Saturday’s NI & Ulster Senior cross country championships in Lurgan will see local club’s Foyle Valley and City of Derry Spartans make the trip with much expectations, the former looking to consolidate their twin challenge for the overall Male and Female 2015-16 ANI Cross Country League titles and the Spartans chasing their third successive Men’s Provincial team title.
Valley look good to retain their pole positions in the Male and Female League standings, their consistency since the opening Comber Cup race back in the autumn propelling them to the top of the table with only two scoring races left.
Both their squads should be good enough to do the business and notch enough points to make the final race in Stormont a week later on Saturday 27th February a formality.
Almost as an aside they will also have an eye on a podium place in both the Male and Female championship races on the testing Lurgan course but given the quality of the opposition it will be difficult.
In the Women’s championship North Belfast Harriers, North Down and Newcastle will probably fight out the podium spots but with Martina McMullan, Gemma Mahon and Sarah Lindsay fronting the Valley challenge they should not be too far away and probably good enough to stake a strong claim for the League title with a top six team finish.
North Belfast and City of Derry Spartans look to be the big two in the Men’s team battle with the Foyle squad led by Scott Rankin, Chris McGuinness and Pius McIntyre, perhaps an outside podium prospect.
Rankin ran in the Athlone Indoor International on last night and may find the switch to the country a problem on Saturday.
Last year at the same venue the Spartans saw off a tenacious challenge from North Belfast to take the team title and Declan Reed was a comprehensive individual gold medallist.
That was two in a row for the local red vests and the treble is very much up for grabs this weekend.
They have a very strong team named as indeed have North Belfast but it will as ever, all be down to how many of their top men each club can get to the line and who is prepared to hurt the most in the search for glory.
Reed is a doubt for the Spartans, Greg Roberts is likely to be also missing, but Allan Bogle, Arnie Doherty, Brendan Murphy and Emmett McGinty look like a solid front four for the Derry squad.
Bogle is a former individual bronze medallist in this race and is going very well and focussed this season as is Doherty and Murphy and this trio will be key. McGinty missed a lot of the early season but has come back in strong.
John Lenehan and Colin Roberts bring tons of experience and no little ability and with Gary Slevin, Noel Logan, Kieran Hurley and Dermot McElhinney also in the squad, defending the title is entirely possible. Belief will be the key.
North go with last year’s runner up Mark McKinstry who is in good form and recent Provincial Intermediate Cross Country runner up Connor McCambridge fronting.
Masters Alan O’Hara and Eamonn White and the talented Andrew Annett give them a strong spine so it could go to the wire on Saturday with the final few scorers in the six to count format absolutely vital.
Last year Brendan Murphy in 21st place was the final Spartans scorer, North had to go back to 33rd!
The Strabane man is a much improved runner this yearand should be higher up the red vests pecking order but North’s final scorer is unlikely to be so far adrift so expect some titanic battles all down the finishing order to settle the issue. Let battle commence.
Good Luck to all concerned and here’s hoping for positive local results all round.