geez...my bad.  I forgot something on your resume...my bad!

JC:  *laughing*  Well fuck..right?  I mean you asked!

TT:  *laughing*  I need to do better research here I guess

JC:  Well you asked what else do I do.  I have a podcast.  I am a drummer.  I'm not in a band right now but I used to be.

TT:  You are a busy, busy guy man.

JC:  I am doing some writing.  I have a web series in development.

TT:  You do interviews with Curling Canada now.

JC:  Yes, I do.  Those have been really fun  I am friends with most of the curlers anyways.

TT:  Oh I am aware trust me.  *laughing*  Great competition for me thanks.  As someone who tries to run a blog off the side of his desk with a full-time job as well...it's great to have strong competition.

JC:  *laughing*  You are doing a great job.  We are not in competition.  When it comes to curling media, if we have a pie and your piece is here and my piece is here, we are certainly not in competition with one another.  Our circle is not full here James!

TT:  *laughing*  This is very true.

JC:  There is so much room for curling media.  It's great to have you.  Honestly it's great to have a non-curler actually.  You can be a little more objective.  That is always a problem for people like myself.  A lot of the major curling writers are curlers.  There are a few like Don Landry and some Winnipeg Free Press writers who cover curling but in terms of the curling people there is myself, Nolan, Cathlia Ward, the people who are writing for Curling Canada.  Michael Fournier has his blog.  We are all competitive curlers and these are all our friends and people we see all the time so we can't necessarily be as objective as we really want.  It is great when someone who is a non-curler loves the sport and just covers it.  You bring a fresh perspective to the sport that other people don't.

TT:  Well thank you and I appreciate that.

JC:  And I've also told you that my rolodex is your rolodex so I don't know what you are complaining about *laughing*  I know I personally brought you at least one interview.

TT: *laughing*  You did.  This is very true.  And you did come through to help me out with one interview for sure.

JC:  And anytime you want more you just let me know and I will be happy to help you out.

TT:  Well I appreciate that and thank you for all the support towards the blog, almost two years now.

JC:  Yeah, that's right.  I think I helped get you into your first Brier as well.

TT:  Yes you did.  That was last year's Brier in Calgary just as I was moving to the City to start a new job too.  Everything falls into place at the right time and when it is meant to be I suppose.  I truly am thankful for all the support you have provided towards me and the blog the past two years.  I thank you.

JC:  Oh it is my pleasure man.  It is great you are doing this.  I think everyone that I know of who has interviewed with you has loved it too so that's great to see and hear.  Just keep it up.  We need guys like you around so never get discouraged.  *laughing*  And don't give me shit saying we are competing because we aren't.

TT:  *laughing*  Well hey at least I am learning from your interviews and I read them.  Plus you ask them a question so then I know not to ask the same one.  It's like research.  It keeps me on my toes.

JC:  *laughing*  Well fair enough.  That's good too.

TT:  Well thank you for doing this and joining the blog for the year-end wrap-up and awards.

JC:  Oh dude it was great.

TT:   Thanks man.

JC:  Thank you!

Well #TwineTime rock heads and stoners...this officially puts a cap on the 2015/16 curling season.  I have enjoyed covering the entire season with all of you on this blog.  The opportunity to cover a sport I love, interact with great athletes I cheer for and engage with fellow fans makes all the hours spent towards each blog post well worth it.

Special thank you to those who sat down with me this season and agreed to an interview: Jamie Koe, Mark Kean, Kirk Muyres, Matt Blandford, Julie Hastings, Nolan Thiessen, Kerry Galusha, Chris Plys, Matt Dunstone and John Cullen.  This was the first year I added player interviews to the blog and I hope they enjoyed them as much as I did.  Of course I hope all of you who read them enjoyed the interviews too.

Thank you to every curler who took time out to chat with me throughout the season, either at events or grand slams or through social media.

And, of course, thank you to each and every one of you who takes the time to read this blog.  Whether it be just the curling posts or any and all the posts on the #TwineTime blog, I am truly thankful.  I always appreciate the feedback, whether you agree or disagree with me.

There are so many big sporting events still to come over the summer so don't think the #TwineTime blog is off taking a holiday.  The fun part of blogging about sports is there is never a down time.  As one sport comes to a season end, many others are just getting under way or well into the season.  PLUS....we have the #Rio2016 Summer Olympics to discuss.

#StayTuned

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Vive la France: Euro 2016 Hits The Pitch
Who will hoist the coveted Henri Delaunay Trophy?


