OK, HERE'S a quick explanation of how this hybrid shinty/hurling game works. If you hit the ball into the goal for a goal you get three points, over the bar from dead ball you get two points and over the bar from open play you get one point. There's 13 men on each side and two halves of 35 minutes, the Irish hurlers use their wide flat ash sticks to run cradling the ball and tend to hit the ball high into the air; the Scots use their camans on the floor, more like a hockey stick.
That's pretty much all you need to know to appreciate this fearsomely fast-moving spectacle. It also helps to know in advance that the outcome is always the same when these two teams meet in Scotland. Despite the incredible popularity of hurling in Ireland and despite shinty's relatively small constituency, Ronald Ross scores a bucketload of points and Scotland win. So it was at a blustery An Aird in front of a disappointingly small crowd at Fort William yesterday.
Scotland started aggressively, crowding the midfield and hoicking the ball up to the hefty figure of James Clark, who ploughed a lone furrow up front. He was responsible for the first real breakthrough after ten minutes when he barged two Irishmen out of the way to pick up Finlay MacRae's hopeful ball from his own half, before turning briskly and slamming the ball goalwards. Keeper James Skehill saved well, but the shot had enough force that it ran loose and left Bute's Hector Whitelaw with the easiest of tap-ins at the back post.
Local boy John MacDonald gave marker Aiden Healey a torrid time during the first half, and it was his run down the right wing that gave Ross the chance to put Scotland further ahead. Cutting inside, MacDonald was tripped by Healey and Ross put in the ball from the resulting free hit from 20 yards.
Ireland were already in disarray, and when MacDonald ran at Healey again just two minutes later, the Irishman had little choice but to let him go. When he slipped the ball inside, Ross was on hand to slot into the bottom left-hand corner from ten yards out. Just to ram the point home, Ross demonstrated his dead-ball prowess by scoring another two-pointer to make it 13-2.
The omens were in the home team's favour as keeper Scott McNeill pulled off an amazing arm's-length save from a speculative long shot from Kevin Hinphey, who was consistently Ireland's most dangerous player.
Ross kept the scoreboard ticking over, even if he had to settle for one point when three had seemed a certainty after a mazy dribble through the heart of the Irish defence only to spoon it over from close range when it seemed easier to collect the three points.
Ireland weren't taking the one-way traffic lying down though, and Kilkenny's Martin Comerford in particular cut a feisty figure in the centre of the park. It was his promptings which created the space for Mark Brennan to work his way down the left wing and put over a one-pointer before, a matter of seconds later, Brennan again found space down the left virtually unopposed and fired a shot into the corner to bring Ireland back to 6-14 down. The final say of the half went to Scotland though, when long-range free-hit specialist Innes knocked over a two-point free-hit from smack on the halfway line to make it 16-6.
Ireland had clearly digested the message and within seconds of the restart Jonathan O'Neill flicked up a free-hit to himself on the halfway line and knocked over the one-pointer. That though, was a brief respite and for the next passage of play Scotland laid siege to Ireland's goal until Ross punished yet another of the visitors' infractions with a simple two-pointer from in front of the goal to make it 18-6. As ever, the most decorated player in the history of the game, the man they call the Ronaldo of the Glens, was dominating proceedings.
He's reached veteran stage now, and Ireland must be longing for the day when he's no longer a feature of this annual bunfight. No Irishman was sicker of the sight of Kingussie's finest than Dessie Shaw, the unfortunate player assigned to keep Ross on a tight leash, a task in which he failed comprehensively.
Substitute Don Hyland made a dent in the home side's lead with a two-pointer but even then the spice had gone out of the game. Anyway, as soon as Ireland scored, Scotland hit back, Fraser MacRae knocking over a one-pointer.
Shortly after that, Scotland finished the game off as a meaningful contest when Ross broke down the left and bore down on goal, only for the onrushing Skehill to parry it, before skiting back to stop it dribbling over the line. Unfortunately for him, Clark was also in for the kill and Skehill's attempted clearance hit him and was bundled into the corner.
Hinphey kept giving it his all, and flashes of his stickwork were a sight to behold. He thoroughly deserved his two late scores, although we could probably have done without a couple of the late shoulder charges that injected a rare sour note into an otherwise fierce but fair contest.
Scotland: S McNeil (Fort William); N Campbell (Newtonmore, capt), A Morrison (Lochaber), A MacLeod (Kingussie), N Roberston (Lochaber), D McRae (Newtonmore), G Innes (Fort William), K Ross (Lochcarron), F MacRae (Kinlochsheil), R Ross (Kingussie), J Clark (Fort William), J Stewart (Kilmallie), H Whitelaw (Bute), J MacDonald (Fort William).
Ireland: J Skehill (Galway); M Brennan (Carlow), N Kilcoyne, M Comerford (Kilkenny), B Connaughton (Westmeath), D Crimmins (Meath), E Donnellan (Longford), J Donnelly (Donegal), A Healey (Kerry), K Hinphey (Derry), J O'Neill, D Hyland (Wicklow).
Scorers: Scotland - 1pt: Ross, MacRae. 2pt: Innes (2); Ross (2). 3pt: Whitelaw, Ross (2), Clark. Ireland - 1pt: Comerford, Brennan, O'Neill, Hinphey (2). 2pt: O'Neill, Hinphey, Hyland.
Referee: Calum Duff