Stephen Mulliner won the European Championship for the 10th time
The 2008 European Championship was the sixteenth and, once again, returned to Jersey Croquet Club which probably provides the four fastest courts available anywhere in Europe in late September. Aided by sun on all three days, a brisk breeze and groundstaff who mowed diligently each morning, the conditions were definitely worthy of the title "challenging" and many players found that a moment's inattention when approaching a hoop could be disastrous. Stephen Mulliner regained the title, winning for the tenth time after a tense battle with Simon Williams, and thereby maintained "the Mulliner Sequence" of winning three times in a row, then losing twice in a row. This has been repeated three times since 1993 and this win could be the start of a fourth.
Youth was much in evidence this year and three names stand out. Jonatan Andersson from Sweden reached the final of the Plate where he lost to the improving local player, Gavin Carter. Jonatan hits straight and can produce accurate croquet strokes. His break tactics showed clear improvement over the three days and he was awarded a handicap of 2. He and Simon Carlsson, playing off 1, should be able to drive each other to greater heights, especially as Anton Varnas has just laid down four new courts at his Swedish estate. Jose Riva from Spain is a nephew of Fernando de Ansorena and delighted his uncle and impressed everyone else by completing two triple peels in the Plate. He has been awarded a handicap of scratch.
However, the best performance came from the youngest, James Le Moignan, 19. He was reduced from 7 to 3 at the 2007 Austrian Open and since then has improved by leaps and bounds, no doubt greatly assisted by the fact that he has an GB international for a father. Fresh from winning the Spencer Ell, James raced through his block with three TPs and conceded only one hoop in four games. He then found that Jonatan, who had only just managed to qualify for the knock-out, had no intention of rolling over and it was a very relieved "Spring Onion" who finally won +8. Now he faced Rodolphe Dourthe from France. Rodolphe has little chance to practice but showed what a good player he is by playing accurate breaks in almost all his games. He took the first against James by 6, lost the second and was finally defeated by 10 on time in the third. This set James up for a semi-final against the mercurial Simon Williams who had already completed a quintuple against Cliff Jones on lawn 3, the trickiest of the lot, and almost had a sextuple in the first game of the match. His combination peg-out from a foot looked almost certain to succeed but somehow missed.
Against James, Simon rocketed round to a 5th turn TP in 27 minutes last thing on Saturday night. Sunday morning saw James with a TP to square the match but he failed to get through a tight rover by far enough to avoid having to hit partner. The long peg-out failed and he had one ball off. Simon hit and had a perfect 3-ball break which came to grief at 2-b in extraordinary circumstances. Approaching from 18 inches, he noticed that the balls had fallen apart half-way through his downswing. The attempt to abort failed and the slight contact between mallet and striker's ball left it completely blocked from the hoop by the croqueted ball. He joined partner, James missed the peg to near C3, Simon set up a rush to 2-b in C1 and James hit the 35 yarder! The decider swayed in both directions and both players reached 4-b before Simon took control and had a delayed TP going well until rover when the peelee stuck and glued itself to the eastern wire. The jump was successful but there was no deep ball and he missed the 5 yarder into B-baulk. James had a go at the triple but got behind and wisely focussed on repairing the break and pegging out Simon's B. The leave was P and W 7 yards apart on the E boundary with G 6 feet N of rover. Simon bounced off rover to near C1 and James laid up N of 4-b. Simon decided that discretion was the better part of valour and parked G in C4. James made 4-b and penult but had a poor rush to rover and had to approach from 4 yards W and a little S. Nonetheless, the striker's ball looked good if a little long and it was a surprise when he failed rover with a notable scalp in sight. Simon lifted G to the end of A-baulk and hit the 8 yarder smoothly to finish off and reach the final for the second time in his career, having been the 1996 champion.
The other choice quarter-final was between defending champion, David Openshaw, and immediately previous champion, Tony Le Moignan. David shocked Tony by racing off with a 5th turn TP but Tony replied in kind in game 2 and seemed set for a clinical 6th turn TP in game 3. Alas, the conditions had their say and he missed a shortish roquet on partner near penult, leaving his clips on penult and 3-b and David took full advantage to complete a neat DPO. He left his balls in C2 and C3 and Tony surprised the crowd by taking croquet with the C3 ball, splitting it to near the peg while going to the C2 ball. He hit this and produced an excellent split roll which sent David's B to NE of 4-b while his R obtained 4 yard straight position. The attempt failed but appeared to have a good second prize as it ended up in the middle if the jaws. However, B and K were wired from each other by 4-b and K was able to lift to B-baulk to get a short rush. David laid up near C1 with Tony N of 2 and, possibly a little too aggressively, Tony shot and missed. David developed a 3-ball break with great accuracy and took it all the way.
