City of Derry defeat Bangor in huge Ulster derby relegation battle
All Ireland League Division 2C
City of Derry 10, Bangor 5
Superlatives can be over used in sport but heroic is probably the only adjective to adequately describe a scoreless second half that could proved the most crucial 40 odd minutes of rugby City of Derry play this season.
There's always pivotal weekend, a matchday on which teams battling at the top or, in this case the bottom, of league tables have to make sure they are on the right side of results. Saturday might just have been that for rugby's All Ireland League Division 2C.
The division is now two mini leagues with every point vital for the five at the foot who are all in the midst of an intriguing battle for survival.
Bangor were barely involved two months back but arrived at the Craig Thompson Stadium on Saturday to play for their AIL future, something Paul O'Kane's men have been doing all season.
The stakes were high but this Ulster derby didn't disappoint, making up for in drama what it lacked in quality.
Conor McMenamin's first half try helped the home side to a 10-5 interval lead but backed by the elements, Karl Bloomer's team will have fancied their chances of turning that around in the second half.
They tried. And tried. And tried some more. To no avail.
Each time Bangor threatened they were met by defence of almost herculean effort. Time and again, Bangor put themselves into position to score but Derry refused to yield.
It was never pretty, and far from perfect in terms of technique, but in terms of heart and commitment, it was superb. Rarely will a scoreless half of rugby have been cheered with such glee but the importance of the result cannot be underestimated.
The four points take Derry to sixth and with Seapoint claiming a huge victory over Tullamore, it leaves Thomond bottom and drags Bangor down to eighth with still only five points separating sixth from ninth.
The 'cup finals' will keep coming for Derry with Seapoint next up in two weeks but if Derry can replicate this defensive intensity, and marry in a little more composure in possession, there is plenty of reason for optimism.
The drama started early. With only 11 minutes gone, Derry took advantage of Bangor knock-on to get Davy Graham away from a try in the corner. Or so it seemed but celebrations were curiously cut short when the referee brought play back for an attacking scrum having spotted a Bangor knock-on.
It wasn't a popular decision but all complaints were forgotten within 90 seconds as Derry worked the scrum right with McMenamin spotting a gap to surge through and touch down. Alex McDonnell converted and Derry were off and running.
Bangor regrouped and answered in style though, forcing Derry back to within metres of their own line from the restart. The visitors probed left and right, being held up metres short before play was switched left where Liam Preston eventually fed winger David Charles as the man over.
Charles scored the try but not before appearing to drop the ball as he went to touch it down. A quick discussion between touch judge and referee and the try was awarded though the missed conversion meant Derry still had their noses in front at 7-5
Within three minutes, McDonnell was slotting over a home penalty to extend Derry's lead and no-one inside the ground would have expected that to be the game's final score with still an hour to play.
Both sides would have chances but handling errors and poor decision making cost each team.
The second half was played almost exclusively inside the home half bar the odd forage forward. Derry lost Gerard Doherty to an early yellow card for not retreating and breathed a sigh of relief when Nathan Graham missed the subsequent penalty which looked well within range, albeit into a swirling wind.
McDonnell had similar bad luck at the other end 61 minutes but those kicks aside, the half was all about Derry's defence.
To a man, every player stepped forward. Where seven days ago, tackles had slid off Omagh players, this week the Derry men hit low and hard with the likes of young scrum half Rory MacGinty showing a different side to his game from the usual fleet footed play-maker Derry fans are enjoying more and more with every passing week.
At 39, Jimmy Hamilton was immense in the front row alongside 18-year old Ben Pollin while Davy Ferguson epitomised everything good about the home side. Such were the skipper's efforts he was barely able to walk off the pitch at the final whistle.
McMenamin continues to impress while Adam Bratton was brilliant, producing one superb rip tackle in the second half to relieve the Bangor pressure just as Derry appeared ready to wilt.
Chris Lamberton, Craig Huey were both superb while young full-back Keelan Coyle another to refuse to wilt but in amongst it all, Stephen Corr was Derry's driving force.
Switched from No. 8 to flanker, Corr carried ball and forced his side forward almost through sheer will. Some of the hits he put in were breathtaking and with the home scrum under massive pressure from Bangor, Corr's ability to slot back to 8 and pick and drive from Derry scrums was probably the winning of the game. It negated Bangor's most powerful weapon just when the pressure was becoming unbearable.
The final whistle eventually brought a result which can be the foundation for safety. Derry's challenge over the remaining three games is not to waste the opportunity.
City of Derry: Jimmy Hamilton, David Ferguson, Ben Pollin, Adam Bratton, Conor McMenamin, Stephen Corr, Chris Lamberton, Craig Huey, Rory MacGinty, Alex McDonnell, James Perry, Davy Graham, David Lapsley, Thomas Cole, Keelan Coyle.
(Replacements) Ross Harkin, Gerard Doherty, Barry Laverty, Tiernan Thornton, Philip Duffy.
Bangor RFC: Charlie Clegg, Andrew Shaw, James Leary, Lewis Stevenson, David Caughey, Mikey Weir, Ethan Murray, David Bradford, Ally Lockhart, Liam Preston, David Charles, Desi Fusco, Mark Widdowson, Nathan Graham, Phil Broderick.
(Replacements) Andrew Jackson, Ben Worthington, Michael Ferguson, Max Preston, Adam McCusker.
Referee: Mike Scanlon