Greens hit by injuries ahead of islanders' visit
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It was a familiar tale of heartbreak as Caithness returned from their latest foray in Caledonian League Division One on Saturday.
Their fourth straight away loss was a chastening experience for Ewen Boyd's squad as early promise faded and they succumbed to a 12-7 reverse to Hillfoots.
The plus points were a gutsy display and the blooding of a couple of more teenagers who acquitted themselves well against wily, streetwise opponents.
Hillfoots have transformed what had been a low-key start to their 50th anniversary season on the pitch, with this, their fourth successive win lifting them onto the fringe of the promotion race.
The Greens have not had the best of luck on the injury front and, again, their cause was hit by game-ending injuries sustained by Dave MacIntosh, Max Kennedy, Cameron Ryder and Ewan Scott.
MacIntosh lasted barely five minutes with the lock forced off with a shoulder wrench.
He was replaced by 18-year-old Duncan Mackay, with fellow debutant, flanker Danny Macleod, also 18, taking his bow after the turnaround.
The enforced early change failed to spike an encouraging opening to the Greens' bid to break their losing sequence on their travels.
"We started pretty well – I thought we started the stronger of the two sides," said Boyd.
They took the lead thanks to a well-executed try, sparked by a midfield thrust and chip ahead from scrum-half Stuart Kirk.
When possession was regained, the forwards worked four or five phases with quick release from pick-and-goes and several offloads creating the space for winger Euan MacDonald to cross. Mark Anderson landed the extras.
Kennedy's retiral with a hand injury midway through the half coincided with the tide turning in favour of the hosts.
Boyd said: "We fronted up well but we were playing against a big, experienced pack and our scrum and line-out started to struggle a bit and our line speed also was not as good as it had been."
Caithness absorbed several prolonged spells without the ball to protect their lead to the interval.
Boyd felt the referee did neither side any favours with his inconsistent handling of the breakdown.
"The breakdown was a bit of a free-for-all and they had some experienced players who made the most of it," he said.
Two tries in quick succession soon after the resumption gave the Tillicoultry outfit a lead they never surrendered.
Prop Paul Slade crashed over wide out after a concerted spell in the Caithness 22 before the hosts' dominance in the scrum paid dividends when number eight Daryl Lindsay scored from the base of the second of two five-metre advancing scrums.
Gregor Manson bagged the conversion.
Caithness manfully battled to regain the initiative, with Anderson just wide with a long-range penalty 10 minutes from time.
Ryder hirpled off with a knee knock and Scott with a back strain as Hillfoots saw out the game without any major scares.
The reverse makes victory for Caithness over league leaders Orkney on Saturday essential rather than just highly desirable if the Greens are to stay in touch with the islanders.
Boyd said: "We had hoped to keep some continuity in the team and reward those that travelled on Saturday but injuries could put paid to that."
MacIntosh is sidelined with Kennedy, Ryder and hooker Scott all facing late fitness tests.
Prop Hamish Coghill, back row pair Reiss Coghill, winger Stuart Crichton and full back Ben Alba are available for the keenly anticipated second leg of the far north derby.
Orkney prevailed 29-24 in a thriller in Kirkwall at the start of October.
Boyd said: "We went to Hillfoots where most teams will struggle and ended up going down to a narrow defeat while Orkney struggled at home to beat Blairgowrie (17-14 ).
"We play quite a high-tempo aggressive game while Orkney are a bit more structured.
"We will be wanting to carry with a bit more momentum, improve our line speed and be a bit more aggressive in defence."
Dunfermline's 71-14 rout at the home of Fife rivals Glenrothes enabled them to leapfrog Caithness into second.
Saturday's match kicks off at 2pm.