City of Derry have always done ‘adversary’ very well.
And after a start to the season which saw the Judges Road side lose their opening three All Ireland games and slip to second from bottom in the table, the vultures were circling. Throw in an injury list which contains Simon Logue, Richard McCarter, Adam Bratton, Johnny Kennedy, David Graham, Sam Duffy, Davy Houston and Mark Walker and you have the ingredients for a potential crisis.
So how do Derry respond to the visit of a Ballymena team with four AIL Division 1B wins from four games and currently sitting second in the higher division? They produce a season’s best performance of course!
Throughout their indifferent start though, one man has been the epitome of calm. Head Coach Mark Nicholl refused to panic and insisted that once the individual errors which have plagued the Judges Road club in the opening weeks had been eradicated, the results would follow. On the evidence of Saturday, Nicholl was spot on.
Derry were nothing short of superb and while the result will have pleased the Derry coach, the performance was more important. No-one at Judges Road is overly concerned with winning the Ulster Senior League but this type of display is just the sort to kick-start a season in which it is still not too late to get amongst the title challengers.
Derry sit 15th but they have four bonus points and only five separate them from sixth placed Nenagh Ormond in AIL 2A, a Division in which only leaders Old Wesley are unbeaten and every team is likely to drop points.
Nicholl’s team have now set their season’s benchmark and if they replicate this level of intensity on a weekly basis, their fortunes will turn, starting with next week’s Senior Cup Quarter-Final away to Belfast Harlequins.
Derry have always had the ability to hurt teams going forward but this season has seen a vulnerability in defence which wasn’t there in recent years. Saturday’s performance addressed that.
First up tackling was ferocious and the Derry support play superb. From the first whistle the home team carried the game to Ballymena as first half tries from Chris Shields and Stuart Simpson provided the platform for victory.
A clever kick forward from the excellent Andrew Semple almost got Derry off to the perfect start but visiting full-back Sean Taylor tidied up the situation before David Funston could get on the end of it.
The bright start didn’t last though as Ballymena penned Derry inside the home ‘22’ for a prolonged spell but Nicholl’s men refused to bow with some superb work done by the pack.
A superb interception by winger Jack Hargan eventually relieved the pressure and proved the catalyst for game’s opening try on 22 minutes. When Hargan’s run was stopped midway inside the Ballymena half, Derry patiently recycled possession before Richard Baird made the incisive break from which Ballymena were caught offside. Derry kicked to the corner. The line-out was secured and following a great forward drive, Shields was on hand to touch down. With Semple converting Derry held a deserved 7-0 lead.
Former Derry favourite Richie McMaster reduced to deficit to four points courtesy of a penalty three minutes before the break and it looked like staying 7-3 into the interval until another great forward break by Funston took Derry inside the visiting ‘22’ as the clock ticked into first half injury time.
Funston was stopped short but Derry were supporting in numbers and once the ball was worked back to Semple, he fed Simpson on the outside and the scrum-half went over in the corner. If the try was excellent, Semple’s touchline conversion which took Derry into half-time leading 14-3 was even better considering the swirling wind the out-half was kicking into.
With weather conditions deteriorating after the break, Derry were penned back inside their own ‘22’ for much of the half but did manage to extend their lead one minute into the second period courtesy of an excellent Semple penalty.
From there to full-time it was about Derry defence and it was first class. Ballymena centre Martin Irwin did eventually get across the line on 64 minutes but otherwise Nicholl’s team were flawless. The pack was superb and the back-line resolute. The standard has been set.
City of Derry: Ross Harkin, Cathal Cregan, Chris Shields, James Fawcett, Chris Cooper, Richard Baird, Stephen Corr, Stephen Ferguson, Stuart Simpson, Andrew Semple, Jack Hargan, David Funston, Josh Lewis, William McCleery. (Replacements) David Ferguson, Steven Duffy, Johnny Lyons, Brian Prue, Tiernan Thornton.
Ballymena: Aidy Kirkpatrick, Adam McBurney, Bryan Young, Ian Caldwell, Russell Blair, Stephen Mulholland, Willy McKay, James Gallagher, Glenn Bailie, Richie McMaster, Johnny Rossborough, Martin Irwin, Paddy James, Jordan Foster, Sean Taylor. (Replacements) James Taggart, Shane McBurney, Andrew Cundell, Chris Cundell, Thibaut De Dreville.
Referee: Oisin Quinn (UB)