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Shinty: New set-up causes divisions

Scotland's 34 senior teams take up their camans on Saturday to get the 2014 playing season under way with the sport's glittering prizes likely to be the preserve of a small group of elite clubs and four-in-a-row Premier League winners Newtonmore once again tipped to top the pecking order.

While this premise is not so different from Scotland's other team sports, the Camanachd Association, shinty's governing body, have been more willing than most organisations to ring the changes in what is often viewed as a conservative sport. Over recent years, the summer season, rolling subs and enforced compulsory protective headgear for youngsters have been introduced.

This season's innovation is a second tier of competition, the Marine Harvest National Division, fitting in just below the existing Orion Group Premiership. The new division hasn't met with universal approval, particularly among Premier League clubs which find their numbers reduced from 10 to eight. Last year's two demoted teams, Fort William and Oban Camanachd, have moved into the new National Division, along with the top three sides from both the North and South regional divisions.

The removal of two teams from the Orion Premiership means there is little room for error among the remaining eight clubs and the fear is that this pressure will result in coaches being more defensive-minded and unwilling to blood young players.

The Camanachd Association see matters differently. "The new structure allows more shinty clubs to play at a higher level and the new National Division will be a better preparation for teams which win promotion to the Orion Group Premiership," says the association's chief operating officer, Torquil Macleod. "The reduction in league fixtures also makes room in the calendar for domestic representative matches which provide the very best players with a pathway for improvement."

One man who won't be involved in the new set-up is former Glenurquhart manager Drew MacNeil. After two years in charge of the club, guiding them to their first victory in a national final, MacNeil stepped down in the close season, to be replaced by joint managers Billy MacLean and Dave Menzies. MacNeil also relinquished the Scotland post which leaves the Camanachd Association with the tricky task of filling a vacancy which, with the Irish in the ascendancy, is unlikely to have immediate appeal for Premier team managers.

Also leaving management is Kinlochshiel's Johnstone Gill, who is replaced by former player Colin Fraser.

Some players will also be missing at the start the season due to injuries. Newtonmore's Rory Kennedy sustained a badly broken hand last season and will be sidelined for a period, as will Kingussie's experienced Paul Gow who suffered a nasty injury to his face in pre-season training.

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