Talking Sport … by Jim Tait

The current spell of excellence by Shetland’s female sports competitors continued at the weekend with victories by both A and B teams in the annual netball inter-county.

Both sides registered 52-25 successes in Kirkwall, in a discipline where two or three decades ago Orkney were far more dominant.

The continued success of teams from the Anderson High School, year after year setting high standards in the Scottish Schools Cup, has no doubt helped the senior game, as it has provided a conveyor belt of talent through the ranks.

Three of the weekend’s standout players, Sanna Aitken, Kirsti Leask and Claire Morris, were recently selected for national trials. They were judged to be among the best 72 players in Scotland, and many other local girls appear to have every chance of following in their footsteps.

Shetland’s senior, under-17 and under-13 teams have all progressed to the final stages of their respective Scottish Cup competitions this winter, which proves that netball is one sport where the isles is certainly punching above its weight.

With the Shetland Ladies hockey team having made the final of a national competition for the first time, and the Shetland women’s rugby team in with a chance of glory at Clickimin tomorrow when they take on Inverness Craig Dunain in the BT Caledonian North League decider, it is definitely hats off to the ladies.

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The draw for the annual Parish Cup football competition has been made and holders Whalsay and last year’s runners-up Delting will both fancy their chances, especially as they have been kept apart until a possible final meeting.

Teams such as those two, which compete in Shetland’s Premier League along with Whitedale, should always have the edge over the rest. To be able to field 11 players who all appear regularly at the highest club level in the isles is a massive advantage.

The others have to make do with a sprinkling of premier representatives, typified by Southend United, Sandwick and Cunningsburgh who are bulked up by Ness United players, along with works footballers and veterans.

It is the same with Burra, Westside United, Unst and Yell, while the newest side of all Bressay have the daunting prospect of a possible clash with the current champions in their opening quarter-final tie.

This column has in the past argued that some kind of restructuring would help the Parish Cup, which has after all seen major changes since its inception in 1952.

Initially it was only Southern League sides Quendale, Virkie/Queen of the South, Sandwick and Cunningsburgh, along with Whitedale, who contested the trophy. Whalsay first competed in 1961, when they defeated Sandwick 4-3 in the final, and Unst entered in 1963, winning the cup the following year.

Whalsay have been by far the most successful side, claiming the silverware 21 times in total. Delting, who entered in the 1970s, and Whitedale, returning in the same decade, are the next best with 13 and nine wins respectively.

Since 1983 no-one else apart from Unst (twice) and Westide United (once) have got their hands on the cup, and there is no likelihood of that changing in the near future unless the structure is looked at.

If the organisers, who incidentally I have the highest respect for, are interested in making it a more widely contested event, then something has to alter.

There are various anomalies. Lerwick and Scalloway residents are the only people in Shetland who are effectively banned from taking part, but those who live in Gulberwick and East Voe, basically suburbs of the two largest settlements, can play for Cunningsburgh and Burra respectively. Surely that needs to change.

There may well be a letter in next week’s paper asserting that the Parish Cup is so successful and well-run that it should stay the way it is. But we are all entitled to our opinions.

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Ireland’s defeat of champions England, far more convincing than the 13-9 score suggests, was a fitting climax to a highly competitive Six Nations rugby tournament.

If you omit games involving Italy, who rarely threatened, and took Scotland’s aberrant display at Twickenham the previous week out of the equation, then on the face of it there was little to separate the top five teams. They all basically took points off each other.

The Scots at least finished on a high, providing a fitting send-off for the excellent coach Vern Cotter who shocked everyone by revealing his emotional side at Murrayfield on Saturday.

There had been some talk that the hammering at the hands of the English could severely affect the hopes some Scottish players had of featuring in this summer’s British Lions tour to New Zealand, as it proved they were a side which struggles away from home.

That may be so, but will the same criteria apply to the Welshmen who were a major disappointment when they travelled to Edinburgh, or the Irish contingent who came up short in Cardiff? And importantly, will it affect the English players whose form deserted them when they made the trip to Dublin with hopes of completing a Triple Crown and Grand Slam? It certainly should, but I have my doubts.

As regards the French victory over Wales, achieved in the 20th minute of added time, there have been suggestions of foul play by the home side. France allegedly feigned injury to one of their props so they could bring back on a stronger scrummager who had earlier been replaced. This was no doubt deemed necessary as a never-ending series of penalties brought set piece after another near to the Welsh line.

The Welsh management team were livid at what was allowed to happen, especially after their team’s plea that winger George North had sustained a bite on the upper arm remained unsubstantiated.

However, it was interesting to hear former New Zealand player Conrad Smith’s take on proceedings. The incident was nothing unusual, he said in his role of pundit, just something that had been part of the game for long.

Personally I feel there are too many substitutes allowed in international rugby union. Halfway through the second half usually sees a plethora of reserves wandering on to the field, many of them hardly necessary.

If you just allowed substitutes for injuries, which are far more prevalent than they used to be, it could encourage teams to field lighter and more mobile players who could last the 80 minutes better.

Based on all five games in the Six Nations, this is my Lions team to face New Zealand: Stuart Hogg (Scotland); George North (Wales), Jonathan Joseph (England), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Elliot Daly (England); Jonny Sexton (Ireland), Connor Murray (Ireland); Billy Vunipola (England), Sam Warburton (Wales), CJ Stander (Ireland); Joe Launchbury (England), Jonny Gray (Scotland); Taghd Furlong (Ireland), Ken Owens (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England). Substitutes: Lee Williams (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Rhys Webb (Wales), Maro Itoje (England), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Jamie George (England), Joe Marler (England).

The rest of the 37-man touring party would be – backs: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Gary Ringrose (Ireland), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Keith Earls (Ireland), Anthony Watson (England), Finn Russell (Scotland), Greig Laidlaw (Scotland). Forwards: Rob Evans (Wales), Rory Best (Ireland), Zander Fagerson (Scotland), Courtney Lawes (England), Alan Wyn Jones (Wales), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland), James Haskell (England).

I feel that squad, containing 12 players from England, 11 from Ireland, eight from Wales and six from Scotland, would reward the English success along with the efforts of the other sides who have contributed to much to the competition. But watch this space.

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All of what has been written here is completely unimportant when you consider the tragic and sudden death this week of teenage footballer Joe Smith.

The youngster, who played for the Lerwick Rangers under-18 side last year, was in his first year of studying at the University of Glasgow.

After his team mates learned the harrowing news at their regular training session this week, it was immediately cancelled. They just couldn’t face taking part.

Aside from his studies and his football, Joe was a member of the Lerwick Brass Band. He was well liked by everyone who knew him.

Words cannot describe how his family must be feeling right now. Perhaps we should all spare a thought for his mother Fiona, his father John and his brothers Magnus and Ellis. They will be needing all the support they can get.


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