Smith backing young guns to fire up Instonians' quest to retain title
Instonians captain Nikolai Smith expects his side to be challenging for Premier League honours again this year, although he admits he will be relying on the younger players at Shaw's Bridge.
The defending champions have been forced to go into the new campaign, which starts tomorrow, without a professional after their South African choice switched franchises and his new team has insisted on him resting ahead of their season.
Shane Getkate, the Northern Knights skipper, is still expected to make the move from Civil Service North, although that signing will not be completed before tomorrow's opener against CIYMS.
"We are backing the younger boys instead of bringing a pro in," confirmed Smith. "We have some very good younger boys in the squad and want to give them a chance, so we need them to perform and are backing them.
"It is always hard to defend a title (it's only been done four times in the last 20 years, all by North Down) but we still hope to be in and around the top of the table. If we play well we have the talent and ability.
"I haven't been involved in anything to do with Shane but anyone with that ability will be a useful addition to any squad. He showed his quality with the Ireland Wolves last week, scoring a hundred and 50s and bowled well for the Knights on Wednesday."
Smith was padded up - next man in - for the duration of the Knights innings against the (Scottish) Western Warriors, watching Waringstown's Adam Dennison and CI's Chris Dougherty both score centuries in an unbroken opening partnership of 244. And he expects both of those teams to be up there challenging for the title this season.
"The boys batted brilliantly but Waringstown are always there or thereabouts, CIYMS look strong and Carrick are difficult to beat," he said.
Carrick enjoyed their best ever top flight season last year, winning their last four matches to finish second, but that didn't surprise Smith.
"Carrick are always a dangerous side and play well at home. If they pick up a few more wins away they will also be up there again. But the league is very open. All sides are quite strong at home, it's very difficult to play away and anyone can beat you on the day," he added.
CI have tempted Ireland international Jacob Mulder and Trevor Britton back to Belmont, along with Ryan Hunter and Jason van der Merwe, the man of the match in last season's Challenge Cup final. Like Instonians, Carrick will rely on last year's team, with the addition of Irish-qualified South African all-rounder Daniel Poulton, but elsewhere there are new professionals and players around the Premier League clubs.
Waringstown welcome back their 2014 professional Shaheen Khan, and will be up against a familiar face when they start their quest for a third Premier League crown in five years. Ruhan Pretorius, their overseas star two years ago, is North Down's replacement for the brilliant Pieter Malan but although Neil Russell has also returned home, it will still be a big ask for the Comber side to haul themselves back into the top half.
Muckamore are back in the top flight and are confident of an extended stay with Ifti Hussain strengthening the batting, though it looks as if their hopes of signing Jarred Barnes from Coleraine have hit a dead end because of the new Home Office regulations on visas. Their professional is Kagiso Rapulana, a 25-year-old all-rounder from Johannesburg.
Civil Service North host Lisburn in the other opening day game, and despite the probable loss of Getkate have a great chance of getting off to a fast start with their next game, also at home, against North Down.
James Kennedy, from Ballymena, and Aaron Wright, from Waringstown, are the new arrivals at Stormont, while Lisburn seem set to rely heavily on Gionne Koopman, their 25-year-old South African professional.
Tomorrow, Premier League: Carrickfergus v Muckamore, Instonians v CIYMS, Civil Service North v Lisburn, North Down v Waringstown.
Section One: Bangor v Downpatrick, Derriaghy v Armagh, Donaghcloney Mill v Woodvale.
Section Two: BISC v Cooke Collegians, Larne v Donaghadee, Laurelvale v Cregagh, Saintfield v Dundrum.
AJG Challenge Cup preliminary round: Holywood v Cliftonville, Lurgan v Academy.
Long's SuperValu Premiership: Ardmore v Coleraine, Bready v Drummond, Donemana v Eglinton, Fox Lodge v Brigade.
Championship: Bonds Glen v Newbuildings, Burndennett v Glendermott, Killyclooney v Ballyspallen, Strabane v St Johnston.
Sunday, Sam McConnell Charity (T20) Cup final: Ballyspallen v Fox Lodge (1pm).
Challenge (T20) Cup final: Donemana v Eglinton (4pm).