Outside of the FIFA World Cup, there is no other football championship that can produce as much excitement as the UEFA European Championship.  Yes, not even the Olympics brings as much excitement and media attention to the sport as the Euro does.  And we will see this direct comparison in a span of months with #Euro2016 underway now and #Rio2016 beginning in August.

The #Euro2016 field is one of a kind...namely the first time 24 teams have qualified for the event.  UEFA is taking a page out of the FIFA event handbook in increasing the number of nations competing in this continental championship.  Can you believe that as recent as 1992 this event only invited 8 teams to compete?  Luckily 1996 saw the expansion to 16 teams and, twenty years later, we see another expansion upping the field to the current 24 team format.

Before we dive into the preview and predictions for Euro 2016, here a few quick facts about the championships:
  • 53 nations entered Euro 2016 qualification, with Gibraltar competing for the first time.
  • The expanded field for 2016 will welcome the debut of 5 nations: Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Wales. 
  • Spain enter the event as the first-ever back-to-back champions, claiming the title in 2008 and 2012.
  • Spain and Germany lead the way with championship performances, each hoisting the trophy 3 times.
  • 2016 will mark the 3rd time France has hosted the European Championship.  They hosted the first ever event in 1960 and again in 1984.
  • Only 3 nations have hosted the tournament and gone on to win: Spain (1964), Italy (1968), France (1984).
  • The 2020 Euro Championship will not have a host nation, nor automatic host qualifier.  Instead the event will be hosted by 13 cities throughout the continent.  Major European cities like London, Munich, Rome, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg have won hosting rights.  Non-traditional host cities will include Baku, Brussels, Copenhagen, Budapest, Dublin, Bucharest, Glasgow and Bilbao.
The Opening Ceremonies of blog writing have now taken place and been put to bed.  The excitement, the cheers, the roar of the crowd (or readers) has begun to rise and the anticipation for the preview is at epic proportion.

Let's head to the pitch for a full group by group preview and playoff predictions:

GROUP STAGE

Group A

The host nation has already kicked off the tournament as of press time, surviving a tough opening championship match vs. Romania (winning 2-1).  France (#17 FIFA World Ranking) is the leading contender to win this tournament.  France are making their 9th Euro appearance and already have two titles under their belts (1984, 2000).  And who was the last host nation to win a European Championship?  Yup, that would also be France back in 1984.  Although history appears to be against them.  Since their home nation victory, only one home nation has even made the finals and that was Portugal in 2004 (l. to Greece).  Add in recent Euro results for France: a QF loss in 2004 , last place group result in 2008 and a QF loss in 2012.  Odd piece of trivia fact for you though, in 2004 and 2012 France lost in the QF to the eventual champion (Greece, Spain).  So does France make the QF once again at home and repeat the home history of winning the title or do they suffer a QF loss once again and create luck for whomever can defeat them?  Time will tell.  One thing is for certain, their Group A competition should not scare them too much.  Romania (#22) did play a great opening game against them but still suffered a defeat.  While Romania looked strong, one could argue the closeness of the game was more about France playing tight and nervous for an opening home game than Romania outplaying them.  Romania did not suffer a loss in qualifying though, winning 5 matches and tying 5, and only conceded a qualifying low 2 goals in 10 games.  Not exactly an ideal result mind you but still enough to earn second in their group (1 point behind Northern Ireland) and automatic qualification.  Switzerland (#15) is in a similar boat where they probably can't go a full 90mins with France, they still have a strong enough game to contend for a knockout stage berth.  Switzerland can score goals and has a strong offensive attack that will put pressure on France and probably be enough to out-fire Romania.  Both results should be enough to push them through.  But what about Albania (#42)?  Well, welcome to the Euro Championships Albania...we hope you enjoy your first-time as it will probably be a relatively short one.  Sure everyone wants to see upsets...just maybe focus on some of the groups below to find them.

