The domestic cricket season gets under on Saturday - a week earlier than usual- to facilitate clubs getting time off in early May for Ireland’s historic first home Test match against Pakistan.
It has hardly been the most hectic of close seasons, the usual transfer merry-go-round barely raising an eyebrow with the majority of clubs settling for what they already had.
There were a couple of exceptions in the top flight with Coleraine and Strabane heading into opening day looking decidedly weaker than last year.
The Bannsiders lost Stevie Dunn, Steve Lazars and the two Cookes, Gordon and David, without really adding but the north coast club had made it clear from the outset that they would be going with an all-local side in 2018. Fortunately for them they have the nucleus of a decent set-up with Scott Campbell, Rishi Chopra, Varun Chopra, Stephen Hutchinson and Marcus Poskitt all capable at this level.
Opener Poskitt is however believed to be a major doubt for the first few games with a broken finger. That would be a blow if it proves to be the case.
Where Coleraine do have a big advantage however is in their overseas choice as South African Graham Hume looks a real find and is, without doubt, a potent match-winner.
However, it seems unlikely that Campbell’s men will be in the title mix and that will most likely leave champions, Donemana, and perennial chasers Brigade to slug it out.
The other team to suffer in terms of personnel is Strabane and Tommy Barr’s newly promoted side look really vulnerable after a spate of late setbacks.
Just two weeks before the season, Strabane saw Mark Snodgrass and Andy Barr poached by neighbours Burndennett and things didn’t get any better over the past few days.
First up was the news that Ryan Gallagher wouldn’t be back in time for the start of the season having been given the opportunity to extend his stay in Australia. That was followed by their new overseas man, Chathura Peiris, declaring that he too was running late with visa issues, preventing the Sri Lankan pace bowler from arriving in time for this weekend.
And it wasn’t finished there either, Barry Scott then hopping over the starboard rails to join Fox Lodge as Strabane’s ship took on water.
Peiris apart, the Red Caps may have been able to afford to do without a couple of the others for a few weeks but collectively losing four from such a small panel could have sealed their fate already.
Back to the business end and with Coleraine possibly out of the title picture, this is an ideal opportunity for both Donemana and Brigade to make their respective marks this season.
The reigning champions are on the verge of North West greatness. Winning the Bank of Ireland Senior Cup this season would make them the first side in the competition’s 133-year history to win seven in a row. Should they claim the Long’s SuperValu Premier Division title as well they will also become the first club to win the ‘double’ three years running.
There have been few changes at the Holm, Graham Boyd back after a stint at Bond’s Glen while Malith Cooray replaces Imran Butt as club professional. Other than that it is the same squad that has swept all before them recently so the fact they could well be slightly stronger again means that Ricky-Lee Dougherty’s men are the ‘hare for the hounds’.
If their colours are to be lowered, Andy Britton’s team looks best equipped to do it. The former Donemana pace bowler has assembled a decent squad at Beechgrove and they look improved for the return of Iftikhar Hussain from Muckamore. The former Pakistan ‘A’ player relishes the conditions at the Limavady Road venue and Britton’s team won’t be too far away.
Looking at the two batting line-ups: Donemana with Cooray, the two McClintocks, Andy McBrine, Andrew Riddles (suspended for the first five games), Tom Riddles (rumoured to be returning), Ricky-Lee Dougherty, Kyle Dougherty, Dwayne McGerrigle and Jamie Huey.
Brigade have Gareth McKeegan, David Barr, Niall McDonnell, Hussain, Britton, Johnny Thompson, Chris Dixon, Jonny Robinson and David Murdock.
It’s difficult to see past these two in terms of the league title.
Eglinton, Bready and Ardmore may have something to say about that, the Villagers in particular look a compact unit for the addition of Adam McDaid to their top order. Mike Erlank replaces Trevor Garwe as overseas player while skipper and Irish International Stuart Thompson, as well as Ross Allen, Jamie and Andy Millar, Chris and Andy Pierce and some emerging young talent can certainly keep them interested throughout the summer.
Ardmore have a new overseas man as well, highly regarded South African batsman, Grant Mokoena, the Bleachgreen team’s choice for 2018 while former Coleraine all-rounder Lazars is an interesting addition.
Bready are pretty much unchanged and will look to build on a solid summer 12 months ago while Fox Lodge have added several players from Sion Mills and Scott from Strabane, the latter the one most likely to feature regularly in the first XI.
Anyone of that trio are capable of pushing into the top half of the table with Eglinton favourites to finish highest leaving Bready, Ardmore and Coleraine to scrap out fourth.
Fox Lodge should be able to win enough to stay out of too much trouble but unless they get some new faces in really quickly, Strabane look vulnerable.
It is of course a long summer and there are sure to be twists and turns aplenty at both ends as the sides set out on what should be an exciting summer of domestic cricket.