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Today marks the biggest day on the local cricket calendar as defending champions CIYMS and CSNI face off in the Gallagher Challenge Cup final at The Green (11am start).
CIYMS, who also qualified for their first ever Irish Senior Cup final last weekend, have their sights set on a third consecutive Challenge Cup crown and a fifth in seven seasons while local neighbours CSNI last won it in 2016.
Both have made serene progress to this stage with comfortable victories in every round but the decider in front of a packed crowd brings its own pressures and not many know more about this occasion than CIYMS captain Nigel Jones. The 40-year-old has won the competition six times in eight final appearances but isn't in any mood to reflect on what has been and gone, but rather is driven by what can still be achieved.
"I've been fortunate to lead some strong teams going into these competitions and I'm grateful for that," he said. "It's an honour to do it and no doubt I will sit back at some point and reflect about the run of Challenge Cup finals, but for me it has always been about the game in hand. All of the boys are trying to give their best and there will be time to look back down the line and reflect on that."
CI thrive on the biggest stages and have dominated in cup competitions over recent years, which has continued in 2022 by adding another LVS Twenty20 Cup to their ever-growing trophy cabinet. Batsmen Ross Adair and John Matchett enter in perhaps the best form of their respective careers so far while they've all bases covered in the bowling department. It gives Jones freedom and flexibility to chop and change with confidence at any stage of the innings and that has been a crucial aspect of their success.
"There are so many guys in our team who are capable of putting in a man-of-the-match performance and we don't want to be relying on one person," he added. "My message to everybody is that when it comes to their turn to bat or bowl that they stand up and we look to complement what they're doing. It has been no different this season – it's about our team and backing ourselves."
All local top-flight players dream of winning the Challenge Cup and the whole atmosphere around the final, from the pre-game breakfast plans to playing in front of a packed crowd, helps make it feel like more than just a match. Having booked their spot almost a month ago, both teams have been able to enjoy the build-up but now it's time to get to work.
"Once you've got the job done in the semis and the final is ahead of you it's always a nice feeling looking towards it," said Jones. "Guys tend to get more excited the closer it gets and there's always a team breakfast and things that add up to a different day. For any local player the Challenge Cup is a magnificent competition to play in and for me it's certainly been a pinnacle in the club scene locally."
Meanwhile for CSNI, batsman Marc Ellison returns four years later to the scene of his best club innings – but will be hoping the result is different this time around. Ellison struck 139* in defeat to Waringstown in the 2018 final – a day which will live long in the memory of those in attendance after Adam Dennison scored 145* in reply to guide his team to victory. This will be the third Challenge Cup decider for Ellison with CSNI – the first in 2011 also ended in a loss to Waringstown at Wallace Park – and the 35-year-old looks back on that special innings with mixed emotions.
"It was disappointing in the end," he reflected. "We put up a reasonable score, but it definitely felt we were 30/40 short at the halfway stage and we lost Grum (Graeme McCarter) after bowling only one over. It was an emotional day for me – I had a lot going on outside the game never mind the game itself and it was nice to put a score together, but I felt we were short and knew we would have to bowl really well."
"Denny was outstanding and I thought Princer (James McCollum, 73) played a really good innings too which gave them the opportunity to get so far ahead with wickets in hand on a good wicket. It's hard to peg back a team that is ahead of the rate and especially when a guy is on 100+. Obviously its disappointing memories and I'm hoping we can right those wrongs."
Winning silverware is a huge motivation for Ellison and he will be hoping that he can finally collect a first trophy in CSNI colours this evening.
"My previous two have been against Waringstown and this one against CI is a totally different beast," he added. "I haven't won a trophy with Civil and that has been a thing on my mind and one reason as to why I'm still playing. I think we have a squad capable of winning a cup and we just need to find a way of turning up on the day and putting in a strong performance, which we have done at times in the league this year. If we do then we're going to give ourselves a really good chance of knocking off one we've wanted since 2016."
Play at The Green, Comber begins at 11am.
Follow the game live on NVPlay: NV-Play Gallagher Challenge Cup Final
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