Projected Standings:  1.  France  2.  Switzerland  3.  Romania  4.  Albania 

Group B

England (#11) dominates the headlines for Group B with the Three Lions being overwhelming favourites to win the group.  England was the only nation to put together a perfect qualifying campaign, going 10-0 while scoring 31 goals and only conceding 3.  To say they were dominating is almost an understatement.  And while the friendly results leading into Euro 2016 may have been less than ideal, the group stage draw certainly should not give them much troubles.  The big test, and perhaps overall game of the group stage, will come vs. Wales.  Gareth Bale and his Welsh teammates will take the pitch for the first time at a Euro championship and of course draw Great Britain rivals England.  Wales (#26) put together a strong qualifying campaign, conceding only 4 goals.  The problem here could be scoring though.  They only scored 11 goals in 10 games and are they relying too much on Bale?  What if he gets injured or finds foul trouble in a game?  Who does Wales have to step up then?  With England and Wales drawing all the attention, the real advantage could fall to Russia.  Not many people are talking about the Russians.  Russia (#29) can score, shown with their 21 goals in qualifying, but also have one of the best goalies competing in France.  While they may not yield lots of press and attention, Russia could easily give both England and Wales a run for the group lead.  The final Group B team will be debuting Slovakia (#24).  Based on FIFA rankings, Slovakia should finish second in this group.  Slovakia made a surprise second place finish in their qualifying group, behind Spain but ahead of Ukraine, to make their first Euro championship.  Unfortunately for the Slovaks, the time spent in France will more than likely be a short one as finding any points on the field against their group competitors will be a tough one.

Projected Standings:  1.  England  2.  Russia  3.  Wales  4.  Slovakia

Group C

The current FIFA World Cup title holders, Germany (#4), headline Group C and are not only the overwhelming favourites to win the group but also a strong contender to replicate Spain's feat a few years ago in holding World Cup and Euro titles at the same time.  And why not?  Germany is one of the strongest and most experienced nations competing.  They have made the SF round in 2012 and lost the final in 2008.  Germany also is tied with Spain for the most Euro titles with 3 (these include the West Germany wins in 1972 and 1980 of course).  The Germans should get some tight competition in their group stage matches though from some very familiar, and close, competition: Poland and Ukraine.  Poland (#27) is the team to be wary of.  They scored a qualifying high 33 goals in 10 qualifying games and had the second best goal difference of +23.  Don't forget as well Germany and Poland were placed in the same qualifying group, with both nations winning at home, so these two will be very familiar with one another.  Ukraine (#19) will be making their second Euro appearance but first as a qualifying nation, having competed in 2012 as a co-host nation with....fellow group competitor Poland.  Ukraine did pick up an opening match win 4 years ago (vs. Sweden) but failed to find momentum in back-to-back losses, just missing the knockout stage.  They won their spot in France besting Slovenia is the qualifying playoff.  The final spot in this group belongs to debuting Northern Ireland (#25).  Northern Ireland surprised many by winning their qualifying group ahead of Romania, Hungary, Finland and Greece.  While the qualifying group win may be impressive, replicating a similar upset feat in France will be more difficult.

Projected Standings:  1.  Germany  2.  Poland  3.  Ukraine  4.  Northern Ireland

Group D

Enter two-time defending Euro Champions Spain!  Spain (#6) is fresh off a disappointing World Cup performance in Brazil and will be looking to right the ship and make amends to their fans while competing in a championship they have dominated for the past 8 years.  This is not the same Spain team though.  Many are fully expecting a similar disappointing result in France.  But don't think this will come in the group stage.  Sure there is a high probability of upset potential but Spain should still win this group,  although that final Euro tune-up friendly loss to #137 ranked Georgia does cause some concern.  The real drama will involve the other three nations trying to battle to not only top spot but trying to advance in second or one of the coveted lucky third-place finisher spots.  Watch out for Turkey folks!  If any nation in this group could trip up Spain, Turkey could make it happen.  If Turkey (#18) can pull out the 3 points in their opener vs. Croatia, the momentum and confidence could carry over to a surprise result vs. Spain.  They pulled the big win over the Netherlands in qualifying, cementing their spot as the top third-place team and earning automatic qualification, avoiding the playoff round.  Croatia (#27) is a team many expect to also give a run to the current titleholders.  Croatia is an interesting team to look at.  They have competed in the past 3 Euro championships but have only advanced past the group stage once (2008).  Time is ticking on a nation once considered a dark horse title contender.  They can score though, finding the back of the net 20 times in 10 qualifying games.  The Czech Republic (#30) are also an interesting nation to watch.  The Czech's won their qualifying group over Iceland (and Turkey...AND Netherlands).  The problem with the Czech's is while they may score a few goals...they also allow quite a few.