David then met Stephen Mulliner in the other semi-final who took the first game with a rapid 25tp. The second saw Stephen first to 4-b but David hit and equalised. Stephen missed the lift and, with the lawn slowing a little as time wore on, David pressed on with a delayed TP. However, the 4-b peel was done going to 1-b with the 2-b pioneer between the peg and 4-b. He needed good rush to 2-b but only snicked it and his roll from 12 yards was too strong and he failed an optimistic jump. He was fortunate in that Stephen's ball near baulk was his hoop 1 ball but, the following morning, Stephen lifted it to B-baulk, hit a 9 yarder and completed the triple to reach the final.
For the detail hounds, the final is described below. The summary is that the first two games were shared, Stephen failed a sextuple in the decider and Simon was within moments of victory when he failed rover and Stephen cleaned up.
Game 1: Stephen won the toss and played first. Simon chose R & Y.
1. K 4yds NNW 5.
2. R just missed K to the E to 3yds beyond the peg.
3. B just missed K to the W to 3yds beyond the peg.
4. Y hit and went to 4-b with a DSL.
5. K hit R from C3, cutting it to 4, take-off to Y went off.
6. Y hit and laid on Eb with rush to C2, K near C1, B on middle of Nb.
7. B just missed semi-double at R and Y.
8. R started delayed TP but missed 5yd roquet after 2-b with two peels done.
9. B did DPO ending with K in C1 and B in C2.
10. SW played an excellent square split from C2 sending B 3 yds N of 4-b and R 5yds N of K, hit, rolled off 3-b and finished. 1-0
Game 2: Simon played first. Stephen chose R & Y.
2. Y hit and laid double at peg.
3. K hit, made 1 but failed 2 off Y with B at 3.
4. R hit 5 yarder on Y from end B-baulk, rolled up to K to rush to B, rushed B to end A-baulk, over-rolled 1 and retired to Wb level with Y.
5. B missed from 1 to K on Nb behind 3.
6. R hit Y and went to 4-b with NSL with B on 4 but open to A-baulk.
7. K hit B and went to 4-b with a DSL.
8. R missed Y on Wb.
9. B set up for a TP but failed 1 glued to wire.
10. R missed Y from 2 to near C1 with B unable to hit either.
11. K hit Y from 20 yards! (as B had no escape route) and laid in C4 with Y near 1 and R near 2.
12. Y played to C3.
13. B jumped over K on the rush, ending on middle of Wb.
14. R hit Y, took off to K in C4 and then B, tried pass-roll approach to 1 but retired to C3 with rush on Y to C2.
15. B missed R from near 1.
16. R extracted a standard TP for 1-1.
Game 3: Stephen played first, Simon chose R&Y.
1. B to 7yds N C4.
2. R 8 yd duffer.
3. K hit R and laid a spread.
4. Y missed B and K to C4.
5. K to 1-b.
6. R missed tea-lady.
7. B starts sextuple, 4 peels before 4-b but B over-approaches 4-b from 4 yards and fails jump.
8. R to 4-b with adventures and reverse OSL.
9. K (penult) missed B.
10. Y extracts standard TP but gets delayed and fails rover.
11. K to peg with cross-wire at 4-b.
12. Y misses jump at R.
13.. B finishes from 4-b.
The colour is that the sextuple was looking good until the roll after rush-peeling 4-b to place K in front of penult and get B a rush on Y midway between 4-b and penult. An unkind slope caused B to hit Y directly and the sideways approach from 4 yards caught another slope and slipped past the hoop. Simon's break in turn 8 had its entertaining moments. He appeared to have seriously underapproached 1 but produced a peach of a jump. Then his MSL ball (K) prevented B from being croqueted anywhere useful after 1-b. Nothing daunted, he took off to Y at 2-b, made that, rushed back to the middle of Wb, took off to B, rushed that to just S of rover, rolled off 3-b, rushed B to Eb, took off back to K but ran into penult, hit the 7 yarder at K, croqueted it to just S of the peg and ended up with R and Y with a tight leave out of C2. Easy really. The disaster at rover had its origins in a misplaced 3-b pioneer which led to a need for a straight rover peel. The peelee was rushed from S of rover and left an angled peel which was hit firmly so that the peel on R succeeded but Y ran on to the upright.
Richard Sowerby presented the prizes and thanked all who had made the event possible. Tony Le Moignan, chief hoop-setter, the ground-staff, the tea-providers and the manager were all warmly applauded. Then there was the money. An unusual feature was the Calcutta organised by Tony Le Moignan and held at the welcome party on Thursday night. Players and guests bid for the right to "own" a players with 40% of the pot going to the winner's owner, 25% to the runner-up's owner and 10% to the owner of the player with the most 26s against him. Sarah Mulliner was pleasantly surprised to find that her £65 investment on her husband had made her over £200 while Simon Williams had owned himself for £60 and more than doubled his money. James Le Moignan and Martin Stephenson shared the "-26" pool. After all that, Jersey Croquet Club was more than £130 better off, and this may be something that other clubs will want to consider.