CITY of Derry will have to continue their pursuit of a top four finish without influential scrum-half, Andrew Semple, who is likely to miss the remainder of the All-Ireland League season.
Michael Wilson reports
Semple has been missing since breaking a bone in his wrist in the Ulster Senior Cup semi-final against Dungannon on December 22nd but suffered a setback this week when his arm was put back in plaster. The player now faces an anxious four week wait to discover if he requires surgery to rectify the problem but Head Coach Mark Nicholl admits he is not expecting him to return for any time soon.
“Andrew will return to the doctor in four weeks to have the arm re-assessed but as coaches we have resigned ourselves to losing him for the season,” conceded Nicholl, “The way we are looking at it is, if we get him back any sooner it will be a major bonus.
“It’s very disappointing, not only for us but for ‘Semps’ himself. He has been brilliant for us and his attitude is first class. He has been out for around nine weeks but in that time he has missed only two or three training sessions. Even with a broken bone in his arm he is out there with the rest of the players. He obviously doesn’t take any of the contact but he enjoys the game so much he is always one of the first at training. I think he is missing us as much as we are missing him.”
Despite the setback regarding his first choice scrum-half, there was positive news for Nicholl for tomorrow’s crucial clash against fourth placed Banbridge at Judges Road (k.o. 2.30pm). With the exception of Semple, Chris Shields and the unfortunate David Graham who broke his finger in last weekend’s victory over DLSP in Dublin, Nicholl should have a full squad to choose as he welcomes backs the likes of Peter Henderson, Richard McCarter, Bob McKillop and Chris Cooper.
Derry went into last week’s 38-22 win without 12 members of the first team panel but his team, inspired by Simon Logue at full-back, produced a blistering start to wrap up both victory and the bonus point inside 15 minutes. It was a performance which leaves Nicholl with a selection headache but it’s one he’s looking forward to.
“I have to admit we were a bit concerned last week, not so much as the players playing but the strength in depth we had on the bench. We weren’t sure there was enough experience but every one of the boys stepped up.
“It was a great start and to be 21 points up inside 15 minutes gave us the confidence we needed to play our game. We played some good rugby in the first half. Maybe we weren’t as not good in the second half but the result was the important thing.
“We talked about at the start of the year about the first team panel and developing a strong squad of players and last Saturday highlighted the importance of that approach. They players stood up when they had to.
“Simon (Logue) was unbelievable but that’s the sort of player he is. He has played full-back in the past and in open play he can be very hard to stop. The kicking side of his game needs some work if he was to play there on a more permanent basis but it’s a nice option for us to have. We gave away a couple of soft tries late on but that’s probably where we missed a couple of more experienced players to come off the bench and get the team going again. It will be a tough job picking the team this week. A lot of the players last week did themselves no harm.”
The injury to winger David Graham was the only negative on an otherwise excellent day at the office.
“David has been fantastic this season so it’s disappointing he will be out for a couple of weeks. The raw talent was always there with David but we did do a lot of work with him in pre-season focusing on integrating him into our system and it has paid off. He has come on in leaps and bounds. He is a quiet lad but has been doing an excellent job and the injury comes at probably the worst time for him.”
Banbridge, who were promoted from AIL 2B last season, arrive at Judges Road having failed to build on a superb start to their season which saw them win their opening four AIL games and lead the Division. That form has dipped of late but last week they returned to winning ways against Instonians in the Ulster League.
Ironically it was an Ulster League visit to Rifle Park at the start of January which kick-started Derry’s recent revival. Nicholl’s team arrived at the Co. Down venue having lost their previous six games in all competitions and trailed 20-0 at half-time. However a remarkable second half revival saw Derry score five tries to secure 33-25 victory and they haven’t looked back since.
Despite the renewed confidence though, Nicholl knows Banbridge will provide formidable opposition and singled out scrum-half Ian Porter, who was on a contract with Ulster last season, as the man to watch.
“Every match from now until the end of the season will be tricky, we are in ‘must-win’ territory,” added Nicholl, “But the boys are looking forward to Saturday. The confidence is up and we are scoring tries but we know how difficult Banbridge can be.
“They are a well organised, balanced side but Ian Porter is undoubtedly the key man. We will have to try and ensure he does not dictate the game but, at the same time, we will concentrate on our strengths and look to play our game rather than trying to stop them.
“When we played them down there in the Ulster League they were almost at full strength and 20 points up. We managed to turn that around and from there we have kicked on.”
With the top two sides in the Division - Terenure and UCC - meeting this weekend and a number of the other teams above Derry facing difficult fixtures, Nicholl knows the importance of a victory that could bring his side level with Banbridge on 30 points. Points will be dropped above Derry this weekend. Derry’s job is to take advantage of that.
City of Derry (from) - Steven Jefferson, David Witherow, David Ferguson, Sam McAuley, Sam Duffy, Paul McFeely, Chris Cooper, Bob McKillop, David Houston, Brian Prue, Stephen Corr, Tom Patton, Richard Baird, Jack Caithness, Richard McCarter, Richard Peoples, Peter Henderson, Ryan Campbell, David Funston, Chris Barber, William McCleery, Simon Logue, Robbie Logue.