CLUBS STRUGGLING TO COPE WITH DEMAND OF HEAVY SENIOR SCHEDULE

It will be a strange sort of feel for Newbuildings this coming weekend as Chris Cooperís men should have been contemplating a National Cup trip to County Clare on Saturday and an Ulster Shield match with Academy on Sunday, but will instead be preparing to host Creevedonnell in the league.

Having taken the sensible step of successfully bringing forward the latter of those two ties by a week little did Cooper suspect that Clare would subsequently withdraw from the all-Ireland competition. The issue was further muddied when Academy did exactly the same thing ahead of the Shield game, meaning Newbuildings advanced in both competitions without having to open a kitbag.

Obviously the North West team will be delighted to be in the hat for the latter stages of both inter-regional cups but the whole scenario has thrown up a couple of familiar issues. Old chestnuts they may be but the fact is that we keep having to talk about them.

The first is the scheduling of the two cups. In a season that last for 22 weeks, why in Godís name is there this inherent need to schedule All-Ireland and Ulster cup matches on consecutive days? It happened in the first round for the past few seasons and complaints were aired openly, and that was taken into consideration. So now itís the second round instead.

Surely it canít be that big of a job to keep the competitions at least a week apart because the alternative is that teams are beginning to fall by the wayside.

Fair enough, Terenure and County Clare probably opted out of their respective competitions for a different reason, but the Academy decision is one that is simmering beneath the surface, and brings up the second matter. Quite simply, at senior level at least, there is now too much club cricket in a regular season.

The Academy call was based on a couple of quite legitimate reasons- the hassle and expense of a 140-mile round trip with the possibility of sitting looking at rain for a few hours, but notably also included ďa hectic Saturday/Sunday schedule over the coming weeksĒ. And we know that to be true because itís the same everywhere.

I can really only comment from a North West perspective but Saturdayís postponed Premier League game between Bready and Eglinton will now most likely have to go to midweek for exactly the same reason. The Fixture Secretary here did a magnificent job in scheduling an over-burdened programme to the absolute best of his ability. He found his hand forced by the all-Ireland cups, the Ulster cups, the Interpros, the World T20 qualifiers and the (albeit very welcome) T20 Internationals against Scotland but he came up with the best that anyone could.

The difficulty with that however is that we are now completely dependent on a really good spell of weather in July and August. Because by the time we come to the last week of June, Premiership clubs will have played just 4 of their 14 league matches. Having said that I reiterate again that this was by some margin the best that could be done with what we had to work with.

As far as the current programme is concerned we have to accept that with a few notable exceptions, club cricket is currently engaged in something of a struggle. Between finances, playing numbers, lack of support workers/ volunteers etc., the situation isnít getting any better on its own.

Personally speaking, I believe the sooner we revamp our own T20 competition the better. We have a whole series of group games after which each of the four teams in the group qualify for the knockout stages anyway and given how much other cricket we play it makes absolutely no sense.

With sixteen senior teams involved itís a simple open draw. All the sides knocked out in the first round go into the Eric Cooke Memorial Cup and you have two knockout competitions. It isnít belittling either competition in any way because at present thatís pretty much what happens after all those group games. The only downside might be if say Coleraine were drawn against Donemana in the first round and one of those went into Ericís competition, but surely in T20 mode that would be good for both cups.

Other than that it is difficult to see what else can be done to ease the burden on senior clubs. Quite rightly, Cricket Irelandís main focus is on the elite end of the game because that is where nearly all the funding is drawn from. The flip side however is that without club cricket there is nowhere for the under -15ís to develop into under-17ís and under-19ís and subsequently into regional and International players.

We need our clubs in a healthy state and although plenty of effort and resources have gone in to the coaching aspect, there are a lot of other areas that remain in need. Having spoken to a few press colleagues in the NCU it is quite clear that the matter is not unique to the North West either. Maybe if we look at that sooner rather than later there will be fewer withdrawals from these competitions in years to come.

And it would be remiss not to close this month with a mention for the Warriors after a really impressive run of form over the past few weeks. The boys were excellent especially in the first innings of the two 3-day games and fought back very well to beat the Knights in last Fridayís T20 at Eglinton.

You couldnít help but be impressed by Stuart Thompson and Graeme McCarter in the latter of those matches but despite losing out on the night I though James Shannon was superb for the visitors. Thatís about four or five times Iíve seen the Instonians man bat in the past couple of seasons and the next time I fail to be impressed will be the first. That guy is a serious talent.

While it was a thoroughly enjoyable game we have to give full credit to John Pierce, Ken Craig, Brian Allen and the team of volunteers at the village club who busted a gut to ensure the contest went ahead. The Warriorsí heads may have been down a little after the one-day match at Stormont and the T20 in Dublin but there has been no doubting the spirit in the camp has been brimming since then.

There is real quality in Andy McBrineís side with a bowling unit that is as good as any in the country and a top order that is competing and providing a platform for a very strong middle. Better still there are people like Aaron Gillespie, Ross Allen and Andrew Austin banging at the door now as well as competition for places heats up.

It has certainly been another year of progress under Bobby Rao, and while work remains to be done, the Head Coachís promise in 2013 that the Warriors would be competing at the business end of the competitions within three seasons is looking fairly accurate.