The 2018 Robinson Services NCU Premier League season gets under way on Saturday and you can make a sustained case for three teams to get their hands on the trophy come September.
Champions Waringstown go into the new campaign on the back of an unprecedented four-trophy success a year ago, but the winter has left the villagers weaker and their two chief rivals arguably stronger.
CIYMS, who only lost out on the title due to an inferior run-rate, have added James Cameron-Dow, the South African-born left-arm spinner, to their squad with no significant departures. With none of the upheaval that has accompanied previous winters at Belmont, the CI squad should hit the ground running under captain Nigel Jones, although they begin the campaign with a testing trip to Comber.
North Down should also be right in the mix, with Ruhan Pretorius, the prolific South African professional, back at The Green for a second campaign. Ryan Haire, the veteran batsman, returns after three seasons with Muckamore.
At The Lawn several departures have left Waringstown captain Greg Thompson still boasting the most powerful starting line-up in the division, but without the depth of previous seasons. David Dawson has gone to Donaghcloney Mill and young all-rounder Morgan Topping has sought out more first-team opportunities at Civil Service North. With Kyle McCallan expected to miss the bulk of July due to a school rugby tour to South Africa and seamer James Mitchell also overseas for several weeks later in the summer, Waringstown’s squad will be asked serious questions at key points in the season.
Instonians will probably think that the knockout competitions are their best chance of silverware, after they opted not to recruit a professional and there is no guarantee that talisman James Shannon won’t miss key matches.
Civil Service North could be dark horses. They seem to have recruited a quality professional in Andre Malan. Carrickfergus remain a dangerous proposition while new boys Armagh and Muckamore could be involved in a survival battle.
ARMAGH: IN: Shadley van Schalkwyk. OUT: Jarred Barnes. OVERSEAS: Van Schalkwyk (South Africa). CAPTAIN: Matthew Stinson. MAN TO WATCH: Colin Russell. PROSPECTS: Newly-promoted team have certainly taken an important first step by signing the highly-rated van Schalkwyk as professional. The South African is not due to play against Muckamore this Saturday though, but has top credentials from his country’s franchise competition. Armagh will need him to hit the ground running if they are to stay up.
CARRICKFERGUS: IN: Matthew McCord (Cliftonville), Danny Cooper (Goole CC/Yorkshire). OUT: Jamie Holmes, Ashwin Shetty (Muckamore). OVERSEAS: Pat Botha (South Africa). CAPTAIN: Iain Parkhill. MAN TO WATCH: McCord. PROSPECTS: The non-return of Jamie Holmes is a blow but Pat Botha is back after a fine season in South Africa. The professional was not as prolific in his second season at Middle Road but if he fires they can claim some big scalps again.
CIVIL SERVICE NORTH. IN: Andre Malan, Morgan Topping (Waringstown). OUT: Charles Beverland, Paddy Beverland (both Holywood), Mansoor Amjad, Stuart Smyth (Cregagh). CAPTAIN: James Kennedy MAN TO WATCH: Marc Ellison. PROSPECTS: Andre Malan promises to be great overseas signing and Ellison is effectively a new signing after arriving only in the closing weeks of last summer. Much could hinge on the availability of Graeme McCarter, who has relocated to Scotland.
CIYMS: IN: James Cameron-Dow. OUT: Jonny Moore (Cregagh). OVERSEAS PROFESSIONAL: Matt McGillivray (South Africa). CAPTAIN: Nigel Jones. ONE TO WATCH: Ryan Hunter. PROSPECTS; No excuses will be offered this year about the time taken to get a new-look squad to gel. Cameron-Dow is the only new arrival and he is a former player. They should be in the running for all the trophies.
INSTONIANS: IN: None. OUT: None. OVERSEAS: None. CAPTAIN: Andrew White. ONE TO WATCH: James Hunter. PROSPECTS: Not much change at Shaw’s Bridge, but Andrew White should be a shrewd captain. A better bet in the cups than the league.
MUCKAMORE: IN: Fahad Iqbal, Ashwin Shetty (Muckamore), David Miller. OUT: Ryan Haire (North Down), Iftikhar Hussain (Brigade), Kasigo Rapulana. OVERSEAS: Iqbal (Pakistan). CAPTAIN: Neil Gill. MAN TO WATCH: Gill. PROSPECTS: It hasn’t been an easy winter at Moylena with Jarred Barnes’ signing falling through, Ryan Haire and Iftikhar Hussain departing and difficulties with securing a professional. A tough second season in the top flight awaits.
NORTH DOWN: IN: Ryan Haire (Muckamore), Mike Grossett (Bangor). OUT: Nathan Burns (Holywood). OVERSEAS PROFESSIONAL: Ruhan Pretorius. CAPTAIN: Martin Moreland. ONE TO WATCH: Alistair Shields. PROSPECTS: They look better equipped for a title challenge for many years with Alistair Shields, Daniel Graham and Peter Davison another year older. Pretorius will be key again.
WARINGSTOWN: IN: Matthew Purse (Ballymena). OUT: David Dawson (Donaghcloney Mill), Morgan Topping (CSNI), Jonathan Waite (Lisburn). OVERSEAS PROFESSIONAL: Shaheen Khan (South Africa). CAPTAIN: Greg Thompson. ONE TO WATCH: Adam Dennison. PROSPECTS: The best team, from 1-11, in the division, and they will be the team to beat again. How they cope when Kyle McCallan is away in July could define their summer.