City of Derry 14, Highfield 17
City of Derry’s AIL Division 2A title winning hopes came crashing down at a bitterly cold and wet afternoon at Judges Road on Saturday.
Defeat to Banbridge the previous week left their title challenge hanging by a thread and out of their own hands.
And a home loss to Highfield on Saturday ruled Mark Nicholl’s troops out of the race altogether.
It was a defeat which left the City of Derry Head Coach bewildered and ‘shattered’ afterwards as he came to terms with the fact that their hopes of AIL league glory in 2014 were over.
Nicholl spoke in the build-up to Saturday’s game about conjuring up a fighting spirit in response to a crippling defeat at Banbridge Academy.
And in the opening 25 minutes his side clearly took heed to that message.
The home lot confidently controlled possession and territory and the Munster men appeared shaken.
At this stage the game had the hallmarks of a one-sided domination and Highfield looked out of their depth.
Derry penned Highfield deep into their own half for long periods and got the scoreboard ticking after just nine minutes.
Chris Cooper instigated the move that led to the first score of the game when he charged down an attempted clearance.
And as the home pack forced their way towards the Highfield line, the referee awarded a penalty try as their opponents committed a series of fouls at the scrum. And Neil Burns converted to give Derry a deserved 7-0 lead.
There was no let-up after that as Derry steamrolled the Highfield defence.
The play was swept from right to left and when Adam Bratton eventually found himself in space, he drove forward and offloaded to the supporting winger, Ryan Campbell tight on the left flank who scored in the corner. Burns did superbly to covert as Derry took a 14-0 advantage.
And then complacency began to creep into the Derry mindset and they took the foot off the gas.
So easy was the opening 20 minutes that they probably felt they would win at canter.
But when Highfield began to test the resolve of the Derry defence they carved them open at will.
Derry resisted well during a promising five minute spell for Highfield as the half hour mark approached.
And just when the danger seemed to be averted, Jason Carton found a gap, after a clever feint and offload from Mike O’Flynn, and scored in the corner.
Ian O’Donaghue missed the conversion but the Co. Cork men were inspired by the ease in which they carved open the Derry defence.
And they were in again 10 minutes later after a succession of errors allowed the inspirational Dave Kelly to touchdown beside the post. This time O’Donaghue kicked between the posts to bring the score to 14-12.
And it could have been worse for Derry but Highfield missed a penalty attempt right on the half-time whistle.
It was the visitors who emerged after the interval with the bit between their teeth.
And they were dealt a helping hand as the referee sin-binned Richard Baird for a shoulder charge on 52 minutes. With the numerical advantage Highfield made Derry pay.
The visitors gained good territory from a penalty which they kicked to touch, 10 metres from the Derry line.
There was no contest for the line-out as Highfield claimed the ball and drove the maul towards the line superbly and Paul Stack touched down to give the Munster men the lead for the first time.
O’Donaghue missed the conversion but the Highfield support were more than happy to get their noses in front after a period of sustained pressure.
It was a typical performance from a Munster side as they slowed the game down at every opportunity after this. Derry were frustrated and were unable to get into any sort of rhythm.
Their failure at set-pieces played into the hands of Highfield who held off a late Derry surge to claim their third successive AIL victory as they battle for survival.
For Derry their title hopes are shattered and promotion aspirations have taken a big hit as their unforgiving injury problems are catching up and threatening to curtail what had been a highly promising campaign.
City of Derry - Simon Logue, Josh Lewis, David Funston, Adam Bratton, Ryan Campbell. Neil Burns, Andrew Semple, Chris Shields, David Ferguson, Paul McFeely, Chris Cooper, Bob McKillop, Stephen Corr, Stephen Ferguson, Stephen Dickey; Replacements - Sam McAuley, Sam Duffy, Steven Jefferson, Richard Baird, Mark Robinson.
Highfield - Sean Quaid, Paul Stack, Ian O’Donoghue, Cian Murphy, Ben Murphy, Mike O’Flynn, Kevin Foyle, Robert Bogue, Dave Kelly, Colm Gallagher, Marc Murphy, Richie Moran Maurice Power; Replacements - Dave Norris, John O’Collaghan, Rory Kenneally, Matty Kelleher, Peter Martin.
Referee - Ed Kenny (IRFU)
See Tuesday’s Journal for full match reaction