DESPITE the fact that the Marine Harvest Premiership remains unfinished, the main focus is now firmly on the annual cross-code encounter with the Irish hurlers of the GAA – scheduled for Inverness’s Bught Park this coming Saturday.

This year the Scots have a change of manager with former Strathglass player Gary Reid taking over the helm from the man who was arguably shinty’s greatest player and the best-known figure in the indigenous sport, Kingussie’s Ronald Ross.

These are big boots to fill, but Reid has a wealth of experience. Former right-hand man to Ross with the senior Scotland squad, he has managed at under--21 level and also has over 20 years of experience in taking national under-17s sides to play the cross-code stick game across the Irish Sea.

What is more uncertain than that is the quality of the side the Irish will bring over.

“They have taken at least 11 lads into their panel who are new to the shinty/hurling experience,” he said, “Though they will also be bringing over some top players like Ritchie Hogan of Kilkenny who has won 7 All Ireland titles in the course of his career. Other Grade A County sides like Waterford and Tipperary are also represented so they will certainly be tough to handle.”

Reid is also aware that while many of the Irish squad may be new to shinty/hurling, the fact is that Irish manager Willie Maher and his back-up man Conor Phelan of Kilkenny have plenty experience of this fixture and their charges will be well schooled in the tactics of the hybrid game.

It’s a tricky business preparing for a contest where despite the common heritage of the two sports, the rules governing the actual contact between the players requires both sides to abandon skill sets which have been ingrained in them since childhood.

That the game remains the exciting spectacle it is speaks volumes for the ability and commitment of the players, though to be fair, there is an opinion abroad – voiced most recently by former vice-president of the Camanachd Association Iain Cameron – that the focus on developing elite squads to play the mixed code game has led to a decline in shinty’s traditional ball-playing skills.

Be that as it may, for Reid there are more immediate issues. The absence through injury of seasoned campaigners like Kinlochshiel’s Keith MacRae and last year’s defensive rock John Barr has seen him introduce new caps like Lorne Dickie and Andrew MacCuish of Oban Camanachd.

“This year we have the unknown element of an Irish ref,” said Reid.

“Hurling tolerates more physical contact so we will probably not get the free hits that our dead-ball specialists Kevin Bartlett and Stevie MacDonald have used in the past to build our score up with two pointers over the bar.

“We will have to work the ball in closer to score goals which is why I have included the Premier League’s top scorers Newtonmore’s Evan Menzies and Lovat’s Greg Matheson in my squad. Along with Roddy MacDonald, Glen MacKintosh, and of course MacCuish, we have plenty boys who can score goals in shinty. The trick will be if I can get them to play together.”

Finally, in the only Marine Harvest Premier League fixture to take place this weekend, Kinlochshiel move up to second place in the table on Saturday after a 7-2 home victory against Caberfeidh.

However Kyles, with a game in hand, can still overtake them to finish runners-up to Newtonmore who were confirmed as champions three weeks ago.