MARK Nicholl gets his first taste of All Ireland League action as City of Derry Head Coach tomorrow afternoon and has challenged his players to hit the ground running when University College Cork visit Judges Road.
Michael Wilson reports
Nicholl and his assistant - former Ulster star Ashley Blair - have over seen an excellent start to the new season with five victories from five played taking them to the top of the Ulster League table. Now, however, the sparring is over. Every one of those games has been played with one eye on tomorrow and the rest of the AIL season. This is the real business end of the rugby season.
Of course Nicholl is no stranger to Derry’s recent rise through the divisions. Alongside Bevan Lynch, Nicholl played an integral role in bringing Derry from the Junior league to their present position and he revealed it was the Lynch who first approached him about taking over the top job at Judges Road.
“To be honest Bevan asked me about stepping up a couple of years ago,” explained Nicholl, “He asked if it was something I would be interested in when he moved on but I had my doubts at the time. I was worried some of the players might be a bit tired of my voice after a few seasons but Bevan encouraged me to go for it and once I had his blessing there was no doubt in my mind because it has always been something I wanted to do.
“The step up has meant more responsibility and I suppose now I have to make sure every decision I make during a game is the right one but Ashley and I have enjoyed it so far. We share the same philosophy and like the players to play a little more with their heads up. We want them to play with freedom rather than feeling they have to stick rigidly to the plan.”
The transition has proved a seamless one and Nicholl is hoping the team can continue their upward trajectory under his stewardship. However, with only the top two teams in the division gaining promotion at the end of this season, Division 2A is promising to be a tight one.
“I think if we can keep the majority of our squad fit and playing well then I see no reason why we cannot finish in the top four and after that the difference between a top four finish and a top two finish is just a bit of luck on any given day.”
Despite the impressive start, Nicholl knows tomorrow is another step up in terms of skill and intensity.
“We are looking forward to the game but we’re also careful not to make the occasion bigger than the game, it is still just 80 minutes of rugby and we have to treat it as such. We don’t know much about U.C.C. but I have spoken to other coaches although the fact that they regularly lose a few players and haven’t played much rugby this season means they remain something of an unknown quantity.
“That said, last Saturday’s win against Queens was the perfect preparation because most student teams have a similar style and keep coming at you for the full 80 minutes. You could be 20 points up with 10 minutes to go against a student side and the game would not be over. Most student teams tend to throw the ball about a bit so it should be an open game but we will get nothing easy and must be ready.”
Derry have an injury doubt hanging over influential full-back Peter Henderson who badly dislocated his finger during last week’s game. Already ruled out are Richard Baird (shoulder) and Chris Copper who is unavailable. Coming in for his first AIL start will be hooker Cathal Cregan whom the Derry coach claimed has enjoyed a tremendous start to the season.
“Cathal will start on the back of some outstanding displays this season. He has always been a quality young player but Cathal has made great strides recently though I still think there is more to come from him. I have no worries about putting him in but he has to be at the top of his game if he want to stay in. There is a lot of competition with people like Sam McAuley waiting in the wings although the same is true of every position and that’s exactly how myself, Ashley and the players want it.
“We have good strength in depth but we will need all the players because it is a long season. The fact that three out of our first four games are at home means we need to get points on the board early and make ourselves contenders from the start. If we play as well as we can then we are capable of defeating the majority of teams so if we get our performances right the results will look after themselves,” he added.
City of Derry (from); Chris Shields, Cathal Cregan, Gareth Beattie, Brian Prue, David Houston, Adam Bratton, Tom Patton, Stephen Corr, Andrew Semple, Richard McCarter, Simon Logue, Ryan Campbell, David Funston, Josh Lewis, Peter Henderson. Replacements; Sam McAuley, Paul McFeely, Steven Jefferson, James Fawcett, Jack Caithness.