Talking Sport … with Jim Tait

Weekend weather forecasts are of great importance to Shetland’s sports people who travel to the mainland in search of wider competition.

As we went to press the next few days appear to be set pretty fair, which will be good news for the women’s hockey squad heading to Aberdeen for their Scottish District Cup semi-final on Sunday.

Sadly the weather has not been kind to Shetland’s senior football team, thwarted for the fourth time at the weekend in their attempts to defend the Jock Mackay Memorial Cup they won last year.

Now faced with the prospects of a quarter-final tie tomorrow followed by, if successful, a semi-final the following weekend, the team has had no option but to pull out.

The Shetland squad had actually made it to Orkney in their latest attempt to play Halkirk in the quarter-final, but on waking up onboard the Hamnavoe before she left Stromness on Saturday morning received news that the club’s Recreation Park was unplayable.

This obviously underlines the pitfalls faced by our sports teams travelling south, especially in winter. But frankly, to be able to call a match off on the morning of the fixture, and not offer an alternative venue, is surely not acceptable when a team has not only committed to travelling but is over halfway there.

In my experience, football clubs in other parts of the Highlands and Islands are not really all that interested in Shetland, and certainly not about coming here. It rarely happens, save for the annual encounter with Orkney, and even then you sometimes sense the Orcadians would rather be somewhere else.

The same is not the case with clubs from Aberdeenshire for instance, who tend to be much more amenable about travelling north.

Joint Shetland manager John Scott Christie has hinted that he may contact teams in that area with a view to playing a couple of friendlies, which seems a very good idea.

There is also the prospect of a Scottish amateur select team coming to Shetland in April, which would also be welcome for two reasons. Such a match would be an excellent challenge for the county side and also provide wider interest for spectators who can be fed up with the often wearisome local action.

Meanwhile, the Shetland rugby team has also seen its league programme frustrated by what has surely been one of the worst winters in living memory.

The side has not seen any action for nigh on three months now, the last game being a heavy defeat away to Garioch on 12th December, and has now played four or five games fewer than most of the BT Caledonia Division 2 North opponents.

Tomorrow they are due to take on Lochaber, where a victory would lift the Shetlanders a place up the table. Here’s hoping their weekend, and those of the hockey players, has a positive result.

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Synthetic pitches, which have totally changed the sport of hockey, continue to divide opinion where sports such as rugby and football are concerned.

While sand-based surfaces such as that at Brae and the RAF’s old artificial pitch at Saxa Vord were entirely unsuitable, there is no doubt that plastic turf has improved greatly in recent years.

Harbison Park in Whalsay remains a great asset – it is just a pity that no comparable area exists elsewhere in Shetland.

In professional football several teams in Scotland have now gone down the artificial route, including Kilmarnock. The surface at their aptly-named stadium is even considered good enough for the Glasgow Warriors rugby team, whose pitch at Scotstoun has been blighted by weather this winter.

But Rugby Park certainly failed to get a seal of approval from Glasgow Rangers boss Mark Warburton. He claimed last week to have medical proof that his star striker’s knee injury was made worse by the plastic surface.

Warburton, or the fat baker as he is rather unfairly known in certain football circles, stated that Martyn Waghorn looked like someone who had fallen over in a concrete playground. He now wants synthetic pitches scrapped at the top level for the good of the game in Scotland.

Recently installed Kilmarnock manager Lee Clark, who called Warburton’s comments a cheap shot, nevertheless made the vital point that serious knee injuries are happening on some of the best pitches in the world.

There have been some pretty nonsensical comments made over the past week, including by former Celtic goalkeeper Pat Bonner who argued that players needed more time to adjust to playing on different types of surfaces.

Personally I would always have preferred to play on grass, but if a country which experiences weather like ours remains hell-bent on winter football, then artificial turf, which is continually improving, definitely has a place.

: : : : : :

Readers of this column will know I’ve never been the greatest admirer of former England and British Lions rugby coach Clive Woodward.

He received a knighthood for services to the sport, or rather England’s World Cup win in 2003. He certainly wouldn’t have got one for the Lions tour two years later, unless it was for buffoonery!

But last week’s criticism of Woodward was, I would say, rather unjustified. What did he do to deserve it? He stated that so far this season in the Six Nations tournament England had yet to face a “first division side”, following wins over Scotland and Italy.

In the case of Italy, Woodward is undoubtedly correct. In 16 years of participating in the Six Nations the Italians have registered only 12 victories, seven of them against Scotland, two over Wales and France and a solitary win against Ireland. They have yet to taste success when playing England, and once again this year folded at half-time after a heartening first 40 minutes.

As far as describing Scotland as second-division material, it is also difficult to disagree with Woodward. Since the tournament was expanded to six teams in 2000 the Scots have slumped dramatically.

On three occasions they picked up an outright wooden spoon, having lost all their matches, while in eight campaigns the Scots managed only one victory. Just four times have two wins been recorded, while only in 2006 have the men in dark blue made it a hat-trick, beating Italy, England and France.

Scotland’s overall record makes dismal reading, with 19 wins in 82 matches being well under half that of Wales (45), Ireland (53), France (54) and England (57). With Italy sitting on only 12 victories it would obviously suggest that the Scots and Italians are indeed worthy of Woodward’s description.

There is no doubt that with the onset of the professional era, now boasting only two sides of that calibre, Scotland are struggling to compete.

Contrast that with the two previous decades. From 1990 to 1999 the Scots won 20 matches and lost 19, and during 1980 to 1989 the breakdown was 18 victories and 20 losses.

As for the current championship Scotland’s winless run goes on, with continued promise ultimately undone by either elementary mistakes or refereeing errors.

The most recent setback against Wales was probably even worse to take than the opening-day defeat to England, if only for the fact that one of the Welsh tries should have been ruled out for offside. How on earth the TMO official did not manage to pick that up is beyond me.

The Scots line is still being breached far too easily when teams decide to pile on the pressure, while at the other end they seem to run out of ideas on how to break down a solid defence.

The paucity of the squad is also becoming a regular factor in the lack of success, with the quality of the substitutes inferior to the opposition, while to lose players of the calibre of Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland is a setback which just cannot be overcome.

Having said all that, the Scots still possess better strength in depth than the Italians, so there is no reason why they cannot win in Rome tomorrow.


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