Armagh 19, City of Derry 16
City of Derry arrived at the Palace Grounds, Armagh on Saturday harbouring thoughts of title coronation but left with an increasing fear of dethronement.
Terry McMaster’s men have deservedly led the way in AIL Division 2B since week one but their stuttering post-Christmas form means a title which had looked a formality until a few weeks back is now in real doubt.
The weekend reversal to Armagh - Derry’s third defeat in three games - sets up a titanic clash with fourth placed Sunday’s Well on March 5th. The Munster men are 11 points adrift but face Rainey next week in their game in hand so could, theoretically at least, arrive only six points behind.
Another Munster side, Highfield, trail Derry by nine in third spot but again they have a game in hand while second placed Greystones are eight points off top spot.
Three games to go then and Derry now face a dogfight of a finish. Armagh’s victory on Saturday gives them an outside chance of a top four finish which brings with it a promotion play-off place.
With no fixture next weekend, Derry have two weeks to prepare for the clash with Sunday’s Well. Over the years, the Judges Road men have made a habit of doing things the hard way but crucially when their character has been questioned, they have rarely been found wanting and they will need some big characters over the next three games.
The weather and pitch were perfect for rugby at the Palace Grounds on Saturday and Armagh started with intent that set the pattern for the reminder of the first half.
Indeed the home side were in front after only five minutes when their pack dominated Derry at the first few breakdowns and prop forward Daryl Morton got in for a try with out-half Harry Boyd converting for a 7-0 lead.
Derry were quick to reply though with the returning Andre Semple making a great break to force Armagh back. When the ball was killed at the breakdown, Neil Burns converted a simple 20m penalty to reduce the deficit to four points.
Derry were having their best passage of play in a very lively game and when captain David Ferguson turned over ball on nine minutes, Burns was able to kick a great penalty from 45m to leave the Judges Roam team only one points behind at 7-6.
Armagh were more aggressive in the rucks and mauls and dominated the remainder of the half with their back row winning the breakdown. They missed a kickable penalty for pressure on 14 minutes but Boyd made no mistake two minutes later from 22m to increase the home advantage to 10-6.
Armagh continued to dominate possession and territory with the Derry pack on the back foot. Boyd added two penalties to Armagh’s total on 29 and 32 minutes to leave the half time score 16-6.
Derry Head Coach, Terry McMaster, rung the changes at half time as Richard McCarter and Richard Baird both came from the bench with McCarter slotting into out half.
However, the half did not get off to a good start as loose wing-forward Steven Dickey was sent to the ‘bin’ within one minute of the restart.
It was a blow but the setback seemed to galvanise Derry as McCarter began to unlock Armagh by going wide at every opportunity. Semple and McCarter combined to release full-back Ali Beckett on four minutes to make an incisive break down the left wing. Beckett was stopped just inside the Armagh 22 and when Stuart Simpson and Stephen Corr won the breakdown, Simon Logue was on hand to capitalise on quick ball to skip in for a try by the posts. Semple converted to bring the deficit back to 16-13 with Derry right back in the game.
Armagh came straight back at Derry though with Boyd kicking another penalty for offside to extend the home lead to 19-13.
Logue and Beckett then combined on 53 minutes with a great break down the left wing and when Armagh were caught off side Semple kicked an easy penalty for 19-16 score line with Derry enjoying the momentum.
That momentum stalled however Derry lost Richard Baird to the ‘sin bin’ on 55 minutes meaning the Judges Road men would play 20 minutes of the second half with 14 men.
There was no lack of effort from the Derry men but their pack struggled to win quality go forward ball to capitalise on their superior back-line. The Judges Road men were winning possession but a lack of ball carriers meant they had little control going forward and struggled to get themselves territorial advantage from which to launch their runners.
Armagh were more physical and aggressive all through but they lost a forward to the sin bin on 71 minutes as Derry looked for that decisive score to win the game.
Derry pressed forward as time ebbed away and won a series of penalties that got them to the Armagh 22. Derry won another penalty which looked kickable but went for victory with a kick for a 5m line out on the right touchline. Derry won possession but Armagh collapsed their drive to win possession via a scrum put in. Armagh cleared their lines but Derry had another go when McCarter released Logue down the left wing and he looked home for all money but was stopped 10m from the line by the last man.
The visitors were in possession as the game was well into injury time and had a few drives at the Armagh line from five metres but Armagh held the Derry men at bay as they eventually turned over possession and the referee blew the final whistle.
The defeat was a blow but it is far from terminal. Despite the three successive defeats, Derry remain in control of their own destiny but victory over Sunday’s Well is now crucial.
City of Derry; Rory Squires, David Ferguson (Capt), Sam Duffy, David Houston, Chris Cooper, Steven Dickey, Craig Huey, Stephen Corr, Andrew Semple, John Burns, Simon Logue, Stuart Simpson, David Funston, David Graham, Ali Beckett. Replacements: Stephen Duffy, Cathal Cregan, Richard Baird, Richard McCarter, Neil Brown.