City of Derry40, Armagh 18
City of Derry’s close season unrest may have yielded unintentional benefits.
The ‘will he, won’t he’ Phil Pretorius saga rumbled on so long that once the rug had finally been pulled from under the Judges Road club, Terry McMaster was left with little choice but to once again assume the Head Coach role he had hoped to vacate in favour of the South African.
But the summer long delay meant McMaster got busy with a recruitment process that, on the basis of Saturday’s impressive six try Senior Cup win against Armagh, puts Derry in a very healthy position to achieve their main objective of promotion to All Ireland League Division 2A.
Captain for the day, John Burns, his brother Neil, Neil Brown and Graham Murphy all gave hugely encouraging displays in first competitive appearances with Ulster U21 tight-head Rory Squires and former Bruff forward, Ger Collins, still to come in. Add in that Judges Road regulars, Stephen Corr, Chris Cooper, David Funston, Simon Logue and last season’s ‘Player of the Year, David Ferguson, have yet to play and Derry look in great shape despite the close season uncertainty.
And McMaster’s recruitment drive didn’t concentrate solely on players. Off-the-field, the addition of former Munster strength and conditioning coach, Joe Gallanagh, looks a master-stroke given the physicality with which Derry drove into Armagh on Saturday.
It was all very impressive but one new boy stole the show - full-back Alistair Beckett. The former Omagh player looked like he had been playing senior rugby for years. He began with an excellent early tackle to stop Armagh’s Zach Kneebone in his tracks and then proceeded to consistently punch holes in a visiting defence that couldn’t cope with his clever line running.
Two first half tries in as many minutes highlighted his attacking threat and alongside his fellow debutantes, it was a display to enthuse the Derry Head coach.
“Ali and Neil Brown have come in from Omagh and they should have been playing senior rugby a few years ago,” agreed McMaster, “They were outstanding. It was a superb score from Neil and Ali got two in the bag and probably could have had four or five had we not lost concentration on the final pass but, look, I’m delighted with the performance.”
He had good reason to be. While question marks remain on how good an Armagh side they were facing, the visitors will be playing their trade alongside Derry in AIL 2B and any team that arrives with Brian McLaughlin in the dugout cannot de underestimated.
The loss of Logue in the warm-up meant Derry started with hooker Steven Duffy on the wing but it never showed, Duffy more than comfortable in his new role. McMaster’s men hit the front on 11 minutes when John Burns, who was vying with Beckett for the ‘Most Impressive New Signing’ title, took advantage of a great Stuart Simpson break to run clear and score with Neil Burns converting.
Armagh lost second-row Conleth McGilligan to a yellow card on 20 minutes yet Derry waited until he was about to return to finally turn the screw. Play was switched to the Derry right where Brown drew the Armagh cover before switching inside to the supporting Beckett who ran in to score for 12-0.
That became 19-0 inside 90 seconds with Beckett fashioning a carbon copy try, Burns this time adding the extras to put Derry in control even if a Johnny Pollock penalty left it 19-3 at half-time.
Any thoughts of an Armagh renaissance were buried within a minute of the restart. As Derry pushed from the kick-off, Andrew Semple switched play left to Davy Graham who produced a lovely little ‘kick through and chase’ to score close to the posts.
Neil Burns was having a good day with the boot and converted before Pollock pulled three points back for the visitors.
Derry’s best try arrived on 56 minutes. When a Richard McCarter clearance was charged down inside the Derry ‘22, the home side looked in trouble. Instead, Semple recovered possession and from the subsequent scrum, produced a lovely dummy to take himself into the Armagh half. He was supported by Brown whose charge was eventually halted by the covering Robbie Faloon. From the Armagh scrum that followed, however, Derry turned over possession and went right to Brown who danced past two tackles to score.
Late consolation tries from Robbie and Neil Faloon were as much down to Derry easing off as any incisive play from the visitors and it was fitting the last say went to the home team as John Burns was forced over for his second of the game.
City of Derry: Chris Shields. Cathal Cregan, Sam Duffy, Adam Bratton, David Houston, Stephen Dickey, John Burns, Craig Huey, Andrew Semple, Neil Burns, Steven Duffy, Stuart Simpson, David Graham, Neil Brown, Alistair Beckett. (Replacements) Graham Murphy, Bob McKillop, Corey Logan, Richard McCarter.
Armagh: Simon Carlisle, Zach Kneebone, Grant Hutchinson, Willie Martin, Conleth McGilligan, James Hannah, Peter Elliott, Neil Faloon, Mattie Wright, Johnny Pollock, Luke Crozier, John Faloon, Michael Thompson, Robbie Faloon, Matthew McSorley. (Replacements) Jack Sleatoer, Andrew Morton, James Morton, Harry Doyle, Stephen Morton.