Johnny Morton (News Letter)
There aren’t many people more qualified to speak about the Challenge Cup and the pressures a final brings than Robin Haire.
Haire played in 13 finals during his playing career with North Down, winning 10 of them, with the Comber side the most successful club in the competition, picking up 32 since it was first played in 1887.
“Our own Willie Andrews holds the record with 20 appearances,” said Haire.
“I was lucky enough to collect 10 winning medals in my 13 appearances. Waringstown legend Ivan Anderson holds the record for wins, winning 15 in 15 final appearances with his team-mates Roy and Derek Harrison 14 wins in 14 finals.
“In 13 finals from 2000-2012, North Down appeared in 10, winning seven of those.”
That North Down team from 1998 dominated the NCU scene for the next decade, winning nine league titles from 1999-2011, and the seven Challenge Cups. The reason behind all their success was very simple says Haire - they just had a phenomenal group of players.
“We came up in 1998 from Senior One, and won what was then the First Division in 1999,” he said.
“We had Taimur Khan as an overseas professional, and he helped us big style. “In those days you weren’t allowed to play your professional in the cup competitions, but we had a very good team and at one stage we had four or five Irish internationals with Ryan (Haire), Peter Shields, Andrew White and then David Kennedy came along as well. We also had Ralph Coetzee.
“It was a very strong team and it was very similar to the Waringstown team now.”
Playing in a Challenge Cup final is the highlight for most cricketers in the NCU, with the competition steeped in history and the trophy held by some of the finest players to ever grace the game in this country.
The majority of Haire’s finals were contested over two-days, with the 2007 final marking the first time the trophy was decided in one day. Haire says he was only truly able to enjoy the final once it was all over.
“Every senior cricketer will aspire to play in the Senior Challenge Cup final,” he said. “It is the showpiece day of the NCU cricket season, with the sponsors Gallagher doing a great job making sure everything runs smoothly on the day.
“For most cricketers, this is the biggest day of the season. Appearing in one is a marvellous, but somewhat nervous experience - one you only really enjoy after your team has won.
“Winning semi-finals and getting into the final knowing in a few weeks you’ll be playing in a two-day final was great.
“Comber was a tight-knit town and everyone would have been talking about it. You would have been dressed in your club blazer, but it was a very nervous two days.
“You don’t really enjoy cup finals until after them.” There were many highlights over the years for Haire, but being able to play in finals with his two sons Ryan and Andrew ranks amongst some of the fondest.
“I was captain lifting it in 1991, and then a second highlight would be playing with my two sons in two or three cup finals,” said Haire.
“We played in the last final at Ormeau in 2001 when Ryan hit a century in the first innings against North. That was a special two-day final and Andrew and Ryan were playing in it with me when I was 40.”
As for this year’s showdown, CSNI will take on Waringstown on Friday at The Green, with both displaying superb form in white ball cricket this season. Waringstown last won it in 2013, but Haire believes they will run out victorious this time round.
“CSNI have a good recent record, winning the Challenge Cup twice in the last four years,” he said.
“Waringstown’s last success was in 2013 with a century from Kyle McCallan and five wickets from Gary Kidd were the standout performances.
“The finalists will be coming into the game with differing levels of confidence.
“Waringstown’s will be high after a fine Irish Cup win against Pembroke, while CSNI were heavily beaten at Clontarf.
“CSNI will go into the final thinking if Carrickfergus can beat Waringstown twice, then they can.
“Waringstown have a team full of match winners, while CSNI will rely heavily on Andre Malan and Marc Ellison to post a match winning total on what is sure to be a batting paradise at The Green.
“Sometimes finals serve up shock results, but come Friday evening, I expect Greg Thompson to be taking the beautiful Challenge Cup trophy back to The Lawn.”