City of Derry 30, Naas 14
Three games, three wins. Momentum is gathering at Judges Road.
City of Derry’s fledgling AIL Division 2A title bid overcame its most significant hurdle to date on Saturday with their most impressive performance of the season. Two tries in each half from David Ferguson, Richard Baird, Chris Barber and Stephen Corr saw off the challenge of a previously unbeaten Naas side who fully tested Mark Nicholl’s side during a game which remained in the balance for long periods. However, when the tests came, Derry found the answers.
The victory means Derry, alongside Ballymena who defeated Queen’s 15-12, are the only undefeated teams in the division. That is a measure of how competitive the league is. That Derry’s Head Coach was so forthright in his desire to capture the title this season tells you everything about his faith in a group of players with huge potential. Saturday’s win suggests those players are intent on delivering on that potential.
Naas arrived having already defeated U.C.C. and Cashel and put Derry under pressure for long spells, notably at the outset of the second half. During that 20 minute spell the game remained poised at 15-14 in favour of the home team but the next score was always going to be crucial. Derry weathered the Naas storm with some superb defending before Simon Logue produced on moment of brilliant individualism to turn the tide.
Logue gathered a Naas kick midway inside his own half and looked for options. Nothing presented itself so Logue set off on a twisting run that took him through a crowded midfield and past seven attempted Naas tackles to the visitors ‘22. When he was hauled to the floor, Naas were caught offside as they desperately tried to regain shape and possession. Penalty to Derry and the returning Richard McCarter did the rest.
After 20 minutes of incessant pressure, Derry had soaked up the best the visitors threw at them and hit them on the scoreboard. It knocked Naas back and within three minutes Chris Barber was capitalising on a brilliant Stephen Ferguson break to dive over the Naas line. With McCarter converting the game had swung Derry’s way inside three scintillating minutes.
Now 25-14 up, Derry had saved their best for last. With 10 minutes remaining, David Funston found Logue who in turn released Josh Lewis along the right touchline. The winger danced around three Naas tackles on a superb run from half way before releasing the supporting Stephen Corr to score a superb team try. It sealed the game but if the back line put the icing on the Derry cake with some superb second half running, it was the pack who laid the foundations for the vital win.
Naas danger men Darragh O’Shea and David Ahern at full-back have been superb all season and form the main axis of a back line that will hurt a lot of teams this season. Derry didn’t allow them the space to work on Saturday and much of that was down to the immense work of the pack.
With Chris Shields in for his first start of the season, the Derry forwards battled for everything to minimise Naas possession. It worked well with Ferguson and Baird providing brilliant outlets to relieve pressure and gain ground for their side.
This was a game Derry might have lost in seasons gone by but there has been a marked improvement in defence this season. ‘Champagne’ rugby is great when the game is going your way but this Derry team appears to have found the necessary grit to see out the crucial periods of games when they will inevitably come under pressure.
Naas provided plenty of it. David Ahern had them three points up with a penalty after only two minutes in difficult conditions. Derry responded immediately. Baird won excellent ball at a line-out before taking advantage of a gap in the Naas defence to drive forward. When held up, the ball was worked right to Barber before eventually being recycled by McCarter who switched play back again to release David Houston. Houston drew in the covering challenges before off-loading to David Ferguson who crashed over and McCarter converted.
Derry lost Lewis to a yellow card on 14 minutes with another Ahern penalty reducing the deficit to a single point before McCarter responded in kind for 10-6. The visitors got themselves in front with a well worked, unconverted Johnny Delaney try five minutes before the break and looked set for an interval lead until Derry won themselves a penalty on 40 minutes. McCarter kicked for the corner, good ball was secured and Baird crashed over the line for a crucial score. McCarter may have missed a difficult conversion but it meant Derry remained in control.
That control was severely tested in the second half but Derry’s response on Saturday suggests this is a squad ready to challenge.