Netball: Graduates seal win in difficult Belfast derby test
Underpowered Premier League champions Belfast Ladies put up a magnificent fight before being edged out by an aggressive Graduates side in an absorbing big two derby.
The title holders suffered a big blow in advance when captain Noleen Lennon was ruled out by her lingering ankle injury and then Sinead Smye sustained a suspected broken leg in the opening quarter.
But Belfast Ladies battled bravely and refused to be bullied by battle-hardened, strong opponents who were determined to impose themselves physically against their traditional rivals.
Ultimately though, a 44-43 defeat added psychological hurt to the physical pain for the champions as Graduates bounced back from their 61-52 loss to title rivals Larkfield 72 hours earlier.
In Lennon's absence, teenager Rachel Moore and the versatile Maire Toner had the tough task of facing Grads' intimidating defensive duo, Frances Campbell and Niamh Cooper.
The ferocious Campbell played with trademark intensity against her former club and hard-nosed Northern Ireland Under 21 captain Cooper is a formidable physical specimen.
Although hit hard repeatedly, the younger of the two Toner sisters rose to the challenge impressively in front of watching national coach Kate Carpenter after being left out of the squad for the recent International Festival.
Smye's departure in obvious agony resulted in a cameo by former Northern Ireland coach Elaine Rice, who was herself replaced in a reshuffle at half-time.
Micaela Diver, easing back from maternity leave, came on at wing defence with the elder of the two Toners, Fionnuala, pushed forward to centre.
Grads also had an experienced physical pairing in the other circle in the form of Oonagh McCullough and Hannah Willis.
As so often in these big Belfast derbies, this was a cracking contest in which the lead changed hands several times and the result was still in doubt in the final few seconds.
Madeline Mason's Graduates side do look best placed to challenge league leaders Larkfield, who maintained their 100 percent record by beating Laganside in the Lisburn derby. However Larkfield have enough size in their team to negate Grads' physicality and at this stage they appear favourites for a first title triumph since 2010.
The second half of this season will be harder to predict than usual though as the top clubs could be without a number of their leading lights on a regular basis due to representative commitments.