Title challengers set for clash on the opening day

Brigade captain Gareth McKeegan
Brigade captain Gareth McKeegan

The North West Premiership fixture list has thrown up one of the most eagerly-awaited matches of the season on the first day.

Brigade and Donemana, two of the likely title challengers, meet at Beechgrove on Saturday with both teams intent on laying down an important marker.

Brigade captain Gareth McKeegan, who has experienced his fair share of cup pain against Donemana in recent years, knows the significance of this fixture only too well.

Brigade have been touted as title favourites in many people’s eyes but as McKeegan points out, this is a much-changed team. Johnny Thompson has moved to CIYMS while Richard Hepburn and Mattie Moran will miss much of the campaign because of work commitments.

Gareth Burns, the seam bowler, off-spinner Johnny Robinson and Iftikhar Hussain are a trio of high profile arrivals but McKeegan is also looking to his young players. David Murdock, who briefly threatened a cup final winning innings against Donemana at Strabane Park last year, and Chris Dixon are two more than capable of establishing themselves as effective senior cricketers.

Now could also be the time for former Donemana prodigy Ryan Hunter. The young left-hander has endured a testing start to his Brigade career since leaving The Holm but looked ready to come of age when plundering 148 against NCU champions Instonians last Saturday.

McKeegan said: “Ryan has been working really hard over the winter and I can see a real difference in him. He showed that with the 148. He never gave a chance and Instonians nearly had their full team out with the exception of the pro. I know it was on the mat but you still have to score the runs.”

Batting is likely to be the key to Brigade’s season. With Burns, Andy Britton and veteran Mark Simpson forming a formidable seam trio and Hussain and Robinson effective spin twins, the bowling will look after itself.

“Over the last couple of years too often we have been two or three wickets down before 10 overs are gone,” McKeegan said. “It’s important that we get a steady start and Ifty coming in to bat three will help. That will hopefully give a platform for the strokemakers coming in later.”

Brigade may be facing a Donemana side missing their talisman Andy McBrine, the Ireland all-rounder having hurt a groinn playing for the A side against MCC at Lord’s on Tuesday.

“Andy missing would be a big blow for Donemana, but they always have quality players to come in,” McKeegan added. “We are a very different team this year. A lot of the young lads can really play and they are going to get their chance to prove it this season.”