25th April 2017

Talking Sport … by Jim Tait

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I have no idea why the draw for this year’s island games football competition has been made six months before the event (affiliation to a greater body perhaps?) but it has thrown up a thrilling if daunting prospect for the Shetland side.

The biggest eye-catcher is obviously being placed in the same group as Guernsey, which immediately rekindles memories of that glorious spectacle in 2005 when the same opponents were despatched 2-0 in the final.

Anyone who was in the crowd at Gilbertson Park that evening, whether it was really the stated 6,000 or around a thousand fewer, will never forget the superb overall performance of the Shetland side, the coolness of captain John Montgomery in scoring from the spot and the boundless energy of substitute Duncan Bray who made the game secure with the second goal.

Memorable too were the comments of Guernsey manager Steve Ogier immediately after the game. The Shetland team had been “better by miles”, he said, as he took the defeat on the chin.

Ogier famously took a different tack the following year, when he claimed Shetland’s win only came about because the team was strengthened from players outwith the isles. He also alleged that manager Niall Bristow had been on “a six-month contract” from Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

Not surprisingly Ogier’s comments produced a storm of protests. Bristow demanded he apologise to not only him but the team and the people of Shetland while Montgomery branded it “sour grapes”.

Former captain Alex Watt, who played at four island games, was equally angry. He said the situation was “laughable and pathetic” and the “guy was talking out of his arse” and should be “given a bit of a doing in the press”.

Ogier later qualified his remarks, which he said were “maybe not correct” and “based on rumours”. But he said they found it “amazing that you could get such a good side out of a population of 22,000”.

He added that he would like to apologise to Bristow and the team if he had upset anyone.

A couple of years later Ogier was forced to step down from his post, claiming that he had been given an ultimatum (go or be sacked), so there is probably no chance of repeating his apology in person this coming summer.

Notwithstanding the challenge from Guernsey, who are the current games champions, Shetland’s group also includes well-known opponents in Åland and Saaremaa, both of which were also in the qualifying group back in 2005.

Orkney, who have entered the competition again after an absence of some years, also have a tough group which includes Jersey and Menorca, but they will surely fancy their chances against Alderney.

Hosts Gotland will face Greenland, the Western Isles and Frøya while the remaining group comprises the Isle of Man, Hitra, Ynys Môm and the Falkland Islands.

Finishing second in such a tough section may well be the best Shetland can hope for. But with the tactical nous of Bristow, back in the job for a third stint, and his uncanny ability to get the best out of whichever group of players is at his disposal, anything could be possible.

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The Scottish rugby team’s thrilling victory over Ireland in the opening round of Six Nations matches has obviously been viewed as a shock result, but it was an overdue one for a side which has improved greatly under coach Vern Cotter.

It is often said that the difference between a team with geniune ambitions and an also-ran is the ability to grind out a win despite being outplayed at times. That was definitely the case with the Scots on Saturday.

Ireland had far more possession, their scrum was largely dominant and they took most of their chances when they arrived. The visitors’ performance was by no means a poor one and they may well triumph in all of their remaining four matches.

But despite being outmuscled overall up front and having to perform a tackle count which in most matches would see them on the losing side, the Scots still had that bit extra. Call it the x-factor if you like, but any team with a talent like Stuart Hogg in it should never be totally written off.

Probably the most pleasing aspect about the Scottish victory was the fact that the team can still do far better, and half a dozen players gained no more than pass-marks against the Irish.

Centre Huw Jones, who exploded on the scene in the autumn internationals with his two tries against Australia, was obviously below his best. Maybe lack of recent game time compared with others on the park counted against him.

Winger Tommy Seymour, fly half Finn Russell, the entire Scottish front row and a couple more of the forwards could be said to have come off second best.

If you took away the brilliance of Hogg, the steady consistency of captain Greg Laidlaw, winger Sean Maitland and centre Alex Dunbar, plus the unbelievable effort put in by lock Jonny Gray, there is no way that Scotland would have prevailed. Those are the levels that the others in the side must aim to achieve. If they could do that who knows what may happen.

In the other two matches England were incredibly fortuitous to win at home against France while Wales only drew away from Italy in the last 20 or so minutes when the Italians were dead tired and a man short.

After the opening action the outcome of this weekend’s games are even more difficult to predict. The Irish should win in Italy, but Wales and France will probably have to be at their very best to register home victories against England and Scotland respectively.

Whatever happens, the tournament has seen an exciting start and a few players have already made strong claims for British Lions selection in the summer.

After every round of matches I will pick a Lions 15 based on current form. It currently stands: 15 Stuart Hogg (Scotland); 14 George North (Wales), 13 Jonathan Davies (Wales), 12 Alex Dunbar (Scotland), 11 Elliot Daly (England); 10 Owen Farrell (England), 9 Greg Laidlaw (Scotland); 8 C J Stander (Ireland), 7 Sean O’Brien (Ireland), 6 Mark Warburton (Wales); 5 Alun Wyn Jones (Wales); 4 Jonny Gray (Scotland); 3 Jack McGrath (Ireland), 2 Jamie George (England), 1 Tadgh Furlong (Ireland).

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It is good to see badminton is still thriving in Yell, with the isle hosting both its own championships and the annual inter-county match against Caithness at the weekend.

A healthy mix of veterans and youthful players helped the home side to a close victory in the latter competition, while the “tournament formerly known as the Yell Open” attracted a very impressive entry.

Yell has a long history of badminton successes, and much of the credit should of course go to retired teacher Alex Thomson, a real driving force behind the sport in the isle.

Alex tought various subjects for many years including geography and history, and I also recall having him as a French teacher in Lerwick at one time. I have to say my absolute failure to master the language was due to my own ineptness, as opposed to any shortcomings on his part.

Another former pupil was Lawrence Tulloch, who says he learned more from Alex than “all the rest of them put together” and describes him as “a motivator, who found out what people were good at and made them better”.

He had a liking for several sports, including cricket and sailing, but badminton was definitely his forte. Lawrence reckons he was the “best player in the North Isles” who “excelled at a low, fast game”.

Alex has been in hospital recently, but if he happens to read this he can rest assured that a whole host of players are eternally grateful for his efforts.

AboutJim Tait

Jim Tait is news editor at The Shetland Times.

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