Newbuildings may have set the standard last year but the defending Premiership champions are going down the youth route this season.

With a new captain at the helm and a new professional incoming, the club wants to progress from a position of strength and Gareth McKeegan has vowed to give youngsters their head this season, alongside the more experienced regulars.

“We are going to breed a few young boys, 15 and 16-year-olds,” says the skipper, who is back in the hot seat after Jared Wilson’s move to Cliftonville Academy in the NCU. “Me and Johnny (Thompson) are not going to go on forever so we have to bring them in sometime and we’ve decided this is the year.

“They’ve been doing well in the Seconds and we want to see how good they are so they will get their chance and they won’t be batting at 10 or 11.”

A couple of places have opened up with the departure of Jordan McCorkell and with Gary Mitchell set to miss the start of the season, although McKeegan is confident that 21 year-old South African Hanu Viljoen will fill in for their Premiership winning captain.

“Jared will be a massive loss because he was also great around the club, especially with the kids, but Hanu (the new professional) will coach all the youth teams and as he is young himself he should fit in and I think he has a lot to offer,” adds McKeegan.

His early stats, back in South Africa, would also suggest he will play a big part on the field, averaging 44 after eight List A games and with Ryan Hunter and Thompson both among the leading scorers last season, runs should not be a problem for the defending champions.

McKeegan expects last year’s closest challengers, Bready and Brigade, to be their main rivals again in a season which is effectively a warm-up for next year. Having abandoned the third year of the three-year trial when the teams were divided into two groups, the 15 senior clubs will play each other once with the top eight playing in the 2024 Premiership and the bottom seven making up next year’s Championship.

Bready are boosted by the arrival from Brigade of Ireland U19 international Kyle Magee and although the Beechgrove side have also lost Graeme McCarter to St Johnston, they have signed Ireland Academy player Cameron Melly and Scott Macbeth.

It is now six years since Donemana have won the Premiership, indeed it was the last time they were in the top three, but with former Zimbabwe Test player Roy Kaia as professional this year they will hope to end that sequence, although they are certain to see much less of Andy McBrine because of Ireland’s busy schedule.

Former Ireland manager and Brigade chairman Roy Torrens was remembered yesterday with the unveiling of a memorial clock at Beechgrove by his widow Joan.

It was presented by the Cricket Writers of Ireland and took place during the interval of a friendly game between Brigade and Coleraine, the other club Roy played for.

Torrens died in January 2021 from the effects of Covid.

*All matches on the opening day of the NCU season were postponed because of rain.