Scotland finished sixteenth in its group of the Open Series at the European Team Championships and did not qualify for the 'final' round robin. Was this a good performance?
I was part of the Selection Committee for this team although, as regular readers will know, I resigned from it last month. The Selection Committee ran the trials for the European team according to the regulations that it inherited, which in my view were seriously flawed but there was no mechanism to change them. Having said that, a different trials process could easily have resulted in the same team going. The selectors picked the winning team from the trial, selected the third pair (yes, this was a choice between two good pairs and not easy) and appointed the NPC.
The team had only one player with experience of playing a seven-day tournament and only four of the team with caps in the Camrose.Two of the partnerships had only been playing for one season and the third was in its second year. There were two junior (U-26) players, one of whom only finished his final exams in late May which seriously compromised preparation time for the event - this was never an issue for me, there are more important things in life than bridge.
This is all a way of saying that expectations were low. A highly inexperienced team, pairs doing vastly different amounts of preparation and at a time when the standard of bridge was improving throughout Europe.
Overall I thought the team did reasonably well. The group was more unbalanced than in Pau two years ago, with more stronger teams but also three weaker teams. Scotland dispatched the three weaker teams well and held their own against some of the stronger teams. It was inevitable that they would struggle against some of the top teams, but I guess they will be disappointed by the couple of heavy defeats to mid-table outfits.
I should stress that the differences between success and failure are small. My quick analysis suggests that Scotland were 0.75 imps/board away from qualifying in ninth place, or 15 imps per match, or probably one mistake per pair per match. This is more than avoiding the silly mistakes and it does require some good play to bridge this gap, but qualifying from the group stage should be the target in 2012.
An interesting and useful comparison can be made with Wales. Realistically speaking Scotland does not expect to beat England and Ireland in the Home Internationals at this moment in time, so coming ahead of Wales is the challenge. In the Camrose this year Scotland beat Wales twice but finished behind them in the final table.
In Ostend, as described earlier, Wales fell heart-breakingly short of qualifying, some 49 VP ahead of Scotland. What is the difference? Firstly the Wales team is stacked with experienced players who are used to playing international bridge, with established partnerships who have been playing together for a long time. Secondly, their pairs play in more competitive English events, including the team winning the Spring Fours earlier this year. Finally the Wales team also seems to be more of a team - part of this is the longevity of the partnerships, used to playing together in a team, but in preparation they have played serious events as a team and also practised together online.
Wales has a highly experienced squad of players that is more used to competing with good teams. Scotland should be looking to develop the same.
In summary, the team bettered my (low) expectations. Maybe a good question is whether they played anyone that they thought was unbeatable if they played to the top of their game? Perhaps Iceland or Norway, but certainly not Italy who they could easily have beaten. So why did not they not play their best all the way through? Well, no-one does of course, but I feel that experience of such an event and the consistency required when playing top players day after day were missing.
Hopefully the experience gained will serve both the players and the SBU well in the future. Introducing juniors into the team, at a time when the most experienced Scottish players seem to prefer the seniors events, is positive if we can build on it.
It will be interesting to hear from the players to see if the view from up close matches my view from afar!
Finally, money. Was this another waste of SBU money on an international event? NO, NO, NO. The SBU members have not made any contribution to the funding of the team for this event, none, nada, zilch, zip, zero, not a bean. The team is funded by a contribution from Bridge Great Britain, that is to be used solely for international events, and the team themselves. The SBU does not contribute. I think it should. The NPC should have all his/her expenses paid and the team should not be paying for any of its accommodation or travel. I'd also like to see the SBU help international pairs prepare, although I accept this is even less likely to happen.