Greg Thompson's return a title spur for Waringstown
The weather is set fair for both Premier League titles to be decided this weekend, but while Strabane are in pole position to take the North West crown, the NCU battle between Instonians and Waringstown is too close to call.
Last year's joint champions in the Ulster Bank Premier League are out on their own at the top of the table again this season but this time, unless there is a tie in tomorrow afternoon's decider at Shaw's Bridge, there will be an outright winner.
Just 12 days ago, Instonians defeated Waringstown by the minimum margin – one wicket – in the 50th and final over of their first league game of the season at the Lawn, proving that there is virtually nothing between the two title challengers.
The previous day, the game at Shaw's Bridge had been abandoned by rain, with Waringstown needing 95 from 15.2 overs with eight wickets standing – so it was set to be another thriller.
Tomorrow is the replay of that game but this time it will be a 20 overs match and, perhaps significantly, Instonians are without Imad Wasim and Nicolai Smith, who have returned home to Pakistan and South Africa respectively.
They are boosted by the return of Ireland international James Shannon, who although not 100 per cent, plays for the first time since he ended up on crutches after being hit just below the knee when fielding at short leg for the Northern Knights at Eglinton on August 28.
Another international – although he hasn't played for Ireland since 2008 – Greg Thompson is many people's player of the season in the NCU, and, excused from hockey commitments, his presence for Waringstown could be just as significant, giving them the extra firepower down the order which can be so vital in T20 games.
Even in this year's NCU Twenty20 Cup, however, the teams could not be separated, with each winning their respective groups with 100 per cent records and then losing their semi-finals.
So although it is never satisfactory deciding a 50 overs competition with a 20 overs match, it is certainly more acceptable than sharing the title and should attract a big crowd to south Belfast.
They do not share the title in the North West – opting to have a play-off if two teams are level at the top – so Strabane, level on points with Brigade, who have finished their 14-match programme, still have two chances to win the title.
They are away to Ardmore tomorrow so the Premiership trophy will be handed over after the game to Peter Gillespie if they win but defeat would lead to a title play-off next weekend.
The possible difficulty for Strabane this weekend, however, is that Ardmore are playing for their top flight survival.
The Bleachgreen side are also in action tomorrow, against already relegated Fox Lodge, and they need at least one win to avoid a relegation play-off against Glendermott, runners-up in the Championship to St Johnston.
Two wins will leapfrog Ardmore above Eglinton, currently in sixth, but one win will leave them level and a play-off between the teams would take place next Saturday, with the winners to meet Glendermott in the promotion/relegation play-off the following day.
Strabane, unbeaten on the field since July 8, should be at full strength with Mark Gillespie making his farewell appearance after a 31-year career, capped by three Ireland appearances back in 2000.
Fixtures: Today (5pm): Lisburn v North Down.
Tomorrow: Instonians v Waringstown (2pm T20)
Section One (11.30am): Carrickfergus v Cliftonville, Woodvale v Downpatrick. Sunday: Cliftonville v Templepatrick
Long's SuperValu Premiership (12.00): Ardmore v Fox Lodge.
Sunday: Ardmore v Strabane
Ulster Bank League Section Two: Saintfield v Cooke Collegians
Newstalk inter-provincial Cup (10.15am): Northern Knights v Leinster Lightning (Waringstown)