IN the early years of the Irish Cup, it was a standing joke that the first round of the competition, then sponsored by Schweppes, would coincide with the wettest weather of the summer. Bowl-outs were as common-place as completed matches in the early 1980s as the cup got off to its traditional watery start. In recent years, the weather gods have shone on the last 32 in the Royal Liver-sponsored competition and, anyway, these days there are reserve dates to pick up the pieces and ensure the ties are decided in match situations rather than bowl-outs which are hated by specialist bowlers.
Yesterday's extreme weather was expected to put today's scheduled 16 first round games back, en bloc, to Friday week, the reserve date. Two games were pencilled in early for June 7, Cliftonville's game against Rush, which must now go to Dublin, and Waringstown's clash with Railway Union which would have been off even without weather interference because the currently homeless Dubliners could not find a ground. Lurgan and Woodvale both switched their ties against Merrion and Limavady respectively as early as last Wednesday because of the state of their respective grounds but it still leaves five games scheduled for the NCU today.
Most eyes will be on Lisburn, courtesy of Channel Four, who present their weekly Cricket Roadshow from Wallace Park this morning ahead of the Irish Cup tie against Phoenix. [Late News: This game has now been postponed] The two oldest teams in Ireland, both based in public parks, will provide a feast of history for the television show but it is Phoenix who have the current form, winning all five games this season and, under new captain Hendy Wallace and with Australian star Jeremy Bray eligible to play, will be favourites to reach the last 16 for only the third time since 1990. Until North County's success last season, Phoenix were the only winners from Leinster but they have such a strong hand this season that it will be a major surprise if they do not have at least one team in the final again this term.
The Hills, due to visit Muckamore, are another side expected to do well and they should account for a side which has won only four matches in the cup's history. This is only their sixth season. Pembroke are the other Dublin side due in the NCU, with Belfast Harlequins, hopefully, managing something which North couldn't last year, meeting Pembroke on the field although it looks as if they will have to travel to Sydney Parade after all, and in a Friday game. Harlequins would appear to have little to fear as Pembroke have an appalling record in the cup but this year's form suggests otherwise, unbeaten in four games.
The other two games in the NCU are scheduled for Shaw's Bridge [Late News: this game has been switched to Fox Lodge] and Comber with the double winners North Down expected to ease through against Eglinton and Instonians renewing acquaintances with Fox Lodge in a repeat of their epic 1999 third round clash when Neil Carson scored 141 not out, Instonians made 303 for three but the Foxes still won by four wickets thanks to Martin Mooney's undefeated 163.
In the North West, North County should draw the crowds to Strabane, who won the cup themselves as recently as 1998. Since then they have played only three Dublin sides and lost two including to today's opponents in Ballrothry last season. The North West side won't want reminding that North County's margin of victory then was 192 runs. Sion Mills have lost their last four matches in the competition, the previous two to NCU clubs and Downpatrick will big favourites to make it a hat-trick whenever there game is completed.The first attempt is in the North West.
It is a trip to Dublin for the remaining NCU and North West clubs but apart from Donemana and Brigade (mentioned elsewhere) it will be a major shock if they return home still in the cup. Drummond may be the weakest team even in the North West but they could not have asked for a better draw than against Leinster who have beaten only Rush in five starts this season but Lurgan have to take on the might of Merrion (four wins in four completed matches) and the eligible Brad Spanner will also be in the opposition.
For Bready it is familiar ground as they take on Malahide, not for the first time in the competiton. The Dubliners won by three wickets at at the corresponding stage last season, in the north west, and with home advantage they should be even more confident. If last week's inter-regional challenge is any guide to how heavy rain affects the Malahide ground - there was a lake in front of the pavilion - then Bready must be equally as confident that they will be on their home pitch on June 7. Much like every other side who is due to travel today.
DONEMANA are due to follow in the footsteps of North West rivals Limavady today when they head south for the match of the round in the Royal Liver Irish Cup. This time last year, Limavady, then the best team in the North West, played Clontarf at Castle Avenue and came a distant second. Donemana, the current North West Cup holders and the Irish Cup winners in 2000, could be in for a similar dose of reality on a visit to the same venue.
Last Monday, Donemana completed their fifth straight win in the Derry Journal league and although the first four were of the straightforward variety, hapless Drummond could not even take the game into a second night, bowled out for 43 and it was all over just one wicket and 12.1 overs later. Action it may have been, competitive it was not, yet Donemana and, to a lesser degree, Brigade and Limavady, their only championship rivals, must go into the Irish Cup with this type of game as their only match preparation.
There is less sympathy for Brigade who should be strong enough to account for out of sorts YMCA and for Limavady who will be expected to beat Woodvale but Clontarf, unbeaten in the Lewis Traub League this season and runners up in the championship last year, are a much more serious propostion for Donemana.
As Brigade found to their cost last Sunday in the ClubTurf Ulster Cup, when the lower half of the batting had to go to the middle for the first time this season at Downpatrick they were found wanting. At least Donemana had the sense to send in Johnny Thompson and Richard Kee as openers to give them some batting practice against Drummond but the entire line-up will have to prepare themselves for a much more serious test when they face Clontarf.
National Coach Adrian Birrell is already aware of the enormous gap between the Big Three and the rest in the North West and long-term it could impact on Ireland's representation from the area if the players fail to raise their game when it matters. But facile victories against Fox Lodge, Bready, Eglinton, Sion Mills and Drummond can scarely be preparation for a game against a top team from Dublin.
Complacency is bound to set in if teams know that they have only to dismiss a couple of players to "be through" a team and they have only "one bowler to worry about". Bready, Fox Lodge and Strabane have the potential to be better than that and, indeed, Bready's only two completed league games this season have been against Brigade and Donemana so, no real surprise that they are still without a point, and Fox Lodge and Strabane are also unbeaten against "the rest".
But it has been a very unsatisfactory start to the league season in the North West "horrible to watch and terrible to play in" is how one observer summed it up. He added: "Even the better players in the other teams are now batting with such care that they are not realising their full potential. They are probably afraid to get out because they know there is nothing else coming behind. All in all, it is producing some very poor matches." Whether the top three teams are getting better or the rest are weaker than ever is a mute point - probably a combination of the two - but the progress of the North West sides, who after all supplied an Irish Cup finalist every year from 1992-2000, will be watched with interest.
It will do Donemana's chances no harm at all if, as expected, today's game is washed out and Clontarf must travel north west on Friday week because, invariably, Dublin sides do not travel well and, especially in midweek, are usually under-strength. No matter where Limavady and Brigade ultimately play their games, however, they should be lining-up in the second round on June 15. YMCA have made a nightmare start to the season, losing all three completed games and a pale shadow of the team which won the Leinster Cup final last season.
It is seven years since Woodvale have got past the second round and after the misfortune of coming up against eventual winners North County last year and losing to North West sides in the two previous years, a game against Limavady was hardly the game they would have asked for to improve their fortunes. Little wonder that captain Richard Warnock was quite happy to transfer any action today to the North West, Woodvale being one of three NCU grounds declared unplayable even before yesterday's predicted deluge.