Shinty season poised to start – with eyes firmly on the park

Newtonmore winner's board
Newtonmore are out to make it seven in a row

To the relief of many, the build-up to the forthcoming shinty campaign has been relatively free from the sort of wrangles which have enveloped the sport in recent years.

In the absence of late changes to the league structure, sparked in 2015 by last-minute team withdrawals and requests to move down the divisions, this time the focus of attention is firmly where it should be — on the park.

This year’s Marine Harvest Premiership will again be keenly fought at either end of the table, and on the west coast there is the extra spice of having two teams in the division for the very first time as Skye prepare to join neighbours Kinlochshiel.

At the summit Newtonmore will be again be looking to consolidate their position as the sport’s dominant team. The premiership trophy has found a home at the Eilan for the past six years — a period in which the club’s strength and depth has been reflected in the clutch of other trophies won at senior and junior level.

Yet every season there are two schools of thought which still persist around the champions who, while unstoppable in the league, have been prone to vulnerability in the cup competitions.

Is their cup record a sign of a weakness that ought to be more regularly exploited? Or does the fact that Newtonmore keep winning league titles — at a time when several other clubs have proved themselves capable of lifting trophies — indicate a talent and strength of character which doesn’t always get the credit it deserves?

The latter probably carries more truth than the former — Newtonmore’s cup record is still pretty good, and last season they lost just once in 18 premiership matches to win the league by 10 points. But the chasing pack should also have cause for encouragement.

Last year there were historic cup wins for both Glenurquhart and Lovat and, with Kyles and Kingussie also relatively fresh from success, the indications are that the competition in the top flight ought to be fierce.

Squad strength and consistency seems to be what sets Newtonmore apart from the rest, but over the next few months we’ll find out if anyone else has what it takes to get close.

Can Lovat — on the back of a first Camanachd Cup triumph in 60 years — kick on and add further silverware? Will Glenurquhart — who also banished a hoodoo in lifting the MacTavish Cup in 2015 — challenge on a more regular basis? Will Kyles’ talented team — runners-up in both league and Scottish cup last year — be able to go one better this time around?

Last season just six points separated fourth-placed Lochaber and Kingussie, who were ninth and needed a play-off victory against National Division runners-up Kilmallie to avoid the drop. This year there will be no such luxury for the team in second-bottom spot so a relegation scrap — from which possibly only one or two clubs are immune — can be expected.

Last year Lovat beat Kyles to win the Scottish Hydro Camanachd Cup

LOOKING AHEAD, Camanachd Association president Jim Barr anticipated a vibrant premiership battle to unfold.

“There’s a lot to look forward to — and we can expect things to be pretty well matched,” said Barr, who is going into his second full season as the head of the sport’s governing body. “All the teams have something to offer and we have a new club, Skye, joining on the crest of a wave.

“Below that I am pleased the national league will have its full complement of eight teams. The jury is still out on this division, and we know there is hardship involved for the teams to compete. But we want it to become sustainable and competitive, and to bridge the gap between the top flight and area leagues. To do this needs eight teams to fight it out.

“From what I have seen Kilmallie could well be the team to watch there this year, but others will also have a say.”

As ever the weather will be a worry, and officials have tried to draw up a fixture list which limits lengthy travel in the early weeks of the season. A new byelaw has been introduced which requests teams to give at least 36-hours’ notice should a pitch look like it might be unplayable, giving greater scope to find an alternative venue.

Another perennial problem is a shortage of referees.

Although there are just about enough officials to cover games, the recruitment of more former players to take up the whistle continues to be a priority.

So too will be finding a new sponsor for the game’s most sought after prize.

A long term deal with SSE/Scottish Hydro to sponsor the Camanachd Cup concluded in 2015, and officials are on the hunt for a new backer for what is still considered the sport’s blue riband competition.

CAMANACHD ASSOCIATION chief operating officer Torquil Macleod said increasing participation numbers, and the addition of a new youth development officer, augured well for the sport.

He added: “We are now into year two of the current strategic plan for shinty. Good progress was made in 2015 against the various targets and we aim to maintain the positive momentum.

“A key target is to achieve 20 per cent growth in active members by the end of 2017 — that would be a membership figure of 3,300 in 2017, up from 2,750 in 2014. I am pleased to confirm we are well on track.

“Despite all the good stuff there are still lots of challenges. The key things for us are the development of playing facilities that keep pace with other sports, and the recruitment of match officials.”

There’s more coverage previewing the shinty season in this week’s West Highland Free Press