City of Derry's Great Escape bid lays it all on the line against Clonmel

AIL Division 2C Relegation Play-off (2nd Leg): City of Derry (17) v Clonmel (33)

City of Derry Head Coach, Richard McCarter. (Photo: George Sweeney)
City of Derry Head Coach, Richard McCarter. (Photo: George Sweeney)

Richard McCarter knows a thing or two about escaping from Junior rugby with City of Derry.

In 2010, the former out-half was coaxed back to his hometown club by new Kiwi coach, Bevan Lynch, who was set the task of restoring the Judges Road club’s senior status after relegation in 2009. Despite winning their Ulster section, the ‘Green and Black’ had failed at their first attempt to return to senior rugby, losing in the end of season round robin qualifying series.

Enter Lynch, McCarter and Co. for a remarkable season, memorable for a fierce battle against Armagh in both league and cup, Derry winning an epic AIB Junior Cup Final 19-17 against the Orchard County side in which McCarter scored a cracking try and then defeated them again in an Ulster league play-off necessitated by the fact the teams were on identical records after the regulation campaign.

City of Derry will need a big display from the likes of Davy Graham when they take on Clonmel in the second leg of the relegation play-off on Saturday at Judges Road.

Portadown were the opponents in the AIL play-off and despite a nervous finale in Chambers Park, Derry were back, the victory kickstarting a run that took Derry up through the Divisions over a golden few seasons.

“Yeah, that was my first season back but it doesn’t seem like 12 years ago at this stage,” smiles McCarter whose team face Clonmel at Judges Road on Saturday in the second leg of the Division 2C relegation play-off, “We had lost out the previous season and I remember it was an enjoyable but very stressful season because of the ding-dong we had with a very good Armagh side.

“Even the play-off against Portadown we went into a big lead and then Portadown came back and I remember thinking that had the game gone on another five minutes we would have lost. They had come back so strongly and we were really hanging on at the end. We got there in the end though.”

This weekend Derry are back at the brink, 80 minutes from losing that hard fought senior status or possibly 80 minutes from creating another result that they will talk about at the club for decades, just like they did in 2010.

“You don’t want to go back to junior and I’ve said all along my priority is to remain an All Ireland League club and retain senior status,” adds McCarter, “I can’t speak for everyone within the club and I know there will be others who look at it a different way because there are some positives in terms of less travel, possibly bigger crowds against local opposition, but from a purely rugby point of view, the focus has to be on getting over the line on Saturday.”

That line moved a considerable distance back after last weekend’s 33-17 defeat in Ardgaoithe, a result especially disappointing as Derry had fought back to lead the Tipperary men 17-12 at half-time. Derry must now win by 17 points to remain in the All Ireland League, or 16 to force two 10 minutes periods of extra-time on Saturday. Either way, it’s a tall order but adversity is what Derry do best and McCarter is refusing to see safety as a lost cause.

“Sixteen points does sound like a big lead but at half-time, if we could chip off a bit of that lead, it gives us something to really gun for in the second half and that’s where I want us to be,” explains the City of Derry coach, “As long as we are still in it at half-time; as long as we are still in it with five, even 10 minutes to go, I’ll back us to get a penalty or score a try.

“The worse thing that could happen is for us to be in at half-time with Clonmel having scored a couple and it’s realistically game over. Defensively we have to really up our game from last week. In attack it is about being clinical and taking those opportunities because I have no doubt we will create chances but it is days like Saturday when you have to be really ruthless.”

Derry’s plight isn’t helped by season ending injuries for Simon Logue and Neil Burns but the return of fit again Stephen Corr is a massive boost with McCarter hoping to see the ‘real’ Derry this weekend.

“We gave Clonmel a 12-0 head start in that first 15 minutes and by half-time we were 12-17 up so we showed in that 15 minutes period what we were capable of when we get our act together but the second half was just littered with unforced errors.

“In one respect, it was very disappointing but looking forward to this week, I don’t think we can play any worse than last Saturday and that gives me positivity in a strange way because if we can limit those errors, I know we will cause them problems.

“We’ll be more up for it this week. A few boys were struggling with the occasion and nerves last week. We went into our shells a bit which we tend to do when we’re slight favourites. Now we are underdogs and the pressure is on but that’s where we have been thriving over the past couple of months.”

With no margin for error, the Derry coach is hoping supporters will turn out in large numbers for a game in which he believes their support could be crucial.

“You saw the impact the crowd had against Tullamore recently. There was such a buzz around the club, even when the players were out warming up. That fed through to the players and hopefully there will be a big crowd out because we need all the support we can get. If we can get that new shed rattling it will spur the boys on.

“As long as we are in this game with 10 minutes to go we’ll have a real chance but we can’t be out of it after 10 minutes.

“That’s been our Achilles heel at times this season, conceding early scores, so we need to make sure our defence is right and if we are still in the game with 10 or 15 minutes to go, I back us to finish the job.”

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