City of Derry Head Coach Paul O’Kane claims Ulster League promotion is not on his radar despite the positivity of an opening round win over Bangor.
Limavady native O’Kane has been tasked with the job of rebuilding the Judges Road club after a decline that culminated in last year’s relegation to All Ireland League Division 2C following a season in which Derry struggled to field a competitive team.
It is no small project and while ‘one swallow does not a summer make’, O’Kane - who occupies the dual role of Head Coach and Director of Rugby - believes the club has been making steady, if unspectacular, progress toward becoming a competitive force again.
O’Kane though is warning that the project is likely to be measured in years rather than months and described this weekend’s SONI Ulster Premiership Division Two trip to Rainey as a huge step up for his team.
“We were happy for about 45 or 50 minutes of the game against Bangor,” explained O’Kane, “I think we started really well and built on from the couple of pre-season games we had. To be honest, had we played the way we played against Coleraine the week before, we probably would have won much more easily.
“There was a lack of accuracy to what we were doing in attack against Bangor at times and we slipped far too many chances but there was also some good play. We had the bonus point after five minutes of the second half against Bangor.
“We dropped off it a bit then and the last half hour was a bit disjointed because we wanted to give lads a run out and get a look at certain players. We changed the whole back line and lost Gerard Doherty (calf) and took Craig Huey out and it changed the game because we were top heavy with ‘worker’ forwards as opposed to ball carrying forwards.
“We became a bit reactive rather than taking control of the game but we handed them their three tries with poor decision making in our defensive line-out work. At the same time these are things that are easily fixed so we’ll take the positives.”
That result put Derry top of the fledgling Division Two table after the opening round of fixtures ahead of Saturday’s trip to Hatrick Park to face a side that put 71 points on Derry the last time the club met.
“Rainey have lost players, actually five or six to Limavady including Jody McMurray and Robert Lamberton but they will be a huge test,” adds O’Kane.
“Rainey are way ahead of us in terms of development and this week our boys won’t have as much ball as they had against Bangor but it will be a good test and hopefully at a more even level than last season.
“Rainey are a league above us and we are not expected to beat them so it is about how much we have improved in a short space of time.”
And if Rainey wasn’t a daunting enough test for O’Kane and his players, he also has a Senior Cup test against Ballynahinch to look forward to after the clubs were paired in the midweek draw.
“Ballynahinch at home in the Senior Cup is another game you can’t fear. Aspirational wins, that’s where you want to be and remember six or seven years ago Derry were competing at that level. You have to look to get back there.
“The game is a bit of a ‘free ball’. We will go out, empty the tank and see how we cope. I never see any real negatives in playing somebody you are not expected to beat because you always get two, three or four positives - individually and collectively - and plenty to work on.
“I would be more intrigued to see how we do against the Rainey who are a league above us and Dungannon the week after but it is all leading into Tullamore in the AIL.
“We are not in that place that we can target promotion in the Ulster League. We have grown the squad a bit but these are lads stepping up from junior rugby to senior rugby and they need time to bed in.
“This year will be about, stabilising, staying safe and creating some positivity about the club.”