When Scotland’s shinty players run out at Bught Park stadium in Inverness today to face the hurlers of Ireland, everyone within the dark blue camp knows more than polished silver is at stake.
It is three years since the Scots overcame their green and white counterparts in this unique hybrid rules fixture.
Between then and now, Scotland have recorded an excellent victory in the intimidating cauldron of Croke Park in 2010 but lost the series overall back on Scottish soil.
Last year, triumph was within grasp until the Irish finally ground them down with an artillery of points and goals in the highlands, which was masochistically impressive.
For the Scots now, the 2012 Marine Harvest series is about more than trophies and the right to dance around in front of the TG4 cameras when the two legs of the fixture are completed in Inverness and County Clare.
It is about pride and reputation, not just as players, but for the sport that is played with the thinner-ended stick. “We don’t want to be seen as the whipping boys,” says Kinlochshiel player, Finlay MacRae, who made his debut as a 21-year-old in Kilkenny the last time the Scots won the series. “If we can start winning again, the Irish might pick all the top hurlers in Ireland. That would really raise the profile of the series.”
When it comes to the annual two-leg challenge, results don’t just bestow bragging rights, they set a marker of future standards.
If Ireland continue to win, for example, the inclination of the Gaelic Athletic Association to make available 13 elite players from the very top tiers of hurling lessens.
However, if the Scots gain the upper hand, as they did between 2005 and 2008, the Irish hand is forced and more of the box office players don the jerseys. As far as Scotland manager Drew McNeil is concerned, this doesn’t throw up a conundrum, it throws up an opportunity. “For me, is quite simple,” says the former national captain, who can recall being barracked by 30,000 fervent Irish fans at Croke Park. “What I want is for us to get a chance to play the entire All Stars team at Croke Park. To do that, we have to prove we are good enough. Shinty has to show it is learning from hurling in the same way as hurling is gleaning things from our game.”
All being equal, the quality of the Irish squad which flew into Inverness airport yesterday suggests the hurlers still have a deep respect for Scotland. Off the park, this exchange is a joyous occasion and strong bonds have been forged down the years.
On the grass, though, the competition is as intense as you will witness. In order to get back on terms with Ireland, Scottish boss McNeil has altered the thinking and re-drawn the parameters. Gone are the less mobile players, in are fitter, physically leaner individuals. Younger players move up faster from the Under 21s. This year there are four graduates. With the seemingly greater ability of the Irish to build momentum as the game progresses, McNeil has introduced new drills to combat this.
The learning curve has been big, therefore, but he hopes the rewards will be just as considerable, starting with today’s tussle on the Bught. “Last year, we were beaten by four points in Ireland but it was a great performance in horrendous conditions.
“We got them back to Inverness and, for 30 minutes, we were ahead. We should have scored more goals to give ourselves the chance to win the match We lost our way a bit in the second half, though. In shinty, you only play about 25 minutes of in-game time while, in hurling, they play 30 and our guys are not used to that intensity. It is not a physical thing, it is a mental thing.
“You can watch the seagulls when the ball is out of play in Shinty but not here. We’ve been working on that, though, and we know what’s required.”
The stalls are set out and the fans will come from near and far to witness this unique spectacle. Roll on 1.15pm. It’s going to be frenetic.
HOW IT WORKS
• Shinty/hurling is a cross of two sporting codes, Scottish shinty and Irish hurling. It is a unique sporting and cultural exchange.
• The history of shinty/hurling dates back to 1896, whilst one of the first matches, between Glasgow Cowal and Dublin Celtic, was played at Celtic Park, home of the football team.
• Shinty/hurling has been staged as a support event for the hugely popular International Rules football match between Ireland and Australia. When the Scots won 19-11 at Croke Park, Dublin, in November 2006, there were 45,000 spectators in the stadium by the end of the game.
• In shinty, there are 12 players in a team. There are 13 in a shinty/hurling team. While shinty has two halves of 45 minutes, a shinty/hurling match comprises two halves of 40 minutes.
• Goals deployed are those used in hurling matches, with five points for a goal into the net below the bar, one point for a hit over the bar and two points for a hit over the bar from a stationery ball.
• Each nation gets one point for a win. If any nation scores two goals or more, they also receive a bonus point.