''There are only four shinty matches which really matter in a season'', Dan MacRae of Kyles Athletic told me once, ''and they are the four rounds of the Camanachd Cup.'' The fact that the farmer from Ardlamont whose grandfather, past chief of the Camanachd Association, presented him with his first winners' medal 20 years ago in the grandeur of Inverness Town Hall amidst the celebrations of one of the biggest upsets when Kyles defeated Fort William in 1994, should not be lost on today's opponents, the mighty, (but allegedly increasingly fragile) Kingussie.

Kingussie come into today's match having swept more or less all before them, apart from two defeats which cost them two cups. Kyles languish near the bottom of shinty's premier league and have contested two cup finals. The first they lost, the second they won in typical battling fashion after extra time.

They have had one replay and a penalty shoot-out in the cup on their way to today's final at An Aird, Fort William. But assume that from three o'clock this afternoon anything could happen, because this is the final and the underdogs are the Kyles.

This is the ninety-third final and only the fifth at today's venue. Kingussie were the first winners in 1896 at Inverness. Their near neighbours and rivals Newtonmore are the record holders having won 28 times in 48 appearances.

Kyles Athletic come next in the all-time list, having won 20 times in 38 appearances, the last of which was on The Bught in 1994.

Kingussie have won on just 17 occasions. These are from 26 appearances and they are going for an unprecedented fourth win in a row. Kingussie and Kyles last met in the final in 1974, Kyles winning 4-1. Of a total of five final meetings, Kyles are 3-2 ahead.

Kingussie's last losing appearance at Inverness was in 1996 when they went down to Oban Camanachd 3-2, in the centennial final. The biggest winning margin was the record 12-1 when Kingussie beat Newtonmore at An Aird, today's venue, in 1997.

Kingussie recently lost their unbeaten sequence of 95 games which began after that 1996 final. They lost to Fort William twice in three weeks either side of the Camanachd Cup semi-final.

Kingussie's keeper Andrew Borthwick hasn't played since last year's final and has been replaced all season by Iain Anderson (''Fabbie'') brother of the great David and himself a three-times winner. Kingussie scorers last year in the final - Ronald Ross, Ali Borthwick and Barry Dallas - are all back again on the medal trail with Ross, in an injury-blighted season well down on his 80-plus goals of last year, on what is for him a relative meagre 50-odd.

Kenny MacDonald and Dan MacRae both played in Kyles' 1983 victory against Strachur. That was Kenny's first cup final and Dan's second. MacRae, an icon in the Kyles of Bute, played his first final in 1980 against Newtonmore aged 16 in an epic match which saw Kyles scrape home by the odd goal in 11. He has won all three appearances in the final. He simply does not know what it is to lose a Camanachd Cup final.

His maxim that Camanachd Cup ties are the only games that matter does not for a second mean that MacRae does not try in other games. There can be few players who have ever graced a field from club to international level who have retained their enthusiasm for a game and displayed such consistency over such a long period.

Comparable, perhaps, are players like Kingussie's Stephen and David Borthwick and Ally Dallas. They will have 11 winners' medals each after today if they win, in sight of the record of 12 set by legends Dave ''Tarzan'' Ritchie and Hugh Chisholm of Newtonmore.

MacRae, who is not the fastest thing on two feet, but has an electrifying shinty brain, will be running at the same pace at the end of the game as will his wily colleague Ronnie ''Roger'' MacVicar.

They can call on MacRae's stylish younger brother Iain for support at the back, the perfect foil to big-game expert Fraser Macdonald. Then there's the other Macdonald, goalkeeper Kenny for whom the word lackadaisical was invented, except that it is too hurried a description of his nature. Arguably the man of the match in Kyles' semi-final win over Skye, the lanky keeper is at the height of his powers and a formidable obstacle for even Ronald Ross.

Manager Colin MacColl said: ''We have several key players and everyone knows who they are. We also, however, have others who are perfectly capable of raising their game on the big stage. An Aird will suit us and if we keep our heads down and roll up our sleeves the way Kyles do in a final, then anything is possible. We never give up. Everyone knows that. Kingussie will know they have been in a final before the afternoon is out.''

His counterpart at Kingussie, Jimmy Gow, is under no illusions. He said: ''Kyles' league position is meaningless. They will be fired up for this and we don't expect an easy passage. We are treating Kyles with the respect they deserve.''

In the Schools Camanachd MacKay Cup for Primary Schools in which Tighnabruaich claimed their first ever trophy, 2-0 over ''seasoned veterans'' Caol, one Thomas Whyte netted both goals, clinching a remarkable win for a school with a roll of just over 50 pupils. His father Tommy, a kenspeckle figure himself in the blue and white, will take the field at An Aird today. Who knows but that the ''White Apron Days'' of the Kyles may be back in vogue. The aprons, traditionally displayed when silver was in the air, have been out twice already in recent weeks given the primary school children's' success and the seniors' first Celtic Society Cup victory since 1986. Whether they will be needed this weekend, only time, and Kingussie's venerable veterans can tell.

q The final is set to be followed live by shinty enthusiasts across the globe as the showpiece game goes out on the worldwide web for the first time. BBC Scotland, who will cover the match live on Radio Scotland's Summer and Sport programme at 3pm and also feature TV highlights on BBC 1 Scotland tomorrow at 10.35, will transmit the entire match worldwide on the BBC Scotland homepage. Commentators are Alastair Alexander and Herald shinty correspondent Hugh Dan MacLennan.

BBC Scotland have also agreed a four-year extension to the existing five-year TV and radio coverage contract with the Camanachd Association.

The teams

Kyles Athletic (royal blue jerseys, white shorts): from Kenny MacDonald, Fraser MacDonald, John Blair, Iain MacRae, Sandy Jamieson, Tom Whyte, Ronnie MacVicar, Peter Currie, Dan MacRae, Dallas Turner, Ewen MacDonald (captain), Neil Nicolson, Colin McColl Jr, Andy MacDonald, Roddy MacColl, David Martin. Managers: Colin MacColl Sr, Scott Turner.

Kingussie (red and blue hoops): from Iain Anderson, Stephen Borthwick, Ian Borthwick (captain), David Borthwick, James Hutchison, Ally Dallas, Rory Fraser, Michael Clark, Kevin Thain, Ronald Ros, Ali Borthwick, Ally MacLeod, Euan Grant, Barry Dallas, Russell Dallas and Greg MacRae. Manager: Jimmy Gow.

Referee: Duncan Kerr (Strachur).