First Cup Senior Cup: City of Derry v Armagh (Saturday, Judges Road, 2.30pm)
He had expected to be overseeing Saturday’s season opener from the relative comfort of the Judges Road clubhouse yet Terry McMaster has wasted no time in spelling out exactly what is expected of his City of Derry players this season.
Having reacquainted himself with the home dug-out during the friendly defeat against Ballymena, the ‘new’ (or is that the returning) Head Coach has put a turbulent close season behind him to target an immediate return to Irish rugby’s third tier.
“We have had to reset our goals after last season and our No. 1 aim for this season is promotion,” explained McMaster ahead of this weekend’s First Trust Senior Cup tie against Armagh (Saturday, k.o. 2.30pm).
“If we don’t achieve that then we have failed to meet our target but it is not me saying that, this was the goal set by the players themselves.
“I wasn’t expecting to be Head Coach, no, but it was through no fault of the club’s that they learned at the 11th hour of the visa problems when trying to appoint Phil Pretorius.
“I realised the predicament the club was in and was going to be involved anyway, albeit in a more strategic role in terms of developing coaches. At that point we already had three week’s pre-season training done and after last year it did feel like the was unfinished business to take care of.
“I was being realistic but I’m also looking forward to the season now, I just have to manage my time.”
Even after the unrest that saw the club miss out on Pretorius only days before that first pre-season friendly, this week brought a further unwanted surprise for McMaster with the news that influential back row Stephen Ferguson was moving to Dubai to link up with former Malone coach, Jacque Benade.
The timing of Ferguson’s decision is a blow given that the ‘transfer window’ for signing junior players closed on August 31st but McMaster insists he is delighted with the squad at his disposal after a busy summer on the recruitment front.
Former Omagh duo Ali Beckett and Neil Brown are said to have already settled well at the club while out-half Neil Burns and his brother, John, have joined from Malone. Former Foyle College student Graham Murphy has joined, ironically having returned from Dubai, while Steven Dickie is back from Coleraine, Angus Warwicker in from Rainey and there is the bonus of former Munster U21 and Bruff tight-head, Ger Collins, who will be studying at Magee this year.
“I think it is a pity Stephen (Ferguson) is going, especially after he had got himself selected for the Ireland club side last season. He didn’t win any caps but a good start to this season and I would certainly have been on the phone to Dublin. Once you are in that shop window, there are a world of possibilities around professional rugby.
“To find out on September 3rd that he was going was disappointing but we all hope it works out for him. We have plenty of strength in depth and are more than happy with the squad but perhaps had we known earlier of his decision we may have looked at recruiting another back row.
“I’m delighted with the squad though. With Joe Gallanagh coming in as strength and conditioning coach, the players have made great strides in close season and it will be interesting to see them take that into a competitive game.”
Alongside Gallanagh, who previously worked with Munster and Wigan Warriors, Richard McCarter (backs coach), Phil Mitchel (forwards), James Doherty (analyst) and Chris Cooper, who will be a line-out specialist, give the new coaching structure a fresh look.
Full-back Peter Henderson will be an absentee this season after moving to Australia but perhaps the most significant ‘new player’ is the fit again Simon Logue who was forced to miss the entire 2014/15 campaign through injury but who looked back to his best against Ballymena.
“It is a huge boost to have Simon back from injury,” added the Derry Head coach, “And he was straight on the scoreboard against Ballymena. He is an electric player.”
With the dust finally settling then on the off-the-field activity, old foes Armagh present this first test of McMaster’s new regime on Saturday and it promises to be a tough challenge.
“As regards the provincial competition, performance is probably more important than result as we need to give players a chance to prove themselves at that next level,” explained McMaster, “We will be fairly strong this weekend against Armagh but it won’t be full strength as we have players still working back towards being fit for the AIL opener.
“The AIL takes preference of course but the provincial competitions are important, especially the Senior Cup because it offers that route to a Ravenhill final. Armagh will be in the same AIL Division as ourselves this year so Saturday’s game is a barometer to see just where we are.”