BY KEITH MACKENZIE
The current holders of shinty’s biggest prizes will do battle this Saturday for the first major honour of the 2018 season in a cottages.com MacTavish Cup Final that promises plenty of added spice.
At the end of last season there was some playful debate in the shinty world as to who could lay claim to being the best team in Scotland. In one corner sat Newtonmore, who had lifted the Camanachd Cup for the second season in a row to extend their record of final victories to an unmatched 32. In the other were Kinlochshiel, who lost only once in 18 league games on their way to winning the Premiership for the first time – ending the Badenoch side’s sequence of seven straight league titles in the process.
There are still a couple of other teams with their sights set on proving themselves the nation’s best in 2018, but at Bught Park in Inverness this Saturday Newtonmore and Kinlochshiel have the chance to reaffirm their own credentials to that crown.
And all the pre-match indications point at a contest too close to call.
As ever, Newtonmore can cite a rich cup pedigree – they are the holders and will be aiming to lift the trophy for the 42nd time. Kinlochshiel, by contrast, are featuring in the final for the first time since the competition was established some 120 years ago, but they go into Saturday’s match as premier league leaders and eager to cement their status as one of the top teams of the modern era.
Shiel skipper Paul MacRae insists that while Newtonmore have the edge when it comes to big game experience, the red and whites won’t be fazed by the occasion.
“They have played in more finals than we have, but we have experience of big games too,” said 37-year-old MacRae, who has been a fixture in the Shiel first team since he was 16.
“We’ve shown by winning the premier league last year that we know how to win the major matches, and we also lifted the MacAulay Cup the year before that. We have several international players in our team, so we’ll definitely be well prepared.”
The form book gives little away, as the teams have one win apiece from their two matches so far this season. Newtonmore avenged a MacAulay Cup first-round defeat with a league victory at Kirkton last month and on each occasion the games were settled by a 2-1 margin.
MacRae added: “Both teams are on a good run of form, so it’s a difficult one to call. I think it will be a case of who performs on the day. We’ll have a good crowd down to cheer us on, and everyone is looking forward to it – it’s another milestone for the club.”
For MacRae, lifting the trophy as skipper would cap a career that has spanned over two decades and a rise from the junior ranks to the very summit of the sport. He made his club debut for the Shiel second team aged 12, and though most of his playing days have been spent as a defender he looks set to take the field this Saturday in a midfield role – having been redeployed there after injury kept him sidelined for the first few matches of the campaign.
He added: “I played when the club were struggling and went down to only one team, so looking back on those times makes you appreciate all the more what we’ve achieved in the last few years. Cup finals are special matches, and we’re determined to make the most of them.”
Leading Newtonmore out on Saturday will be defender Andy MacKintosh. He’s 10 years younger than his Shiel counterpart, but has already amassed every major honour in the game and will be lining up in his fourth MacTavish final.
His team have overcome an indifferent start to the campaign to string together a run of five straight victories which has propelled them back into the league title race as well as securing their place in Saturday’s showpiece.
MacKintosh believes the extra hours of spring daylight, during which the Eilan side have used the additional time to focus on their stickwork and sharpness, has been key to the club’s recent upturn in fortunes.
He added: “Just getting the stick in our hands and being able to train on the Eilan through the week has made all the difference. Our forwards have looked a lot sharper, and up front young Iain Robinson has been in really good form. We’ve been playing with more confidence, and we’re also getting players back from injury. Steven MacDonald and Jamie Robinson are back in contention now, so our squad is getting much stronger.
“On cup final occasions an early goal can really open things up, but I think everyone expects a tough and close game. There’s been very little between us in both games this season.”
Kinlochshiel manager Johnston Gill is hopeful of being able to field his strongest side, and pledged that his players will not be overawed either by the occasion or by the opposition.
“Newtonmore are a big, big club and they have won the cup on the last two occasions,” he said. “But I think our players will be up for it, and if the conditions are right we have every chance of winning.
“I don’t think the occasion will get to us. We have played at the Bught many times over the years, and we have learned a few lessons in recent seasons – the main one being to play the game, not the occasion.”
Saturday’s final starts at 4pm and will be televised live on BBC Alba. Prior to the senior final the MacTavish Juvenile Cup Final between Kingussie and Fort William will take place at 1pm. Gates open at midday, and tickets cost £15 for adults, £10 for concessions and under-12s go free.