Projected Standings:  1.  Spain  2.  Turkey  3.  Croatia  4.  Czech Republic  

Group E

Quick, who is the highest ranking FIFA nation competing at Euro 2016?  Yup, you guessed it...Belgium?  Sure enough the tiny nation of Belgium comes to France ranking #2 in the world (behind Argentina) and, on ranking alone, should be a favourite to claim the title.  But can they live up to their lofty ranking?  Six years ago the nation was ranked #66 in the world...and now here they are as title threats.  Fresh off a QF appearance at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the Red Devils have the game to go far in France.  The draw gods certainly did them a favour, handing them a very winnable group schedule.  Italy (#12) and Sweden (#35) are going to be interesting to watch, both with potential to advance but with equal potential to flame out early and disappoint.  Both nations have played in the previous four Euro Championships, with Italy coming up just short in the 2012 final vs. Spain.  In fact, other than Spain's back-to-back titles, Italy is the only nation to make 2 Euro finals in the past 20 years, losing both unfortunately.  And what about Ireland (#33)?  The Irish will be making their 3rd ever appearance and will be looking for a better result than 2012, where they lost all 3 group stage matches and were only able to find the back of the net once.  Worth noting, in 2012 Italy and Ireland were also in the same group, Italy won the group stage match 2-0.

Projected Standings:  1.  Belgium  2.  Sweden  3.  Italy  4.  Ireland

Group F

This is Portugal's group for the taking.  It is hard to imagine a situation where superstar stud Cristiano Ronaldo does not lead his nation to the top of this group.  Portugal (#8) has been to a Euro, coming up short in what many call the greatest upset in Euro history losing to Greece at home.  Add in three past SF appearances, including four years ago, and history seems to align with the "A Seleccao".  The knock on Portugal will be, aside from their experience and talent being unmatched, they were not superior looking in qualifying (including a loss to Albania).  So don't cancel out the other three nations competing just yet.  Austria (#10) has been red hot the past few years, dominating their qualifying group with a +17 goal difference picking up 9 wins and 1 draw (vs. Sweden) while quickly rising to a Top 10 FIFA ranking.  Their last appearance was as host in 2008 where they failed to advance past the group stage, but this is a much different team.  Mark it down now folks, Austria is the #TwineTime dark horse pick of #Euro2016.  Iceland (#34) is making their Euro debut but the tiniest nation here (with only 330,000 people) could provide the biggest upsets (just ask the Netherlands).  Iceland allowed only 6 goals in 10 qualifying matches while scoring 17.  That kind of goal differential will certainly be a key to success if they are to advance to their first-ever knockout stage.  And don't forget Hungry (#20).  Welcome back...it's only been what...10? 20? 44 years since we last saw you here!  Hungary finished with a mediocre qualifying record, finishing third in what many regard as one of the weaker qualifying groups in Euro history.  They did however win when it mattered most, taking both playoff games to eliminate Norway and qualify.  The Hungarians will be making their third Euro appearance, with the best result being 3rd back in 1964.  Experience sides with Portugal on history alone but, in a group with three unknowns and upsets bound to happen, Group F could become a shoot-out.  This group has two nations ranked in the Top 10 in the world and three nations ranked in the Top 20.  In fact, #TwineTime makes the call now that the 3 teams that qualify from this group all make the QF round!  And one WILL make the SF!  How do you like that for upset potential?

Projected Standings:  1. Portugal  2.  Austria  3.  Iceland  4.  Hungary

KNOCKOUT STAGE

Round of 16

Poland def. Switzerland
Iceland def. Spain
England def. Croatia
Portugal def. Sweden
Germany def. Wales
Belgium def. Turkey
France def. Italy
Austria def. Russia

Quarterfinal

Poland def. Iceland
England def. Portugal
Germany def. Belgium
Austria def. France

Semifinal

England def. Poland
Germany def. Austria

EURO 2016 CHAMPIONSHIP:  Germany def. England - The World Cup champions continue their run of football supremacy and claim another title.  This team is just too strong and too good not to win this title.  I feel for England though who will finally reach a Euro final only to be denied the championship.

What do you think?  Agree with the #TwineTime predictions?  Disagree?  Who do you have winning #Euro2016?  Who are your upset or dark horse teams competing?  As you can see above, I think our Group F nations of Portugal, Austria and Iceland will all go far...with Iceland coming through with the biggest Round of 16 upset only to see Austria boast the biggest upset of the tournament in eliminating home nation France in the Quarterfinals.  Maybe I am crazy?  Maybe not?  Let's see how it plays out on the pitch.

Enjoy the action everyone....