City of Derry revived their All Ireland Division 2A campaign in Dublin on Saturday after inflicting a first defeat of the season on the then league leaders Old Wesley in the most dramatic of circumstances.
The game was in the balance right to the whistle as Bevan Lynch’s players produced a Herculean effort to come away with victory after losing captain Sam McAuley to a dubious red card on 28 minutes.
Derry, playing some sparkling rugby and leading 22-0 until that point, looked like they were going to inflict a humiliating defeat on the Dubliners whose expectations of a comfortable victory were being obliterated by an inspired Derry display.
The conditions at Donnybrook were ideal for running rugby and when Derry received from the kick-off they quickly lay down a marker by putting 15 phases of play together to take play to the half-way line. Old Wesley got some possession but turn over ball was capitalised on by a hungry Derry back row. Simon Logue came into the line to connect with Richard McCarter who produced a numbers mismatch with a skip pass to Richard Baird on the wing, allowing the latter to run in from 30m with McCarter converting for 7-0 with eight minutes gone.
Confidence was increasing right through the Derry team as their powerful scrum became the platform for go-forward ball. The Derry front five were dominating and the front row of Chris Shields, Sam McAuley and Sam Duffy, supported by second rowers David Witherow and Brian Prue, produced a massive physical presence in both the set pieces and open play.
That dominance came to the fore on 14 minutes when, to the left of the posts, the pack produced a huge drive which provided good possession for Andrew Semple. The scrum-half gave Richard McCarter quick ball going right before a superb dummy pass gave McCarter a walk over touchdown for an unconverted try and a 12-0 lead.
Old Wesley kicked off and Stephen Ferguson received to make a powerful inspirational drive to the half way line, supported by the outstanding Baird and Stephen Corr. Quick go forward ball was produced to initiate a flowing move, sparked by the vision of McCarter. The support play, accuracy of passing and lines of running that followed were of the highest order, McCarter releasing David Funston with Simon Logue running a dummy line. Funston drew two men and found Adam Bratton hitting the line at pace. Funston then looped Bratton to receive a pass released before the tackle and picked out the supporting Baird just inside the Wesley 22m. His quick hands freed Chris Barber to run for one of the finest trys ever scored by Derry with McCarter putting the icing on the cake and Derry were cruising at 19-0.
After their recent indifferent run, the ‘Derry’ genie suddenly seemed to be released from the bottle and the sight of Sam Duffy, Chris Shields, Sam McAuley and David Witherow running with ball in hand, set alarm bells ringing in the Old Wesley defence. The Derry dominant scrum again made Wesley offend on 21 minutes and McCarter brought Derry lead to 22 points.
The game turned on its head on 28 minutes when a ruck was formed with Derry going forward outside their own 22m line. The ball was being made available with McAuley covering the players underneath him. The Old Wesley No. 8 attacked the ruck late to clear out head first from 20m but connected with McAuley’s head which was bounced back. Derry moved play along the back line and the ball was taken into touch on the far side of the pitch in the Wesley half. The linesman held his flag out to call back the referee, the pair discussing the incident for over three minutes before the referee called the Wesley No. 5 and McAuley and produced a red card, stating the Derry man had made a second movement with his head.
The visitors remained in positive mode though and when under pressure in their own half on 32 minutes Ferguson, Baird and Corr manoeuvred turn-over ball and with Semple having a great game, anything was possible. The ball was moved quickly by Semple to McCarter who again had the vision to see the opposition defence in disarray and moved quick ball to Adam Bratton who produced an exquisite chip in behind the remaining defender for Josh Lewis to collect and touch down for an unconverted try to leave the half time score 27-0 in Derry’s favour.
Derry were back on attack from the restart, Gareth Beattie having replaced Sam Duffy at tight-head prop. The Derry scrum, with seven men, forced an infringement and McCarter converted beautifully from distance to put his team 30 points up with the second half only two minutes old. Derry’s next penalty would not arrive until injury time whilst in the interim, Old Wesley enjoyed 19 free-kicks or full penalties which enabled the home side to gain field position and bring themselves back into the game.
Wesley got in for a converted try on 49 minutes and three minutes later converted a penalty to reduce the arrears to 30-10. Derry rotated the bench to introduce fresh legs, Stephen Duffy, Adam Parke, Richard Peoples and David Graham all introduced.
Derry worked hard to stem the Old Wesley tide but with refereeing decisions going against them, they were always on the back foot and Wesley got in for another converted try on 54 minutes and suddenly it was 30-17 with the pressure mounting for the Judges Road men.
There was worse to come for Derry on 62 minutes when Brian Prue was sin-binned on a very controversial off-side decision which brought Derry down to 13 men and running out of fit bodies. Wesley got in for an unconverted try after 67 minutes and six minutes later they got a converted try to reduce the deficit to 30-29.
Derry lost David Funston to what appeared to be a stamping incident which held up play for several minutes as a suspected broken arm was treated on the pitch. Shortly afterwards Bratton had to leave the field with a broken collar bone.
The Derry defence stood strong with bodies being put on the line unconditionally for the cause, Witherow and Sam Duffy being brought back on and their experience, coupled with the return of Prue, allowed Derry to regain some semblance of composure.
The referee eventually gave Derry two penalty decisions and Corr, Ferguson and Baird set about killing the game and running down the clock as eight minutes of injury time were played out in the Wesley half.
The final whistle sounded as ‘Man of the Match’ McCarter put the ball into touch to wild scenes of jubilation from Derry players, coaches and supporters. McCarter was back to his very best following a serious injury last season and this outstanding performance will have given his confidence some boost.
This was a real squad performance though in a game that looked went from a stroll in the park to ‘trench warfare’ with a backs to the wall performance that will live in the memory forever.
City of Derry: Chris Shields, Sam McAuley, Sam Duffy, David Witherow, Brian Prue, Stephen Corr, Richard Baird, Stephen Ferguson, Andrew Semple, Richard McCarter, Josh Lewis, David Funston, Chris Barber, Simon Logue. Replacements: Gareth Beattie, Stephen Duffy, Adam Parke, David Graham, Richard Peoples.