CITY of Derry reinforced their position at the top of the Ulster Senior League table with a superb bonus-point victory over old rivals Armagh at the Palace Grounds on Saturday afternoon.
The victory moves the locals eight points clear of second placed Ballynahinch who have a game in hand but from an All Ireland League prospect, it was probably the no tries conceded statistic which will have satisfied Mark Nicholl most of all.
Both sides came into the game off the back of impressive AIL results so confidence was high but it was the much-changed visitors whose tenacity in the tackle provided the platform for victory, that deserved the win.
Derry started with David Ferguson and Steven Jefferson in the front row while Richard Baird returned to No. 8 and captain, David Funston, moved from centre to open side wing-forward for the first time. The new centre pairing was an all Coleraine affair with Adam Parke partnering Chris Barber and Peter Henderson returning from injury to full-back while David Graham started on the wing for the first time this season. The bench saw Sam Duffy returning from a summer hernia operation along with the experienced Bob McKillop making himself available for future battles should Nicholl need to call on his services.
Derry started the livelier in what were perfect conditions for rugby, attacking from the start courtesy of Funston’s first action at wing forward, a crunching tackle to gain possession.
Henderson unfortunately missed an easy penalty on five minutes allowing Armagh to come back strongly and following a couple of phases of play their forwards manufactured an opportunity for Kiwi out-half Dylan Ferreira to drop a goal and give the home team a 3-0 lead with 10 minutes gone.
Derry were intent on running the ball from deep at every opportunity and sometimes their accuracy of passing let them down but they were level on 15 minutes. Once again they ran the ball out of the own ‘22 and eventually Armagh infringed, Peter Henderson kicking the resulting penalty from 25m for 3-3.
Derry was more clinical in their play as the half progressed but Armagh did not help their cause when they had two men sent to the bin before the half was over. Richard Peoples, Parke and Barber formed a solid Derry midfield partnership and they released Simon Logue to break out of his own half to take play to the Armagh 22 with a kick ahead. Derry won a scrum and a lineout courtesy of Jefferson, Ferguson, Gareth Beattie, Brian Prue and the athletic Chris Cooper which set-up good ball for Baird to crash over for an unconverted try from 10m which gave Derry an 8-3 lead at the half time break.
Superb Funston try
Derry were playing with a slight breeze advantage as the second half started and they were quickly into their stride with only a minute gone. ‘Man of the Match’ Funston won possession at the breakdown 30m from the Armagh lineout and powered in for an unconverted try and a 13-3 lead. Armagh got themselves on the scoreboard again three minutes later when Ferriera kicked a penalty to reduce the arrears.
Derry coaches Mark Nicholl and Ashley Blair went to their bench on 55 minutes when they brought on Chris Shields, Sam McAuley and Sam Duffy up front along with Richard McCarter in the backs. The visitors were forcing the game and errors were creeping in but they were well in control.
There was worrying news with the resumption of the AIL less than a fortnight away when they lost Baird with a repeat of the shoulder injury which kept him out of the opening Division 2A games but McKillop came on to make his presence felt with a storming run that tore through the home side. With McAuley in support a try looked a certainty but they were stopped just short.
Andrew Semple was having an outstanding game at scrum-half for Derry, making sniping breaks and keeping the opposition guessing as he continually varied his game. Derry turned over Armagh possession in their own half on 65 minutes and set up the move of the game. Semple found McCarter at out-half who gave a ‘skip pass’ to Barber at outside centre. He in turn released the impressive Graham on the wing who made a 30m break and drew the last man to give Henderson a simple run-in try. With Barber converting Derry’s lead was 20-6.
Derry’s tackling was impressive all afternoon and no tries against was the goal for the day, everyone working hard with discipline to achieve a season first. Derry’s defensive line speed was good as they continually pressed Armagh and with just five minutes remaining the pressure told when the outstanding Chris Barber intercepted on half-way to out sprint two would-be tacklers and touch down for an unconverted try and a great Derry victory.
City of Derry; Steven Jefferson, David Ferguson, Gareth Beattie, Chris Cooper, Brian Prue, Adam Bratton, David Funston, Richard Baird, Andrew Semple, Richard Peoples, Simon Logue, Adam Parke, Chris Barber, David Graham, Peter Henderson.
Replacements; Sam McAuley, Chris Shields, Sam Duffy, Bob McKillop, Richard McCarter.