Neil Rock admits he is leaving his comfort zone this season after joining NCU Premier League champions Instonians in one of the high-profile signings of the winter.

The Ireland international wicket-keeper batsman and Northern Knights vice-captain lives two minutes from the Rush ground where he has played all his club cricket so far but feels this is the “right time to start something new”.

“I was probably always going to up here at some stage,” he admits. “I’ve played for the Knights for a long time, it’s something I always wanted to do and it gets me out of my comfort zone.

“Instonians is a good fit, I know a lot of their lads having played with them growing up. Andy Rose, the manager of the Knights, was the main connection. I get on great with him and he put the wheels in motion and thankfully got it sorted.

It is not Rock’s first experience of playing in the NCU – he turned out for Carrickfergus in four games back in 2021, which included an innings of 96 from 52 balls against Instonians! – and “I loved it. I thought it was a very, very strong league and it was always going to happen (that he would return) and now is the right time.

“Playing against my Knights team-mates on a regular basis will also make things a little bit interesting, maybe add a bit of spice to the game.”

It has been a busy winter for the 23-year-old, having been in the Ireland squads for the tour of Zimbabwe in December and the Afghanistan series in the UAE before heading straight onto Nepal where he captained the Ireland Wolves.

“I really enjoy the captaincy, feel you can add something to the game without contributing with your skills and it keeps me in the game all the time,” he says. “And it’s a great honour when you captain an Ireland team."

On the international front, despite making his debut in August 2021 – it was supposed to be against South Africa the previous month but he got Covid - Rock has played less than a quarter of the 95 matches in that time as he competes with Lorcan Tucker for wicket-keeping duties. But he has no complaints.

“Lorcan is rightly in charge of that position, he has been fantastic the last two years and all I can do is get inter-pro runs – starting this week in Pembroke - and put pressure on him that way.

“I have grown as a batsman over the last year, someone who can be dangerous at the backend. It’s something I’ve worked hard at it and am trying to play more meaningful match-winning innings and I think I’ve done that over the last year.”

Instonians will be hoping he can make a huge impact with the bat and together with new club professional fast medium bowler Lahiru Gamage, who played five Tests and nine ODIs for Sri Lanka between 2014 and 2018, they add to a settled championship-winning squad and will be the team with the target on their backs this season.

Their opening game on Saturday was due to be at home to Cliftonville Academy but slow left armer Cian Robertson will miss the first two rounds with a broken shoulder.

A quirk of the fixture list has pitched last year’s top five against the bottom five with Derriaghy replaced by Muckamore who, on their return to the top flight after an absence of five years, were due to start at home to Waringstown.