Saturday’s Ulster conference trip to Ballymena will be under the guidance of new Head Coach Richard McCarter and his revamped management team of Chris Cooper, Simon Logue and Stephen Duffy. There have been personnel changes too with some players signing, training and then departing without even the opportunity to don the green and black shirt. Others, like hooker Eoin McDonald or scrum-half Jamie Millar, still await their Derry debut more than 12 months after signing for the club.
The waiting ends this weekend however with the first of four Ulster Conference fixtures designed to gear club up for the All Ireland League kick-off on October 2nd and McCarter, who was appointed in May, can’t wait to get back to playing rugby.
“Everyone is chomping at the bit to get back to playing some rugby,” explained the new Head Coach, “Results are not the most important thing at this stage. Obviously we want to win every time we go out but it is more about performance at the moment, shaking off the cobwebs and getting some running into people’s legs; working on patterns and plays that we have been practising in training.
“Getting back to training has been good but there is no substitute for matches. We look sharp some nights but we need proper game-time to assess exactly where we are at and it’s been a long time since we played.”
McCarter is in his first Head Coach role but knows the club inside and out and will be following in the footsteps of his father, Gerald, when he takes charge this week against AIL Division 2A side, Ballymena in Eaton Park. This weekend is followed by a trio of home fixtures against Dungannon, Bangor and Omagh and while winning would be nice each game will be played with one eye on the AIL 2C opener away to Tullamore.
“The Ulster Conference builds up nicely toward the AIL and we will use these next four weeks as preparation, trying out different combinations and giving players game-time,” adds McCarter.
“We’re looking at the Ulster Conference as extended pre-season but that’s what we’ve always done. It is an important competition in terms of any season but we don’t attached too much importance to results or trying to win it. It is about preparing for the AIL, I think that’s how most clubs view it.
“It is a tough fixture to start with but there is no real pressure on us, we just want to go out and put in a good performance and see what we get out of the game.”
Despite that lack of competitive games, McCarter has still been busy building his squad with a number of players added. Prop Troy Wilson comes in from Larne while second row Josh Hanna is another new face and joins winger Craig Huey who has rejoined from Limavady and CJ Cregan, younger brother Derry stalwart, Cathal, and Ulster Ladies captain, Beth.
As a player, McCarter had a reputation for attractive, open rugby but what can we expect from McCarter the coach?
“We want to play a high tempo game, use our feet and attack space when we can because although we have added a bit of bulk to our pack this year, we’re not the type of team that’s going to be best suited to an arm wrestle so we have to be smart.
“We have to move the ball into space. We have a lot of pace in our backline and we want to exploit that but we don’t want to turn into the Barbarians or Fiji at the same time. We have to be clever about it but we certainly want to get into those outside channels, try to stretch teams and then exploit the spaces.”
McCarter has nothing but praise for the support he’s received from his management team and believes they have now assembled a squad capable of competing with anyone in AIL Division 2C.
“I think we have a squad good enough to compete, whether or not we get into the top four in AIL 2C remains to be seen because you need plenty of luck with injuries and stuff,” he explained, “However, I think if we can keep our core senior squad as fit as available as possible then we have no excuses not to try and kick on this year.
“Division 2C is so competitive that if you get off to a good start then you’ve no idea where it could take you but similarly, if you don’t get off to a good start it can become difficult.
“We will approach each game as it come. I’m not one for setting us up to win three from five or anything like that. In my book it’s deal with the challenge in front of you and move on to the next but there’s no one we should fear in the league.
“We know that if we play well and tick a lot of the right boxes then we have a good chance of winning a lot of games. However, if we don’t tick those boxes then it will be difficult.”
In typical Derry fashion, there will be a number of absentees for this weekend’s return to action because of injury and unavailability. With the AIL looming large, he’s reluctant to risk anyone not fully fit but one person’s absence is another’s opportunity in McCarter’s book.
“We have a good squad and everyone that’s there is there on merit. We have a few missing this weekend but rugby is a squad game these days, it’s not about 15 players any more. We have lads coming in who have definitely strengthened the squad and added a bit more competition, especially in the pack but we have also, players like David Lapsley, Alex McDonald, players like that who are now two years down the line and more experienced. They know what it takes in the All Ireland to win in difficult places.
“We are two years on in our development. When Kanesy (Paul O’Kane) came in a few years back it was about consolidating, about trying to create a style of rugby that suited us. Now, we are two years working on that, albeit Covid interrupted, but the boys have a much clearer idea of what style of rugby we want to play and what’s expected of them so it becomes a bit more natural and hopefully that will; shine through in our performances.
“There is no pressure this week. We are not expected to win because Ballymena are two leagues above us so they are firm favourites but we have our goals as well as a team. We want to go out and implement the things we have been working on as a team.
“It is a challenge and we are going to have challenges this year but I don’t want us to be intimidated going to Ballymena. We will review the game afterwards and make sure we are sticking to the principles and values that we are aiming to portray this season and if that is good enough to win the game, outstanding. It would be brilliant to win it but the performance is the most crucial thing.”