The sight of sunshine over Glasgow at noon on Wednesday is a welcome change for a Wales side becoming accustomed to the 8 a.m. draw; arriving at Braehead for the first of a double header in high spirits with plenty already to be proud of at these European Championships. Going into the first of those two games against a Slovakian side with their own designs on the Play Offs, the Welsh line up is altered once more with Simon Pougher replacing Garry Coombs at Lead, ahead of the orthodox order of Rhys Phillips at Second, James Pougher at Third and Adrian Meikle Skip.
A solid effort with the draw shots gave Wales the hammer to start with and Slovakia responded by putting shots into the house early. A Welsh miss allowed the Slovakians to guard their own stones and ultimately Wales were forced to surrender the hammer and draw for one. The opening stones of the second end were sent behind the tee-line but Slovakia were able to split the house before squeezing a tight shot inside to roll over. This presented Adrian the opportunity to play the double take out however the roll was not quite right and only one of the Slovakian stones could be removed, resulting in a gain of two for the Eastern Europeans.
Drawing around Slovakia’s first stone at the beginning of the third, Wales looked well set to profit from the return of the last stone advantage, but the situation developed dangerously with a succession of good Slovakian stones drawing into the house. Some control was restored with a good Welsh hit to remove two stones before Adrian was able to draw in – ably assisted by some delicious sweeping by Rhys – to take two from the end and restore Wales’s lead. The fourth end started much better than the previous one, with Wales burying one early and largely staying in control of the shot making. Slovakia were forced to take just the one from the end after needing to make a draw, and the scores were evened up once more.
The fifth end, just prior to the interval, was an ideal opportunity for Wales to open up a gap between themselves and their opponents, although a Slovakian stone lingering at the back of the house proved difficult to dislodge and would ultimately be crucial in spoiling the end. Wales froze up to it on several occasions and the chance to draw for two was open but the final stone pulled up short of its intended target and the Welsh had to settle for just the one point from the end.
The sixth was an even and open end including multiple good hits from both sides, with the house staying largely clear until the very last plays were made. Slovakia hit the last Welsh stone away but fail to roll out, taking the one and evening up the scores once again. The poor luck of the Slovakians was carried over into the next end were a crucial early miss put the advantage firmly in Wales’s favour, but their opponents fought back well to keep the end moving and Wales were ultimately happy to blank the end and keep the hammer in their favour.
The match turned in the eighth where Slovakia were able to engineer a steal against the hammer and lead for the first time since the second end. Two stones went deep early and whilst the Welsh were able to hit the majority of them away – including a good take out from James – there were just too many to cope with and the steal was achieved. A similar pattern developed in the ninth with Slovakia challenging Wales to hit out whatever they put in and the weight of numbers simply being too great. The final draw had to be made by the Welsh to prevent a steal of three and was, but it couldn’t prevent two stones being lost and the outcome of the match swinging further into the favour of the Slovakians. A defensive effort early in the tenth cemented this advantage and Wales were soon left without enough stones to make up the difference, bringing to an end a frustrating but tightly contested encounter with the score Wales 4, Slovakia 7. Meanwhile, on the adjoining sheet, a last stone win for Israel against group leaders Turkey brought an end to Wales’s chance of making the play offs.
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Picking themselves up and dusting themselves down, Wales returned in the evening for their final game of the European championships against an Israeli team that had looked solid throughout and had his their best form to dislodge previously unbeaten Turkey earlier in the day. More dramatic changes were made to the Welsh line up with Adrian Meikle dropping down the order to play First stones whilst still calling the shots from the Head, Garry Coombs returning but moving up to Second, followed by Rhys Phillips at Third and James Pougher entrusted with the responsibility of playing the Last Stones of each end.
Israel opened up with the hammer and remained in control of the first end until its conclusion, taking the blank to maintain their last stone advantage. They then attacked Wales in the second, putting shots in and rolling behind them. A good shot from James cut this down but it wouldn’t roll over enough and the final Israeli stone was just able to pick it out and stay for a take of two. The Welsh then set up the third end well, with three stones in the house from an early point, and didn’t really look back – with an Israeli miss partway through aiding Wales’s cause. Good shots later on doubled away two Welsh stones but James was left with a draw to make – and did – resulting in a take of two and a levelling of the scores once again.
Stealing a one in the fourth was a good result for the end, with a fortunate roll behind a crowded front-of-house bettering any effort by Israel to remove it and giving the lead to Wales for the first time in the encounter. The fifth end was then blanked, as Israel looked to hold onto the hammer going into the break and Wales happy to be performing above the level of their opponents. They were even happier once the sixth end opened the second half, with a steal of one extending their advantage and for the first time in the day they began to look comfortably in control of the game.
Excellent shots at the beginning of the seventh end were a sign of the Welsh dominance that developed as the game progressed. There was no surer sign of this than the powerful, driven double take out sent down the ice by Rhys – the sight of Garry running in order to sweep after taking a brief break from the ice was some measure of the quality and power of the shot! A magnificent steal of two widened the gap and Wales will have been happy that the scoreboard was reflecting the quality of their play.
The eighth end was marked by good early weights which created a promising situation. A split house behind a mounting number of guards shut down all avenues for Israeli gain and, although they made a good shot to remove one of the Welsh stones, they couldn’t prevent another steal by the Wales team to move the score into irrecoverable territory. Both teams shook hands at the end of the eighth with the final score standing at Wales 7, Israel 2. Although Israel would progress into the play offs at the expense of Wales, the boys were satisfied with the quality and control of their display and the final tournament record of four wins and three defeats represents a good return against a competitive and ever improving B Division lineup.