If one look at AIL Division 2B isn’t enough to convince of the importance of this weekend’s visit of Highfield , two minutes with City of Derry Head Coach Terry McMaster will leave you in no doubt.
It’s first against second, a head-to-head between the teams expected to decide the title and with it promotion to Division 2A. Throw in a deeply held sense of injustice and Saturday’s encounter at Judges Road has all the hallmarks of a classic.
Our destiny remains in our own hands. If we keep winning matches no-one can catch us but there is a lot of rugby to be played yet.City of Derry head Coach, Terry McMaster
In short, it will define the season for both clubs.
Should Derry win, they will open up a sizeable gap at the top of the table. McMaster’s men are already 11 points clear but Highfield have a game in hand though Saturday remains ‘must win’ territory for the Munster men.
Then there is the little matter of November’s controversial game in Woodleigh Park which some inside Judges Road believe we would be playing yet if Highfield hadn’t scored a dramatic winner almost 15 minutes into injury time. That game remains the only blot of Derry’s AIL copy book and it is a score everyone within the club wants to settle.
As McMaster himself admitted, this is a game everyone in the club has had their eye on since 4.15pm on November 5th.
“It’s payback time for us,” confessed the City of Derry Head coach, “I hope we do win but if not, it won’t be for the lack of motivation.
“If we can beat Highfield, it opens a sizeable gap but we won’t be counting our chickens before they hatch, this is a tough test. Our destiny remains in our own hands. If we keep winning matches no-one can catch us but there is a lot of rugby to be played yet.”
The runner up spot in Division 2B brings with it a play-off against the second from bottom side in Division 2A (Thomond currently occupy that position) but with Sunday’s Well and Greystones breathing down their neck, Highfield are not only playing to catch Derry but to maintain a grip on second.
McMaster’s men can take confidence from the performance they gave at Highfield, especially in the first half when they really should have put the game beyond their hosts. Still, Derry looked to have done enough to secure what would have been a seventh straight league victory when Richard McCarter scored an intercept try and then kicked the conversion with 30 seconds of the 80 minutes left to put Derry 27-22 ahead.
The restart looked a formality but some 15 minutes later, the game was still going with David Funston having been harshly yellow carded for a high tackle and the Munster men eventually got the converted try they needed to secure an improbable victory.
McCarter is likely to be brought back for this weekend’s clash having been rested for last week’s hard fought bonus point win over Seapoint and his tactical kicking could be crucial with Highfield expected to deploy a typical forward orientated Munster style of rugby. One area of concern last week for Derry was the line-out which didn’t function as well as it could and gifted possession back to Seapoint too many times to be comfortable.
The Judges Road men can ill afford a repeat this week although with the Derry scrum looking superb all season, if they can sort it out, it will provide the perfect platform to get some quick ball out to a back line capable of hurting any team in the division.
The Cork side has had only one competitive fixture since the last Saturday in November, 28-14 victory against Barnhall on January 2nd.
In total, Derry have met Highfield 10 times in the All Ireland League since its inception in 1993-1994 with the Judges Road men travelling to Cork on seven occasions. The last time the teams played one another in Derry was the season before last in AIL Division 2A at Judges Road. Derry finished third that year and were almost promoted on the last day of the season while Highfield finished third from bottom of the table and were relegated. Derry suffered only four defeats that season but, critically, one of them was that home fixture against Highfield.
Derry’s plan will be to move the big, physical Highfield pack about the pitch as much as possible but the weather could play a major role.
Everything points to a huge game and with the biggest crowd of the season expected at Judges Road, the destiny of the All Ireland League Division 2B title could look a lot clearer come Saturday evening.