Belfast Telegraph

Unbeaten Grads can close in on title with victory

Lisa McCaffrey can boost her Commonwealth Games hopes by leading Graduates to victory in tonight's battle between the two unbeaten teams in the Premier League.

An inspirational captain's performance against title rivals Larkfield (at Lisburn Racquets, 7pm) would be timely from a personal point of view as well as helping her club's chances.

Northern Ireland vice-captain at the last World Cup, McCaffrey was then sidelined for a year following foot surgery and now faces a fight for her ticket to next summer's Games in Glasgow.

Not involved in the International Festival in Antrim earlier this month at which several hopefuls staked strong claims, McCaffrey could do with a strong showing to impress new national coach Kate Carpenter.

Whether she will be directly up against illustrious opposing skipper Caroline O'Hanlon depends on how Graduates replace injured Northern Ireland captain Gemma Gibney.

If Frances Campbell and Niamh Cooper each play one place further back than usual, McCaffrey could be utilised at wing defence rather than her accustomed centre role.

In that case summer signing Sarah Montgomery and former international Louise McKeown would alternate between centre and wing attack.

However coach Madeline Mason has also the option of recalling veteran Bronagh McAfee, who recently retired from first team duty but is making herself available for this crunch clash.

In the first fixture between two of the established big three teams this term Larkfield beat Belfast Ladies 44-24 a fortnight ago but the champions were without several first choice players.

This however should be a cracking contest between two potentially all-international line-ups with Gibney the only big name missing.

In her absence, Grads are likely to be at a considerable height disadvantage in their defensive circle against the towering Bowman sisters, Kyla and Jenna.

A bruising battle is in store at the other end, where Larkfield's physically powerful pairing of Deborah McCarthy and Nordia Masters face frontline internationals Oonagh McCullough and Hannah Willis.

In sharp contrast to the many mismatches so far, this should be a fiercely competitive clash which is too close to call, though Larkfield might benefit from having played Belfast Ladies.

The Lisburn club also have the most influential figure in captain O'Hanlon but Graduates are a formidable side with tough characters and enormous experience.

Whoever wins will go clear at the top and the increasing competition for places in the Northern Ireland line-up should add extra edge to this showdown.

Many of the hopefuls will have another chance to impress in a triangular tournament at Lisburn Racquets on Sunday involving Northern Ireland, the Republic and British SuperLeague side Team Northumbria.

PREMIER LEAGUE: Bangor v Belfast Ladies, Causeway v Banbridge, Donaghadee v Dromore, Graduates v Larkfield, Westside v Laganside.

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