While breaking Newtonmore’s dominance of shinty’s Premiership may be a tall order for their challengers this year, off the park at least, it’s all change in the sport.
In hibernation since October, Scotland’s shinty players will today dust off their camans, polish their gum-shields and get ready for – hopefully – the start of something good.
Last year, in itself, was something of a long carnival. Although Newtonmore, brimming with match-winners, mental strength and depth, pulled clear early in the league, the cup finals were rare occasions.
Lovat won their first cup in 60 years, on penalties. Kyles out-gunned Newtonmore in a ding-dong Macaulay Cup final only to falter badly against the same opponents in front of a huge crowd at the same sun-kissed Oban venue in the Camanachd Cup final.
Not that everything was seamlessly plain sailing, though. It would hardly be shinty if it was. Out at sea, a mini storm was quietly turning about league reconstruction; a storm which finally whipped up and threatened to rip apart the vision the rulers had for addressing regional imbalances eating away at standards, specifically in the south.
Skye Camanachd tabled a motion to abandon the plan for change and to maintain the status quo, despite the ruling body having opened the matter for consultation some time beforehand.
Their case was understandable. The new structure would see a slimmed-down top flight of eight clubs and a unified national structure below, abandoning north and south division one.
Suddenly Skye were imagining waking up in Portree on a Saturday morning and readying themselves for long drives to the bottom of Scotland – financially onerous, to say the least.
They, supported by many other clubs, succeeded in calling a special general meeting to vote on the controversial plan. Opponents secured a majority vote of 22 to 18 but the margin was too slender to meet the required 75 per cent. Change, therefore, was upon us. It is against this backdrop that the 2014 season opens today and, while people will still have their personal viewpoints in the clubhouses after matches, politics will be well forgotten in the heat of today’s opening clashes.
Looking ahead to the throw-up, PJ MacKintosh, boss of double winners Newtonmore, believes the leaner top 10 will be vice-tight. “As a club, we opposed the reduced top flight. In our view, it was brought in to offset perceived problems elsewhere. In the last few years, the Orion Group Premiership has been the most exciting league. It’s the flagship.”
Chewing over the issue further, he explained: “We have won it four years in a row but, in three of those, we won it in the last week of the season. That is real competition. Personally, I think this league is too tight. One point may be enough in games. Maybe they could have made it three points for a win instead of two, I don’t know. Time will tell.
“Whatever, we’ll be out to try and win it again. You enter all competitions to try to win them. We have a big group of quality players who want success and that is what we’ll be aiming for.”
Today’s start is no cake-walk for the champions, either. At one stage last year Lochaber looked to be sinking like a bag of shinty balls. A timely change at the helm and they completed the campaign with a grouping of results that would have held them up as title material, had it been earlier.
“A good side” is how MacKintosh describes them and Newtonmore will have to make do without Scotland defender Rory Kennedy once again.
Kennedy sustained a serious hand injury last year which had to be rebroken in December and reset. The problems have not subsided and losing the assured stopper – and fractured-knee victim Chris Sellar – is a big disappointment.
The club who pushed them closest in the league last year, Lovat, will be looking to stay close to them again and prevent them scampering away so early, in 2014. Manager Alan MacRae hopes his young side (their oldest player is 26) can take the experience of winning the MacTavish Cup last year and draw additional confidence.
The village has a population of under 1,000 but big hopes will be carried on their shoulders down Balgate Drive. “I think we’re always looking to improve,” says the Kiltarlity boss, ahead of the visit of Kyles. “That can mean many things; it may be less goals conceded and more goals scored. Then again, we want to compete. We are a young team but we are gaining in experience. I hope the boys take the cup win, grasp it and believe in themselves a bit more. A lot of it’s to do with confidence.”
Elsewhere, Kingussie face Inveraray, while Glen Urquhart host Kinlochshiel.
KEY SHINTY DATES FOR 2014
14 June: MacTavish Cup Final
28 June: AJG Parcels Celtic Society Cup Final
12 July: Balliemore Cup Final
19 July: Aberdein Considine Sutherland Cup Final
23 August: Artemis Macaulay Cup Final
30 August: Strathdearn Cup Final and Bullough Cup Final (and final game of Orion Group Premiership)
7 September: Women’s Camanachd Cup Final
13 September: Scottish Hydro Camanachd Cup Final, Bught Park, Inverness
18 October: Shinty/Hurling International home leg, Inverness
25 October: Shinty/Hurling International away leg, Ireland