Derby battles launches new netball season

Caroline O'Hanlon (captain) and Denise Prue (coach) of last season's double winners Larkfield who start their title defence tomorrow night against newly-promoted Westside.
Caroline O'Hanlon (captain) and Denise Prue (coach) of last season's double winners Larkfield who start their title defence tomorrow night against newly-promoted Westside.

It’s straight down to business as the new NI Premier League season gets underway tomorrow evening with an opening night clash between the traditional Belfast big two.

The pressure is on both Belfast Ladies and Graduates to show they can mount a credible challenge to champions Larkfield, who completed an emphatic hat-trick of titles earlier this year.

Lisburn-based Larkfield completed a resounding domestic double last April by crushing understrength Graduates in the Senior Cup final and they should be the team to beat this term too.

The champions have a star-studded squad who have benefited from stable leadership from the formidable duo of Denise Prue and Northern Ireland captain Caroline O’Hanlon.

Former national coach Prue has been at the helm at Larkfield for more than a quarter of a century with world-class centre O’Hanlon club captain for close to a decade.

Banbridge have voluntarily dropped two levels since enduring a very difficult campaign last autumn and their place in the top flight has been taken by promoted Westside.

The west Belfast club, who have been in the Premier League before, face a baptism of fire this evening when Larkfield will be their opening opponents.

After experimentation with teams using alternative venues, this season’s Premier League will once again feature Friday double-headers at the traditional base of Lisburn Racquets.

The all-Belfast battle will get the action underway (7pm) with Larkfield facing Westside in the later game on the main court (8.30pm).

Laganside, Kingsway and Ballymoney-based Causeway are the other teams in the top tier, realistically battling to finish fourth behind the big city clubs and Larkfield.

The strong second strings of Larkfield and Graduates will be joined in Division One of the Senior league by Holywood, Donaghadee, Dromore, Portadown and Valley.

Bangor, who pulled of last season’s Premier League, will join Banbridge, Derry and several reserve teams in Division Two with Antrim, Mid Ulster, Pheonix, PSNI and Clann Eireann featuring in the third division.

The first teams of Spires and Seven Towers are set to compete a level lower in the Northern League with Craigavon City and Lurgan Ladies in the Central League.

The Southern League includes Down and Newry with the action across all four divisions and the three area-based sections all getting underway this weekend.

PREMIER LEAGUE (tomorrow night, Lisburn Racquets): Belfast Ladies v Graduates (7pm), Larkfield v Westside (8.30pm).