WHEN Mark Nicholl outlined his objectives at the start of the season, winning the First Trust Ulster Senior Cup was high on the agenda.
SIMON COLLINS reports
It’s been 12 years since City of Derry RFC last claimed this trophy and Nicholl is determined to banish the memories of that crushing final defeat to Dungannon at a blizzard hit Ravenhill two years ago.
If they are to get that chance, however they must do it the hard way as Nicholl takes his injury ravaged squad to Eaton Park tomorrow where they face the reigning Senior Cup champions, Ballymena.
The Judges Road men are currently decimated with injuries for tomorrow’s crunch clash but they can take some hope from the Braidmen’s recent poor run of form and they’re in the mood to cause an upset.
Indeed, John Andrews’ side come into this semi-final clash on the back of a 43-24 loss at home to AIL Division 1B form side, Ballynahinch - their fifth straight defeat in the section - which left them firmly rooted to the bottom of the table.
And with an important AIL fixture against Blackrock to be played next week, it may prove to be the best time to play the struggling Co. Antrim men.
“There not enjoying the best of form at the minute but whenever an All Ireland team plays in a different competition they can relax a little bit and they will have nothing to lose,” said Nicholl.
“In a semi-final anything can happen and it could come down to one bounce of the ball,” added the Derry coach. “Ballymena have a big game next week against Blackrock so it’ll be interesting to see what kind of team they put out.
“This weekend’s all about how we do and I know if we can play to our potential then we can certainly win the game.
“One of our goals at the start of the season was to win the Senior Cup so it would be nice to get back to Ravenhill and maybe try and put up a better performance that we put up two years ago.”
Lengthening Injury List
Ballymena may be down on their luck at present but Nicholl and City of Derry face their own problems.
Having suffered a demoralising AIL Division 2A 33-10 defeat to Terenure College last weekend Nicholl must also contend with a lengthening injury list.
Full back, Peter Henderson misses the trip to Eaton Park as he prepares for a medical exam and he joins skipper, David Funston, Simon Logue, David Houston, Chris Barber, Richard Baird and Adam Parke on the sidelines while Jack Caithness and Chris Cooper face late fitness tests.
“We have our own problems with players unavailable this week for one reason or another so we’ve got our backs to the wall a bit ourselves,” explained the Derry boss.
“It just makes the game a bit harder for us but we can’t have it good all the time. We’ve tried to experiment in the Ulster League and that’ll help this week with the selection of players.
“They’re key players we’re missing and it just weakens your bench a bit. But I’ve no doubt that the team that we pick to take the field on Saturday will be good enough to win this match.”
The winners of this semi-final fixture will get the home dressing room for the final at Ravenhill next month and with Malone and Rainey making up the second semi-final, whoever emerges from the Eaton Park encounter will go into the final at favourites. Ballymena coach, Andrews believes the pressure is all on his side and claims Derry will relish the chance to cause a major upset tomorrow.
“Look, they will be coming here with nothing to lose, they will still be the underdogs,” he said. “For us we need to take what we can from our second half performance against Ballynahinch and build on that”
“There is still pressure on us because people will be expecting us to win. But we want to win too and repeat what we did last year. We just have to make sure we perform.”