Ail Division 2C: Ballina v City of Derry (Saturday, Heffernan Park, 2.30pm)
City of Derry Head coach Paul O’Kane has challenged his revamped squad to secure five wins from their remaining nine games as they return to All Ireland League action away to Division 2C leaders, Ballina.
It’s a tall order for O’Kane’s side who completed the first half of the AIL season with three wins from nine games and currently sit eighth in the table on 13 points.
Heffernan Park is not the most welcoming of venues for visiting teams seeking points but having revamped his squad and made his allotted five AIL panel changes, O’Kane is in bullish form as he heads to Mayo.
“The next two weeks are, in most people’s eyes, a ‘free ball’ for us,” admitted O’Kane, “I don’t think we will be given any chance away from home against Ballina but I believe - and I think everybody in the squad knows - bar the Malahide game, we have been well in every single game we have played this season.
“However, as we keep telling the boys, the AIL is such a harsh environment and games that you look like you are well in can become very inflated, very quickly.
“We know we are underdogs but we are hoping to go down to Ballina and put in a performance. We need to get something out of these away games.
“I personally believe we need five wins to be absolutely safe. That’s my own opinion. We need to make sure we reverse the home wins we have registered in the first half of the season, so we need to be looking to defeat Thomond, Tullamore and Seapoint and I believe we need to win at least two more games beyond that.
“Five wins out of nine games is a big ask from what we have at the turnaround but it is within us. There are going to be some battles ahead but we will take it a week at a time and hopefully we can get our best squad out more often than not.”
O’Kane will be without Simon Logue and Ben Polin this weekend but has secured the services of young Letterkenny scrum-half Rory McGinty, a member of the Ulster U18 panel who is expected to be among the substitutes this weekend.
“We’ve had something of a reboot and made a good acquisition in a young scrum-half from Letterkenny, an Ulster Under 18s No. 9 in Rory McGinty and he will start from the bench this weekend.
“It’s a big ask for him to step straight into AIL, he has only just turned 18, but he is a talented young player and we are hoping he can step up to the plate.
“Phil Duffy starts this week but we will definitely bring Rory off the bench at some point and the hope is that if it goes well, we can maybe move Simon Logue to his more natural position on the wing or at No. 15.”
As well as McGinty, Foyle College’s Caolan Coyle and Coleraine Grammar’s Davy Brown will join the squad once they have completed their Schools Cup obligations.
Saturday’s fixture is the reverse of Derry’s final AIL game before Christmas, a match Ballina won 7-26 after an error ridden opening half, including two intercept tries, saw the visitors 0-26 up at the break in atrocious conditions.
O’Kane says there has been plenty of soul searching over the winter break. The lack of an experienced No. 10 remains a gaping hole in the Derry squad with young players like Alex McDonald being asked to plug the gap and learn quickly in a pivotal position in their first year at AIL level.
That’s far from ideal and O’Kane says the club may look overseas as a means of providing some cover in that pivotal out-half role.
“We have had a lot of meetings in the club over the past few weeks and we know there are positions where we are not as strong as we would like to be.
“Our decision making hasn’t been good at times in games but we are asking players - talented players - to make mistakes as they learn to play at this level. Our aim is to try and get through this season and then maybe try to address those areas even if we have to look overseas.
“Up front we have competed and probably won most battles but our decision making and leadership in and around No. 10 for example has let us down at times.
“We think we have two or three talented guys. Obviously Conal Gill is out for the season, Alex McDonald is a fantastic talent but it’s a lot to ask of him at this stage of his development. We have also unearthed a good No. 10 over the past few weeks playing with the Seconds where Callum O’Hagan has stepped in. From some of the games we have watched him, he has really stepped up.
“Again, it is a lot to expect of him to carry that to AIL level right away but he is another one we can work with.
“We have a good spine of AIL players at the club but realistically others are still making the step up from junior rugby and it will take time. That’s just where we are at but if we can get through this season, make sure we are safe, I think a No. 10 and a bit more bulk up front would make a huge difference.
“I think we could go from just scratching around in the middle toward bottom, where we are at the minute, to competing up at the top again. Plus we need someone for the boys to learn from on the pitch.”
Ulster League defeats to Omagh and Belfast Harlequins have offered both hope and further frustration and O’Kane believes if Derry can eradicate the mistakes, it could be a very positive second half of the season.
“Ballina are a team on the up and have been probably the best junior club in Ireland over the past couple of seasons,” he adds, “They have a way of doing things, a rigid two-four-two that is very Kiwi orientated which you can see from the New Zealand out-half they have in their side.
“It’s not going to be easy but, again, there were plenty of periods in that game before Christmas that we dominated. Bottom line, we didn’t take our chances and they took theirs.
“The tries that we coughed up in the first half were shocking. It was really poor in the first half and in a game of two halves, as it was that day, you cannot afford to make those mistakes.
“We should have been in a position to win the game at half-time and come the end of the game, Ballina were under all sorts of pressure.
“We can only look after what we can. We are focused. We think we have a decent squad going down and we have to be looking to take something from the game.”