CITY OF Derry coach, Bevan Lynch, couldn’t have asked for a better way to kick-start the New Year’s Eve festivities at Judges Road as his side tore Ballymena apart with a rampant second half display.
SIMON COLLINS was at Judges Road
Photographs: JIM McCAFFERTY
Revenge for last November’s Ulster Senior Cup semi-final defeat may well have been high on the agenda, but the most pleasing part of Saturday’s Ulster Senior League win for Lynch and his make-shift starting XV was the manner in which they clawed their way back from the jaws of defeat.
Trailing by 16 points at the interval against a well-disciplined Ballymena side, who currently top the AIL Division 1B, Derry managed to bounce back while keeping the Co. Antrim men at bay for the entirety of the second half.
And a key factor in that stirring comeback was the introduction of last season’s leading try scorer, Peter Henderson who made his long-awaited return from injury on the hour mark - his first appearance since breaking his jaw against Midleton last October.
His outstanding individual try from 50 metres with his first touch, 30 seconds after taking to the field, provided Derry with the momentum and confidence to take the game to the visitors.
It would be unfair to single out Henderson for praise but it no doubt had a major impact in the dramatic turnaround, however, Andrew Semple and Stephen Ferguson were equally as effective.
Several players were forced to play out of position including the versatile Semple who played the final 20 minutes at out-half, Simon Logue who deputised at full-back and Stephen Duffy who occupied an unfamiliar flanker position which were just some of the changes the Derry management opted to enforce. And the players rose to the challenge, much to Lynch’s delight.
“We wanted to put in a good performance to back up the other two good wins that we’ve had (Malone and Instonians),” said Lynch afterwards. “It’s a good result because we’ve got a bit of momentum now going into the New Year.
“It was great to see guys like Peter Henderson back in and with his first touch he ghosts in from 50 metres out. It’s great to have him back.
“There was some outstanding performances,” he continued. “Stephen Duffy was thrown into flanker and I thought he worked tirelessly throughout and got a couple of crucial turnovers right at the end. Everyone worked really hard and I’m glad they got what they deserved.
“We’ve got that versatility and I’m really pleased with the effort shown from those players that are asked to play in positions that they’re really not familiar with. It’s pleasing when guys take their opportunities and I felt we deserved the win.”
Before Saturday’s game, City of Derry had lost four of their 11 home fixtures in all competitions this season - a statistic which didn’t sit well with the club’s head coach.
Following Saturday’s win - Derry’s third victory at Judges Road on the bounce - Lynch is hopeful it will now change the mind-set of visiting teams.
“We’re looking to build a bit of momentum and we talked about rebuilding our reputation. Our supporters have lost a bit of faith with our home record and we wanted to build up our fortress at Judges Road again. And we’ve put another brick in the fortress on Saturday and hopefully teams will hear a whisper that it’s pretty hard to get a win up here.
“We gave them a bit of a start again. We were playing quite a good bit of rugby but we gifted them a few scores but overall I was happy with the accuracy which we played with.
“We were a bit tighter than we were during the first five minutes of the semi-final we played against them. I’m just really happy for the lads, they worked hard and everyone contributed.”
Derry attacked from the out-set, dominating possession and came close to getting off the mark with several beautifully crafted phases which were halted close to the Ballymena line.
With the visiting defence defiantly holding firm during that initial onslaught in the opening seven minutes, Richard Peoples decided to go for the three points with a well taken 35 metre penalty after an offside decision to put the home lot into the driving seat.
The Division 1B leaders managed to get back into the game five minutes later when the Ballymena backs stretched the Derry defence and out-half, Martin Irwin touched down in the corner for an unconverted try.
Prior to kick-off, Derry forwards coach, Mark Nicholl had stressed the importance of cutting out the unforced errors which cost them a place in the Ulster Senior Cup final during the previous meeting between the teams.
However, it was once again a lapse in concentration which gifted the ‘Braidmen’ the lead as John Semple stole possession on the halfway line and ran unchallenged through the middle for a late Christmas present of a try he converted himself for a 3-12 advantage.
Derry went on to dominate territory and possession as the half drew to a close but were struck by a late sucker punch on the stroke of half-time as Ali Fraser barged over the line.
Semple’s conversion was dubious to say the least with the touch judge raising his flag when the ball appeared to sail just wide of the posts.
The home lot needed a significant reaction from the restart and they produced a scintillating comeback. Just seven minutes in, after good work at the scrum, the ball broke to the influential Ferguson who drove powerfully over the line for an uncoverted try to reduce the deficit to 11 points.
With Derry on the front-foot, the introduction of Henderson on 59 minutes - who replaced the injured Peoples - had a major impact which ultimately turned the game on its head.
Ferguson overturned possession inside his own half and found Henderson in his inside who, with his first touch, showed blistering pace to side-step three challenges before racing to the line for an outstanding individual try which inspired the eventual comeback.
Andrew Semple who was becoming more and more influential, replaced Peoples with the kicking duties and expertly added the conversion to cut the lead to four points.
And it was Semple who created the next opening with a stunning cross-field chip which fell perfectly for Josh Lewis in space on the left flank who had time to touch down under the posts for another converted try which gave the hosts a deserved 22-19 lead.
Derry ended the game in emphatic fashion as Logue and Semple combined to release Lewis on the left wing and he showed great strength to find the line for an uncoverted try seconds before the final whistle.
City of Derry - Chris Shields, Sam McAuley, Sam Duffy, David Houston, Bob McKillop, Stephen Ferguson, Stephen Corr, Stephen Duffy, Andrew Semple, Richard Peoples, William McCleery, David Funston, Chris Barbour, Adam Bratton, Simon Logue. Replacements - Gareth Beattie, David Witherow, Brian Prue, Josh Lewis, Peter Henderson.