Netball’s domestic showpiece provides Denise Prue’s side with the opportunity to atone for a disastrous second half to their Premier League campaign and also avenge the defeat in last year’s decider by this weekend’s opponents.
The Lisburn club reached Christmas unbeaten but then fell away spectacularly after the turn of the year, losing all six league games against the Belfast big two following the top half split to finish a disappointing third.
Absenteeism due to illness, injury and work commitments proved disruptive and prevented Prue from fielding a settled side in the last three months, but three wins from nine – all against strugglers Laganside – is still a poor return for such a talented team.
As the most consistent side in the country, Graduates are worthy league champions but Larkfield – the only team to beat them this season – remain more than capable of triumphing in a one-off final.
World-class captain Caroline O’Hanlon and her players are keen to prove a point on Saturday against Grads in a contest which will feature nine of Northern Ireland’s World Cup heroes from last summer.
The individual battles between international team-mates should add an extra edge to what could be a cracking contest with the Lisburn ladies hoping to turn the tables on Graduates who defeated the then holders Larkfield in last season’s final.
Larkfield were the last club to do the double, in 2010, and will be playing in their fourth consecutive Cup final with the formidable duo of Prue and O’Hanlon at the helm as coach and captain.
“The last few months have been disappointing for us and Grads deserve their title but this weekend is an opportunity to show what we’re capable of and hopefully pick up some silverware so everyone’s really looking forward to the final,” says O’Hanlon.
Graduates are an extremely experienced and solid side whose success is based on their efficiency, consistency and fitness but, on their day, with the irrepressible O’Hanlon pulling the strings, Larkfield are capable of overwhelming opponents.
If they can reproduce anything approaching the performance which underpinned their November victory over Grads, the girls in blue will have every chance of upsetting the odds.
O’Hanlon is likely to be deployed up front alongside star shooter Kyla Bowman with English-based exile Michelle Drayne slotting in at centre and former Northern Ireland captain Ciara Brunton continuing at goal defence in place of long-term injury victim Neamh Woods.
Drayne’s availability means NI Under 21 vice-captain Jenna Bowman may miss out on a starting spot up against Grads’ controversially abrasive defender Frances Campbell whose physicality won’t worry gaelic star O’Hanlon.
Meanwhile, the second strings of Larkfield and Graduates will battle for the Betty Richmond Shield in one of the earlier encounters on a day of finals which begin at 10am.