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Shinty: Tough start for champions

When action in the Premier League returns on Saturday it will be hoped that the level of competition will match that of the last three years when the destination of the trophy was only decided on the final weekend of the season.

An imbalance elsewhere in the league structures has, however, prompted the governing body to ring the changes for the following season. The Camanachd Association's decision to reduce numbers in the Premier League from 10 clubs to eight and to introduce a further tier of the national league below the elite grade has not, unsurprisingly, met with universal approval. Such is the concern in some quarters that moves are afoot to have the decision challenged at the association's AGM in April.

In the meantime, the clubs have to get on with the business of playing and make sure they are prepared for whatever structure is in place for the start of next season. Champions Newtonmore begin their title defence with a home game against Glenurquhart and the pressure will be on newly-appointed manager Paul-John Mackintosh to start the season with a win. Mackintosh takes over from triple title-winning manager Norman MacArthur and will find himself tested tactically by present Scotland boss Drew McNeil, who guided Glenurquhart to their first senior trophy last season.

Kingussie, too, have a new man at the helm with former Scotland international captain Davie Anderson stepping in to co-manage with last year's boss Russell Jones. Kingussie are rebuilding and Jones will look to the youngsters who won last season's Sutherland Cup to fill the gaps left by the retirement of veteran defender Iain Borthwick and the injured Ally MacLeod. Their opening-day trip to the west coast to face Kinlochshiel, who have added Inverness's Davie Glass to their squad, will give a quick indication if they are on the right track.

Kyles have been the nearly club for the last two seasons, but a Camanachd Cup win has focused a side who have been substantially strengthened by the signing of Roberto Zavaroni from neighbours Bute. The return from long-term injury of Sandy MacVicar and Grant Irvine now makes James Perlich's side genuine contenders and their opening game, at home to newly-promoted Oban Camanachd, should see them take the first steps in their bid to capture a first Premier title.

Fort William have also changed managers with internationalists Victor Smith and Addie Robertson taking the helm of a side in transition. Gone are the experienced Bryan Simpson and Duncan Rodger, who will be missed for the away trip to Inveraray, now managed by Smith's old international buddy, Garry MacPherson.

Newly-promoted Lochaber will want to open their first Premier season with a home win, but their North rivals Lovat are likely to have the firepower to deny them both points.

Fraser Mackenzie

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