Scotland….23 Ireland….14 (H.T. 13-6)
A powerful and determined display from Scotland’s shinty players secured their first victory over Ireland’s hurlers in five years at the Bught Park last Saturday.
A crowd of around 2000 turned out to see a Scottish side, now managed by Kingussie’s Ronald Ross, pull off a victory which was as deserved as it was timely.
Kevin Bartlett starred with a 16-point haul while the returning Roddy MacDonald netted two three-point goals as the Scots sealed a win which might just prove the shot in the arm this oft-maligned fixture needs, if it is to continue to hold a valued place in the sporting calendar.
Though they have long had a strategy of fielding a team predominately made up of players from outwith the top counties, the Irish have still tended to carry too much firepower for a Scottish side which itself had been notably short of a few of the game’s leading lights in recent years.
Once again the Irish — save for Cork duo Patrick Horgan and Conor Lehane, and Tipperaray’s Patrick Maher — stuck to their tried-and-tested policy. But in the lead-up to Saturday’s game the shinty players had spoken about a “different dynamic” to Ross’s first squad.
That was perhaps a polite way of suggesting that the new boss had simply studied the form, and based his selection on what the best players did for their clubs each week.
But whatever the arguments, the approach brought early rewards as Bartlett — an expert in the cross-code fixture — showed his eye was in when he struck two early free hits over the bar and between the uprights to give the hosts a four-point lead.
Ireland rallied, but Scottish keeper Stuart MacDonald pulled off an excellent save shortly before providing a big hand in the game’s opening goal. The Lovat stopper’s raking free hit carried almost the length of the field, and after the Irish were unable to clear the danger Roddy MacDonald pounced to sweep the ball home and put the Scots 7-0 in front.
Bartlett soon struck another free hit over the bar to increase the advantage to nine before Horgan got the Irish off the mark with a point.
Lehane then lit up proceedings when he volleyed in a fine finish after a lovely solo burst down the right to grab the first Irish goal. And then Horgan quickly added another point to reduce the arrears to 9-5. Paul MacArthur popped a one-pointer over the bar to bring the Scots up to double figures. A further two-pointer, and one superb one-point effort by Bartlett from halfway gave the home side a commanding 13-6 advantage at half time.
Darragh O’Connell grabbed the first point of the second half, but hopes of an Irish fightback were soon dispelled when Bartlett set up Roddy MacDonald to lash home at the near post for Scotland’s second goal which made the score 16-7.
Lehane then struck a point, and Maher grabbed a three-point goal for the Irish. But the visitors’ hopes of a comeback were hardly helped by some over-zealous refereeing by Innes Wood, who seemed intent on penalising the hurlers for every aerial challenge. Not that Bartlett was complaining — and in the form he was in every free hit from within 60 yards of the goal guaranteed two points.
The Lovat forward continued to keep the scoreboard ticking over, and although Lehane and Conor McCann struck for Ireland in quick succession a Scots victory was assured when Bartlett took his own personal tally to 16 by lashing home the third Scottish goal of the afternoon to make it 23-13.
Still the Irish pressed, and Horgan struck a point over the bar — and further Irish goals might have followed had it not been for the heroics from Scots keeper Stuart MacDonald.
The goalkeeper was one of a number in dark blue who must have run Bartlett close for the man-of-the match award. In defence Newtonmore’s Steven MacDonald was outstanding; the experienced John MacDonald bossed the midfield while Kinlochshiel duo Finlay and John MacRae were also prominent in defence and attack respectively. This year’s debutants Lorne MacKay, Callum Millar and Skye’s Steven Morrison can also be happy with their contribution as the Scots now set their sights on completing a series victory in the second leg in Newry this Saturday.
In terms of the series standings, the Scots cross the Irish Sea with a 3-1 advantage. They gain two points for a win, and a bonus point for netting two or more goals. With the Irish also scoring twice they gain a bonus point — which could yet prove crucial should they succeed in turning the tables this weekend.