Hurling himself into the battle

WHEN RONALD ROSS runs out to face Ireland's hurlers sporting the famous dark blue of Scotland next Saturday in Inverness, there will be no-one more surprised than himself.

"Ronaldo of the Glens", "Scottish icon", "shinty legend" – whatever moniker you choose for the 34-year-old scorer of 1,000-plus goals, he simply wasn't expecting to be at this annual tournament of the Gaels, once derided by Whitehall because of its perceived anti-Britishness. It was back in 2007, after shredding the Irish in the hybrid rules clash, that Ross decided he had taken his final bow in the Scottish colours.

At 32, he had broken emerald hearts for years; defeating squads including the likes of DJ Carey of Kilkenny, viewed by some as the greatest hurling player ever.

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Under-stretched and slightly dismayed at the anaemic side the Irish fielded, Ross decided it was time for youngsters to start collecting some of their own memories. He had seen it, done it and bought the T-shirts: ripped some, lost several and been given countless others.

Uncertain of the benefit of continued involvement, he decided the time was right to quit. And that is what makes his re-appearance at the age of 34 all the more perplexing.

"It was as much a surprise to me," says Ross, describing the circumstances through which he finds himself searching out his trusted helmet once again.

"The manager, Fraser Mackenzie, spoke to me and asked if I would like to return. I told him I had retired because I felt it was time for the younger ones. I have been doing this from Under-21s, way back when Donnie Grant was managing. I can remember playing two games in the same day in Athenry and I have played against some great Irish teams. I felt the future was for others because I was coming towards the end of my career."

An individual who is single-minded about excellence in his game, Ross is nevertheless loyal in nature and it was that commitment to his country which was triggered when assistant manager Drew McNeil called to say the Scots were facing some unexpected lay-offs. Would Ronald come back for one last hurrah in front of the BBC cameras? Just one?

"Drew said they were going to be short of forwards and would I play? I basically told him that I wouldn't see them stuck, so that's it, really. I don't want people to think I went writing letters trying get myself involved. At the same time, I don't want people to think I am not committed. I was asked to help and when I do something, I do it 100 per cent, whether I am in Bute, Orkney or Ireland. I want to do well. I want to win the game. Everyone does."

It could be argued manager Mackenzie and McNeil were opportunistic in luring back the sport's greatest player, aware of which heart strings to pull. Conversely, their persuasiveness could be applauded. Certainly, the greatest beneficiaries are the Scots as they look to record their fifth successive victory. Ross is, after all, enjoying his second most bountiful season and if Joe Dooley's Irish are not edgy, they're automatons.

Badenoch's master poacher has netted 83 times this campaign. He scored his 1,000th goal earlier this year. That feat will see him nominated again in the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland awards – honours bestowed upon individuals deemed to be outstanding in their field. Ross collected this ornament in 2003 after scoring 94 goals, defeating Olympians along the way. He never thought black tie dos in Glasgow or Edinburgh would come around again.

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"I have to say I am just enjoying my season. I never dreamt I'd get close to 90 goals again, not coming up for 35. You could also say that has been in a weakened Kingussie team so, yes, I am enjoying things at the moment."

Scotland shinty fans, indeed all sports fans, should relish this second summer. Shinty players earn no money yet Ross has prepared himself with near-religious zeal since he was a toddler. His achievements have meant sacrifices. Like a master musician, there is that stubbornness required, that iron will and passion to surpass previous benchmarks. As yet, Ross has made no decision as to whether he will continue to put his body and mind through that almost masochistic ritual next season.

"I will see how I feel after this year. We are going to have a new manager at Kingussie and we'll have to weigh up where we are going as a club. To do what I've done has taken a lot of dedication and training; not going out, all the practise, the fitness – it takes more than people realise. To reach full potential, I need to feel 100 per cent right in myself, both mentally and physically. I've done everything I can in the game but the moment you sit back, that is it. There needs to be that hunger; that drive to keep you going."

Whether Ireland's decision to field a more A-list line-up whets Ross's appetite remains to be seen. If he hits full canter, though, they'll need more than a few shamrocks in their hurley bags.