Eight Ends: Australia’s unbelievable upset puts Canada in dire must-win situation

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Eight Ends is your daily one-stop shop for all things curling with news, notes, insight and analysis through the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing plus the occasional pop culture reference. See if you can spot our Mario Kart one.

First End: Crikey! What an absolutely insane set of circumstances that unfolded Sunday. This one’s like Rainbow Road so let’s try and navigate all the twists and turns without falling off the track.

First, it looked like Australia was out of the tournament early after Tahli Gill tested positive for COVID-19. Australia, who were 0-7 and already eliminated from medal contention, had two round-robin games remaining against Switzerland (Draw 11) and Canada (Draw 12) and would have to forfeit both games. Gill posted a heartbreaking message on Instagram and the Australian Olympic Committee was trying to make arrangements to get her and teammate Dean Hewitt home as soon as possible.

But wait! Australia was reinstated shortly before Draw 11 and allowed to finish out their tournament under “close contact provisions.” As unbelievable as all that was, what followed on the ice was just as shocking. Gill and Hewitt upset the 2018 Olympic silver medallists defeating Switzerland 9-6 to score Australia’s historic first-ever victory in curling at the Winter Games.

The pair wrapped up their Olympic journey taking on Canada’s Rachel Homan and John Morris, the reigning gold medallist who also coached them to victory at the Olympic qualification event two months ago. Australia came out strong scoring three in the first and, with Canada struggling, was able to put pressure on their opponents to steal four points over the following three ends to lead 7-0 at the fourth-end break.

Canada regrouped scoring four in the fifth, held Australia to one in the sixth and added three in the seventh to close within one. Australia had the hammer coming home and called their power play, but hit and rolled out on their last to concede the tying point and force an extra end. Gill, who had made some tough last-rock shots throughout the game, wouldn’t need to make her final throw as Australia already sat two when Homan’s rock rolled away heavy.

“I’m just so incredibly grateful that Dean and I were able to finish our campaign, and to finish on two wins is a really special feeling,” Gill told the World Curling Federation after the win. “This week sometimes it didn’t go our way, but our fight-back and our resilience has just shown what we can do. We’re so excited for the future. I’m excited to go home, but I’m excited to go home and work really hard for the next four years.”

Second End: Full credit to Gill and Hewitt, who are a pretty solid team despite entering the event with the highest odds to win the gold medal at +3000. They finished fourth at the 2019 world championships, losing to John Shuster and Cory Christensen of the United States in the bronze medal game. Even their 0-7 start is a tad deceiving as four of their losses — including those against medal favourites Great Britain and Sweden — were only by single points. Had those games gone the other way we’d be talking about Australia as a playoff contender.

Third End: The 22-year-old Gill, who put her studies in teaching on hold to pursue her Olympic dream, is a phenomenal sharpshooter and made a great precision draw during the fourth that was surgical in sliding into the hole without touching any other rocks and set up a steal. (You know the board game Operation? It was like that.) Even in the extra end when the ice typically becomes harder to predict for proper draw weight, Gill was able to execute the perfect freeze to Canada’s stationary rock in the house.

Fun fact: Hewitt’s father Steve curled lead for the Australian men’s curling team at the 1992 Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France, where curling was a demonstration sport before becoming part of the full program six years later.

Australia’s Tahli Gill, directs her team mate, as Canada’s John Morris, looks over, during the mixed doubles curling match, at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 6, 2022, in Beijing. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

Fourth End: Gill and Hewitt have also put in the time and effort to improve and couldn’t have picked a better person than Morris to reach out to help coach them. Had Morris not been selected to represent Canada, he would have been on the bench for them in Beijing. The pair relocated to Morris’ hometown of Canmore, Alta., and the hard work has paid off. Certainly, the loss will sting Morris, but he should also feel like a proud teacher seeing his students succeed. I’d also like to believe Gill busted out Darth Vader’s line to Obi-Wan Kenobi on the Death Star: “The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner. Now, I am the master.”

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Fifth End: Although Australia didn’t give Canada the boot from the tournament, they certainly put them on the highway to the danger zone. Canada will be hoping 13 is a lucky number as they now face undefeated Italy during Draw 13 (8:05 p.m. ET) in a must-win situation to reach the medal round.

Great Britain and Norway have already secured spots in the semifinals even though they have identical 5-3 records along with Canada. The reason being since they’re also all 1-1 in head-to-head against each other, Great Britain and Norway’s draw-to-the-button shootout totals are superior to Canada’s tally.

Sweden wrapped up round-robin play early at 5-4 and Almida de Val and Oskar Eriksson surely have their fingers crossed for a Canada loss. Should Canada drop to 5-4, Sweden would get the fourth and final playoff berth based on head-to-head with their 6-2 victory during round-robin play.

Sixth End: Homan and Morris still control their own destiny: just win and you’re in. If only it was that simple as Stefania Constantini and Amos Mosaner have been unstoppable. Italy improved to an unblemished 8-0 with a high-scoring 12-8 victory over Sweden during Draw 12.

Constantini and Mosaner also entered the event with fairly high odds at +1500 to win gold. The 22-year-old Constantini has stood tall throughout the week and so too has Mosaner, although he always stands tall at 6-6. They weren’t their best against Sweden, with Constantini shooting 67 per cent at Mosaner at a 74 per cent pace, but it’s the shots that mattered most that count and they capitalized scoring five with the power play in the sixth end and adding four with the hammer in the eighth.

“We really want to play our best and that is what we are doing,” Constantini told the World Curling Federation after the win, “but I think every team is strong, so we are just doing our best and then what happens, happens.”

That quote’s not quite Ivan Drago-like, but Italy is suddenly the powerhouse favourite with Canada playing the Rocky role of the underdog. Canada has a chance (yes, I’m saying there’s a chance) but Homan and Morris are going to have to be at their absolute best in order to achieve something no other team has accomplished so far this week and that’s beat Italy.

Italy’s Stefania Constantini, drinks water after, the mixed doubles curling match against Sweden, at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 6, 2022, in Beijing. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

Seventh End: You could sense some trouble brewing earlier Sunday for Canada against the Czech Republic and perhaps it should have been a warning sign for what happened against Australia. Homan and Morris escaped with a 10-8 victory by scoring two in the eighth and stealing two in the extra end over Zuzana Paulova and Tomas Paul.

Canada was running low on time and Homan fired a buzzer-beater to count the equalizing two points in the eighth end. Homan quipped afterward she, “felt like Kevin Koe,” referring to Morris’ skip in men’s play, who is notorious for being tight on time. Koe is also known for coming through in the clutch in those situations and Homan was here as well. Even her final shot in the extra end left her hand with just a handful of seconds remaining and landed in the right spot to protect the winning pair of points.

Eighth End: As mentioned, only one round-robin draw remains highlighted with Canada vs. Italy. Also on tap are Great Britain vs. the United States, Switzerland vs. Norway and the Czech Republic vs. China. Great Britain and Norway can breathe a sigh of relief knowing they’ve qualified but will still want to enter the medal round on a winning note and final playoff seedings are still to be determined.

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