No margin for error as City of Derry enter home straight

Influential No. 8 Stephen Ferguson returns to the City of Derry starting XV for this weekend's crucial AIL game in Banbridge.
Influential No. 8 Stephen Ferguson returns to the City of Derry starting XV for this weekend's crucial AIL game in Banbridge.

City of Derry will be without Jack Caithness for the first of seven ‘cup finals’ this weekend in Banbridge as they seek to secure promotion to Division 1B of the All Ireland League.

Caithness is away on a pre-planned holiday which means Simon Logue will step in at scrum-half and recent signing Mark Robinson fills in at full-back. Josh Lewis also misses the game after picking up a hamstring injury. The losses put further strain on a Derry squad which has responded magnificently despite being severely tested over recent months.

Head Coach Mark Nicholl had hoped to have a number of his ‘walking wounded’ back at this stage of the season but Richard McCarter, despite making good progress, remains about two weeks away from a First XV return with Davy Houston facing a similar time frame.

Chris Barber, player of the season for the past two seasons with 13 AIL tries to his credit, is unlikely to play again this year while captain Davy Funston will start at centre against Banbridge but is not yet 100% fit.

It is a situation Nicholl has had to get used to this season but also one the Derry coach is not prepared to use as an excuse. According to Nicholl the club is facing the most crucial fortnight of its season and with seven AIL games left, cannot afford any slip-ups.

“The next two weeks are the most important of our season,” explained the Derry Head Coach, “We have a number of players making decent progress and coming back from injury but we are under no illusions. We face seven cup finals between now and the end of the season and probably need to win all seven with a few bonus points along the way.

“Richard (McCarter) is around two weeks away and we have missed him for the variety he brings to our play. Davy (Houston) is in a similar situation and they would be a great boost for us as we come toward the end of the season but that will only count if we can continue to win between now and then.

“The players have been excellent but we could do with a few of the backs returning. When you consider we have missed the likes of Richard and Chris Barber for most of the season it does ask a lot of the other players but they have responded. Peter Henderson has also been away this year and those are big players to be missing but the boys are doing the job.

“There are no easy games for anyone at this stage of the season but every team is in the same situation regarding injuries. It is a ‘horses for courses’ situation. No-one will have a full squad to pick from and we have to look after ourselves, play to our own strengths and make sure we get the result we need.”

Derry kept their promotion hopes alive thanks to Adam Bratton’s superb late try which secured victory over title rivals Ballymena at Judges Road two weeks ago. The win moved Derry into third spot, four points behind leaders Galwegians and level with second placed Queens. The leaders face a tricky encounter this weekend against an unpredictable UCC side who remain on the periphery of the top four while the Students will be expected to see off Old Wesley.

Ballymena remain in contention despite their Judges Road defeat but the margin of error for all contenders is decreasing by the week and even with the County Down side’s 13th placing in the league table, Nicholl is under no illusion that Banbridge will test his team. The home side will have Ulster scrum-half Ian Porter available again and Nicholl warned they cannot be taken lightly.

“We need to get through these next two weeks with two wins and we know if we play the way we can, we are capable of doing that. Banbridge is never an easy game. They keep coming at you right until the end of the game and we cannot let our levels drop.

“Banbridge have a decent front five and play for the corners. They tend to try and maul you over the line. They also have Porter back and he can be dangerous but we know if we play our own game and look after ourselves we can get the result.”

City of Derry (v Banbridge): Chris Shields, David Ferguson, Sam Duffy, Chris Cooper, Stephen Corr, Richard Baird, Stephen Ferguson, Stephen Dickey, Simon Logue, Andrew Semple, Neil Burns, Adam Bratton, David Funston, Ryan Campbell, Mark Robinson. (Replacements) Sam McAuley, Bob McKillop, Paul McFeely, Gareth Beattie, Jack Hargan.