All Ireland League Division 2C: City of Derry v Bruff (Saturday, 2.30pm, Judges Road)
Head Coach Paul O’Kane says the promotion play-offs must be the target for City of Derry as they prepare to kick off their AIL Division 2C campaign at home to Bruff on Saturday.
O’Kane acknowledges it’s a tall order for a side which only secured AIL safety on the penultimate weekend last season but he believes the locals are capable of upsetting some of the more fancied clubs this term.
“As far as our longer term aims go, the boys and myself, we all feel the play-offs have got to be our aim,” he explained, “We can’t be content to be in mid-table, we have to try and push on and bridge the gap between mid-table, where we finished last season, and the top five.
“That’s a 20-point difference which means picking up at least four extra wins from somewhere this year. We had seven wins last year and three or four bonus points so this year will be about turning some of those defeats into victories and increasing our bonus point count. That won’t be easy but it has to be the aim.”
With the likes of Adam Bratton, Ruairi MacGinty, Conor McMenamin and Keelan Coyle all departed, Derry have brought Neil Burns back to the club and introduced Dutch international duo Quermy Warmerdam and back Ricardo Schneider who will both make their AIL debuts on Saturday.
“As far as our squad is, we are probably as strong as we can be,” added O’Kane, “That is a massive positive. The weather might limit the way we like to play rugby but it will be no different for Bruff.
“We are positive going into the season. We are slightly concerned about the depth of our squad at the top end but we’ll try to manage that as best we can.
“We need to get off to a good start and home games will be very important as the season develops. To that end, Bruff are in a different place from ourselves. They’ve come through a difficult period and will be looking for promotion. Their sole aim will be promotion. They were in second or third for long periods last season but lost out in the play-offs. Although we beat them towards the end of last season, we’re aware they put 40 points on us earlier in the season so it will be tough and will focus the minds.
“We’ve had a decent preparation. As far as our team goes, it is full strength so it’s a case of trying to do a job now.”
O’Kane is expecting numerous close battles in what he describes as a very evenly matched division which could prove even more difficult than last season.
“If you switch off for 15-20 points in any game you’ll be hit for 30 or 40 points. It’s so physical, so relentless, there are no backward steps and I think this season will be harder than last.
“You have Sunday’s Well and Skerries coming down from the division above and they are massive clubs who weren’t far off staying up in 2B. By the same token, you have Enniscothy and Clonmel coming up. Enniscorthy have dominated Leinster Junior rugby for the past five or six years so will arrive in very good spirits.
“Clonmel are something similar with plenty of resources. It’s a ‘You snooze, You lose’ situation and we can’t sit still because no one else is.
“We have to try and break into that top half of the table, that’s the only way to be safe or else it’s going to be a ‘last day of the season’ job again. We avoided that last year by one game, securing our position with one game to spare, and I would like to be home and hosed a lot earlier than that.
“It’s going to be difficult given the players we’ve lost, trying to replace players like that is difficult. We have signed some good players. Neil Burns has made a massive impact, the two Dutch guys have come in and given everybody a lift but we’re still heavily reliant on young players if you dip beneath the surface with quite a weight being placed on young shoulders.
“It’s going to be tough, no doubt about it, but we believe we can shock a few of the big teams if we manage to stay injury free. We have a different type of pack this season and some serious gas in the backline so we’re looking forward to getting started!”