Last Rock Disadvantage

No, it’s not a misprint. You read it correctly. The title of this post is indeed, “Last Rock Disadvantage”.

When the four rock rule was adopted by the curling world, it really was uncharted territory. Sure, in Canada we had a three rock rule but the four rock version dramatically changed the game from both  participants’ and well as spectators’ perspectives!

Spectators loved it and still do although, and this may be tantamount to heresy, when the truly elite teams play one another, you can go to the fridge for the beverage and/or food of your choice until the end is at thirds’ and skips’ shots. The first shots of the end could be mailed in. Don’t misunderstand. It takes great skill to place those guards, come around draws and freezes. But, they’re all the same. That is until one team decides the “angles” are not favourable. Then you see a skill most teams do not possess. The ability of the elite teams to play runbacks so accurately is truly amazing. After that, the end really gets interesting!

Curlers love it although you really have to be dedicated to the lead position to want to play draw after draw after draw after … (my kingdom for a takeout). Certainly the game is more interesting as there are many more stones in play. But the four rock rule, upon its inception, did not serve your average club team very well in my view. Club teams did not have the skill set to take advantage of the rule. For a number of seasons, from my participant observation, it was confusing to say the least. Many club skips decided to watch the elite teams play the rule and copy them. That was not a good idea for what should have been obvious reasons. So what to do?

From an instructor’s point of view, where do we put novice curlers? Traditionally they would assume the lead position but under the new rule, with leads’ stones so imperative, that did’t seem prudent. OK, we’ll put them at second but that meant developing hit weight which usually is a step or two behind draws in the mastery column. Third? Well, you see what I mean. But, it’s a four rock world so suck it up Bill. Get over it!

Make no mistake, the primary reason for the four rock rule despite my scribbling thus far was something other than interest for spectator and player. No, no, no! It was to level the playing field with countries traditionally perceived as powerful on the world stage by countries at the development stage! A secondary reason was to give the team in a deficit position a better opportunity to make a game of it (see first reason). More interest by spectators was in a tertiary position!

With that out of the way, and I suspect I’ll get some opposing views in my inbox, why can last rock be a disadvantage? Actually it’s inherent in the rule itself. To paraphrase, opposition (don’t forget that word) stones cannot be removed from play until the fifth stone is played in the end if they are in the “free guard zone” (the area in front of the tee line not in the house). That means that both lead stones are protected belonging to the team without last rock advantage while for the team with last rock advantage, only one lead stone is protected. That element of the rule can propel a team losing on the scoreboard to a team preparing to purchase the beverages at the conclusion of the contest.

I wish I had that proverbial nickel for each time I had a team contact me with the major concern being the number of games lost when the team had “control”. My first comment to the team is the point I’ve just made about the purpose of the four rock rule. That revelation alone seems to turn on a light bulb (high efficiency of course). Then we have a look at performance. Do they simply make fewer shots than their opponents in the latter stages of the ends? If that doesn’t appear to be the problem then we have a look at strategy and tactics so let’s get right to that.

The team without last rock advantage wants to play to the centre of the sheet with protection. Their CL (centre line) guard on their first lead stone will do that. That team needs one more thing. It needs protection from behind for their next shot which quite likely will be a come around shot (around their CL guard) by their myopic opponent who has followed the popular protocol and played around that CL guard. Thanks very much. Now they play the come around freeze and they are happy. They have the protection they require and all the play is to the center of the sheet and you helped make it happen! Game on!

Let’s rewind to that CL guard delivered by your opponent as shot #1 in the end. What options do you have at your disposal besides the come around draw? Sure, you could play a corner guard. That’s good because you wish to play to the sides of the sheet. You could draw to an open side, hopefully behind the tee line so a hit-and-roll by your opponent does not leave them in the four foot circle. And, if you listened to Russ Howard’s comment in the first end of tonight’s (02/24/13) Scotties final, you could bump that CL guard into the house, the so-called “bump tick”, but seldom played (to the consternation of one Russ Howard and yours truly). Let’s deal with them in order.

The corner guard makes a lot of sense of course as with last stone advantage, you want to get play to the sides of the sheet to open up the scoring area so a guard placed in a side-of-the-sheet location on your first lead stone follows that overall end plan. But, and here’s where it gets interesting, I’m a big believer at the club level to use it on your next shot regardless of where the opposition plays its second lead stone. You placed it there, use it! It’s not good enough in my books to simply “hope” at some point in the end you get a roll behind the guard. If you use it right away you have the majority of your shots to deal with the stones the opposition has placed in the centre of the sheet. Experiment with this tactic. Record the instances it’s used and the result (competitive data) and if it succeeds, well, you’re welcome.

I really like drawing to a back corner of the 8′! I mean I really like that tactic. First, it gets play to the side of the sheet for the reason outlined above. Second, with its position behind the tee line, a hit-and-roll by the opposition means they’re rolling to the back of the house or if it’s a hit-and-stay, you have a stone to draw to for backing. But the best part of this tactic is the diversion it creates. The last place the opposing skip wants you to go is to that back corner position. He/she wants you to draw around so he/she can use your stone for protection (see above). When you don’t “play ball”, it’s really annoying. Great!

Now we come to the aforementioned “bump tick”. As Russ said on the telecast earlier tonight, it’s not a difficult shot! Linda Moore added that teams tend to use it as a late-in-the-game tactic but tend not to use it earlier. Why? I don’t know, do you? When you play the bump tick, it’s just a heavy draw weight shot whereby the CL guard placed by the opposition gets in the way. There’s lots of tolerance on this shot. Even if you bumped it straight back to the button, no problem. There are lots of shots still to be played and you’re now in that “control zone” in front of the house. Ideally you’d like to bump that CL guard to the side of the house (where you can hit it anytime you wish) with the shooter rolling to a corner guard position. If your lead could bump that CL guard behind the tee line, well, you’re in business my friend.

I like it when teams use a variety of tactics as opposed to the same opening moves end-after-end-after-end. Be somewhat unpredictable! Not off -the-wall ridiculous, just unpredictable and let me know how it goes with that last stone disadvantage!

* The recent post entitled, “What Do I Do With My Lead Stones” (02/20/13) has drawn a record number of readers and some really excellent comments. In the post I suggest that you watch the plethora of curling on TV at this time of the year to see what elite teams choose to do with them, especially when they’re running out the clock to win the game. Did you notice what Team Homan (aka Team Canada) did? They put two stones into the front 4′ area. The Brier begins on Saturday. Let’s see what the men do!