Graduates facing tough title test
The Premier League's likely title decider between table toppers Larkfield and Graduates will go ahead next Tuesday night with or without several leading lights on both teams.
Originally scheduled for last Friday, the crunch clash has been held up in a wrangle over the availability of key individuals who also play for Team Northumbria in the British SuperLeague.
Northern Ireland supremo Kate Carpenter, who doubles up as Northumbria's head coach, has understandably refused to allow her charges to line out for their local clubs on Friday nights ahead of BSL duty the following evening.
However an additional directive about maximum match time permissible in any given week has effectively ruled most of Northern Ireland's biggest stars out of any potential Premier League appearances.
Consequently the fixture flexibility originally granted by Netball NI to mitigate the effects of the BSL link on local clubs doesn't mean much as the top players remain unavailable anyway.
Disgruntled Graduates, who have three players on the Northumbria roster, have been refusing to take on Larkfield without Oonagh McCullough, Gemma Gibney and, potentially, Niamh Cooper.
All league games must take place before the end of this month but Graduates have been pushing for a deadline extension in the hope of having their big guns available for the Larkfield showdown.
However the Lisburn club have made it clear they will not play any matches beyond the scheduled cut-off date due to their players having other commitments.
So unless Carpenter relaxes her rules, it looks like Graduates now have two choices – play Larkfield next Tuesday evening with who they have or forfeit the points and any chance of the title.
Larkfield, last crowned champions in 2010, have a 100 per cent record in the current campaign.
A draw with Graduates would effectively guarantee Denise Prue's side the title. Graduates not only need to beat Larkfield but also win the big derby against Belfast Ladies next Friday night.
Gibney, McCullough and Cooper would be considerable losses but rivals Larkfield are also significantly weakened without iconic captain Caroline O'Hanlon and exile Michelle Drayne.
Both teams can still field formidable line-ups packed with full internationals and Graduates have a considerable edge in terms of the experience and leadership.
Graduates can call on Northern Ireland captain Hannah Willis, club captain Lisa McCaffrey and her predecessor Louise McKeown.