IT wasn’t quite on a par with Leicester City winning the Premier League but Bready lifting the Premiership last season defied all predictions.

Davy Scanlon’s side needed to win only nine matches – only in the waterlogged summer of 2016 have the champions won fewer – and it was the first time since Limavady’s success in 1995 that the title winners had lost five games, and then it was an 18-match programme.

But Bready’s triumph was no fluke and only Brigade could have any complaints last season – they finished 29 points behind with two no-results - but it will make Andy Britton’s side more determined than ever to bring the league trophy back to Beechgrove for the first time since 2011.

Last year’s favourites had a remarkable season, winning every completed domestic match in May, July and August but losing all four in June, a run which added to the two rained-off games left them with too much to do.

Brigade again go without an overseas professional but with Rachit Gaur, signed from Strabane, and Ross Allen, the slow left armer already established in the North West Warriors line-up snapped up from Eglinton, they are likely to set the standard for their seven rivals this season. T

hey say the only thing harder than winning a league title is defending it and this looks so true in Bready’s case because they have lost Ireland international Craig Young to the NCU and Ryan Barr to last year’s Championship winners Glendermott.

Coleraine’s promising wicket-keeper batsman Marcus Poskitt is the one new addition but the champions are likely to rely more than ever on professional Irosh Samarasooriya and will be looking for big seasons from David Rankin, Reece Kelly and young pace bowler Gregory McFaul.

The Bannsiders finished second last year but with uncertainty over the availability of leading players Scott Campbell and Rishi Chopra, it looks a big ask for them to be as competitive this term, especially with Eglinton having signed Stephen Dunn from Ardmore and kept Ireland international Stuart Thompson, and Donemana surely on the up again.

Both teams finished in the bottom half last year, almost unthinkable for Donemana who were champions in the previous two seasons – only once before had they finished as low as fifth this millennium – and they will hope that Pakistani all-rounder Bilawal Iqbal can slot seamlessly into his new surroundings.

Strabane probably surprised themselves with their fourth place finish after winning promotion last year and will be delighted to be in the top half again. Following Ballyspallen’s play-off victory over Ardmore, there are two promoted teams this year and, as usual, their first objective will be to stay out of the bottom two.

Glendermott look the better placed with the signings of Barr and Gareth Burns while the vast experience of David and Gordon Cooke is supplemented by Gordon’s son, Curtis and a 23-year-old Sri Lanka professional.

Ballyspallen, though, have also gone the extra mile with five new signings including Adam McDaid, back in the North West from Muckamore, who has been handed the captain’s armband. They also have been forced to change their professional but South African left hander Brendon Louw, who has scored three first-class centuries, looks a shrewd signing.

Saturday’s opening fixtures:

  • Brigade v Bready
  • Coleraine v Ballyspallen
  • Donemana v Glendermott
  • Strabane v Eglinton.