City of Derry Head Coach Paul O’Kane believes the club are facing a season defining run of three AIL Division 2C games beginning with this weekend’s Ulster derby against Bangor at Upritchard Park.
Despite a 24-12 Ulster League victory over the County Down side back in August, Derry go into this weekend as underdogs, Bangor’s increased investment over the past couple of seasons putting them among the pre-season favourites for promotion.
The two clubs have registered two wins and one defeat from their opening AIL games but with another Ulster derby to come next weekend against Omagh followed by a trip to Malahide, O’Kane believes the next month could be crucial to his side’s season
“This is a big one and I think the boys know that these next three games could go a long way to deciding what we are going to be doing this season in terms of fighting relegation or pushing towards the top end, especially with two Ulster derbies through it,” explained O’Kane, “That makes it extra spicy.”
Derry will be without Gerard Doherty and Colm Campbell as well as Ross Harkin and Chris Shiels meaning more pressure on the front row, something which prompted O’Kane to bring in former Strabane tight-head Hugh Flanagan as a dual status player.
They have been boosted by the availability of Ulster and Ireland underage player Conor McMenamin who will make his senior debut after a try-scorer cameo for the Seconds last week and O’Kane is keen to watch how the Letterkenny man’s development, especially up against ex-Ulster star, Lewis Stevenson.
“This is part of Conor’s development. He is a nice lad, really enthusiastic and there are no airs or graces about him, he just wants to play rugby and improve his game.
“It will be a big step up this week and it could be an intriguing battle because Ulster have ear marked him as one for the future and he will be coming up against Lewis Stevenson.
“That probably shows where the two clubs are in terms of development. We are relying on lads coming completely out of their comfort zones whereas other teams are much more experienced at this level and above.”
O’Kane admits Bangor are further down the evolutionary line than Derry at present but has nothing but admiration for how the Upritchard Park men are trying to build
“They have a huge squad and fair play to them because they have gone through their difficult times. They were in junior rugby but have bounced back well. They have been growing seven or eight years, have stabilised and are at a point now where they want promoted.
“They have a big, physical pack but they have some very good backs as well, players like Dessie Fusco and New Zealand scrum-half Lewis Bret.
“We know it is going to be a tough place to go. They have set their stall out and feel they have a squad that can push for promotion this season. Their defeat in Midleton will have been a blow but I wouldn’t read too much into that because it seems to have been a similar story to have happened to us in Bruff.”
O’Kane is expected to give a first start of the season at full-back to former Foyle College player David Lapsley who recently returned from university, with James Perry moving from the wing to centre to allow Denis Posternak a break.
“We will back ourselves,” adds O’Kane, “We have simplified things for ourselves. If we perform we can beat anybody but if we don’t, we will get beat, it’s as simple as that.
“If we don’t meet Bangor’s physicality and try to play our game over the top of what they are going to try and do, we will get beat. Bruff showed what happens if we step off for even part of a game.
“It will be tight going for the first 20-25 minutes but if we can see that out, I’m sure we can get something from the game and that’s the main aim.”