City of Derry coach Richard McCarter has challenged his team to “wipe the slate clean” as they seek to end 2016 with a morale boosting, New Year’s Eve AIL victory over Dungannon at Judges Road (k.o. 2.30pm).
McCarter admits the past 12 months have been a year to forget but with his side boosted by the return of scrum-half Andrew Semple and centre David Funston this weekend, and Terry McMaster once again in the Derry dug-out, things may finally be turning around.
Semple and Funston are back home from Abu Dhabi and London respectively for Christmas and McCarter says their experience will be vital against Dungannon.
“We should have a fairly strong squad to choose from this weekend,” explained McCarter, “We have a few guys back from injury and Andy and Davy are available for selection. The holidays worked out well for us as both are still registered and keen to get involved.
“The two lads have been playing almost every week so they are match fit as well which is a bonus. Both are in consideration for places and they will definitely strengthen us.”
Semple’s return in particular is timely as Derry have struggled to fill his No. 9 shirt this season.
“Playing scrum-half this season was always going to be tough for anyone because they had to follow Andy who has been one of the top No. 9s in Ulster. It’s good that he is able to help us out while he is back. He has been out training with the squad and it’s as if he and Davy have never been away.
“We should have an experienced back line this week that will be along the lines of last season when I thought we had one of the best in the league.”
Returning alongside the influential duo are Ian Bratton, Davy Graham and William McCleery with prop Chris Shields about a week away from returning to the squad
“New year, new start, that’s the message we’ve been trying to get across at training. It’s a chance to wipe the slate clean as regards the first half of the season. Although technically we are still finishing out the first half of the fixture list, this is a chance to start again.
“We know it’s going to be a tough match but we are quietly confident because training has gone well and morale is pretty high at the moment. Everyone is really looking forward to Saturday. Hopefully there will be a big crowd out with it being New Year’s Eve and they get behind the team.
“It is hugely important we get the win because we need to kick-start our season at some point.”
A former Dungannon player himself, McCarter knows the Stevenson Park men will be just as keen to celebrate the New Year with an Ulster derby win.
“Dunganon have been going very well and are a very efficient team. There is nothing over elaborate about them. They will be well drilled, especially up front and have two or three excellent players who will be their ‘go to’ guys so we have to make sure we keep them quiet.
“However, we have done a lot of work on our own pattern of play and tweaked a few things that will hopefully pay dividends. A strong start is important, as it always is, but even more so on Saturday. We need to get a good start to quiet Dungannon down and then try to play our own game.”
Derry are currently bottom and still awaiting their first win of the season but McCarter says things can change quickly if his side gather some momentum.
“There is no panic yet. If you look at the table, a win on Saturday could take us off the bottom and we would only be a few points off Skerries in eighth so, without getting too carried away, we know a couple of wins can make a massive difference.
“It is so competitive in this league but we can only worry about ourselves and the game that is right in front of us and that’s Dungannon. I have a feeling though, that if we can get one win, two or three might come along with it.”