SCOTLAND bridged the class gulf of 2012 in this year’s Marine Harvest Shinty/Hurling International Series but were left to rue ten minutes of Dublin madness as Ireland lifted the silverware.
Saturday’s finale at Bught Park saw Ireland take their fifth consecutive series trophy with a 18-14 win in muddy Inverness and a 42-32 overall tally.
It was a close encounter, with the Scots leading 11-10 at the break, and there was a lot about the home nation’s play that got the home fans’ cold hands and feet clapping and thumping.
Looking back over the two legs, though, it was the first ten minutes of the series at Croke Park that undid the Scots. And head coach Drew McNeil’s description of that period as “costly” was looking even more insightful at 4pm on Saturday afternoon.
To recap, the dark blues lost two goals in a jagged and disjointed opening that saw them struggle with the initial pace. They went on to lose the first leg 24-18. The issues of the previous weekend were addressed by the coaching staff on Saturday but, although the wounds were healing, the accumulated damage proved fatal.
“I am proud of the players over the two games. We’re getting closer and it was good to see the supporters getting into it,” said coach McNeil afterwards.
“The lads gave everything they had. The game plan was to get two goals here at home but we just couldn’t keep the ball up the Irish end enough in the second half, even though we had done very well against the wind in the opening period.”
While the Scots’ pickings were richer in the first leg when they played the ball from man to man on the floor, the interesting thing about Saturday was their ability to out-hit Ireland in the first half. The greens were served brilliantly once again by their skipper, Neil McManus of Antrim, whose accuracy with a hurley offers the same potency as a rifle in the hands of an Olympic shooter.
Basically, you can’t give away a foul anywhere within 70 yards of goal when this man is on the prowl and he battered four single pointers over the posts in the opening half. The returning Richie Hogan of Kilkenny did the same thing but in open play and his feats were emulated by Cahir Healy, Gareth Johnson and Darragh O’Connell. Arguably more impressive, though, was the ground-hitting of Scotland’s Kevin Bartlett.
The Lovat frontman perpetually pinged points over the posts, managing a tally of ten all on his own in the first half. Not bad for a sportsman who does not traditionally shoot over the posts but rather under them and into a net.
When Glen MacKintosh got away from his markers just before half-time to convert over the uprights, Scotland had out-hit the Irish 11-10.
Sadly, it wasn’t to last.
Ireland gained revenge by scoring the only three-point goal of the second leg – something they traditionally don’t do on a Saturday, either.
Tipperaray’s Patrick Maher accepted the gift after some delightful aerial interchanges between Ireland’s forwards and they ramped up the pressure by methodically adding single points.
The poor individual manning the scoreboard in the downpours was forever reaching behind the hoardings, with cold fingers, for an additional number to place on the Irish tally.
McManus claimed another three points, with Hogan and Johnson adding single points to their first-half accumulations.
The home side, who seemed to spend a lot of the second half in pursuit of Irish players balancing the ball on their hurleys, only managed a further three points. There was no collapse, no lack of effort just, perhaps, a bit of tiredness after a long season.
Connor Cormack of Beauly, who was impressive over the two weekends, got a point for his sweat and skill, and Bartlett again found the middle of the uprights, this time from just below the main grandstand.
Afterwards, he was, naturally, pleased with his own contribution but in no doubt about where the Scots fell short.
“I think that first ten minutes over in Ireland, when we made a few mistakes, hurt us,” said Bartlett. “In saying that, we’re much closer now. Even right up to the end, we were pushing to get something. We just couldn’t get the goals we wanted. Still, there are a lot of positives that can be taken for next year.”
With Scotland still seeking their first series win since 2008, there will no doubt be some debate as to whether this series should remain as it is.
As is customary, the officials from each country will meet for a post-series debrief and the talk will focus, almost certainly, on evolution and development.
Keeping the series balanced and competitive requires tweaking and tuning, either with scoring or rules. Nevertheless, the Scots can be satisfied with their progress as the players head into the winter hibernation.