SONI Ulster Rugby Premiership Division 2: City of Derry v City of Armagh (Saturday, 2pm)
Following a difficult close season recruitment drive, City of Derry will kick off the new season on Saturday boosted by the signings of two Dutch internationals.
Lock Quermy Warmerdam and back Ricardo Snjeider are expected to go straight into the squad for this weekend’s visit of City of Armagh which will open Derry’s SONI Ulster Rugby Premiership Division 2 campaign ahead of the All Ireland League which starts on October 5th.
Sneijder will be joined in an exciting looking back-line by Neil Burns who has returned to the club from Malone while Warmerdam will have Ulster under 19 player Stephen Kelly for company in the pack after he joined from Letterkenny.
Keelan Coyle has also committed his immediate future to the club for the incoming season.
The new recruits are a major boost for Head Coach Paul O’Kane after a number of high profile departures. Adam Bratton will be a big loss after he left for Rainey Old Boys while the highly rated Conor McMenamin joined Malone’s substantial summer recruitment drive with Rory Mac Ginty another surprise departure to Queen’s.
With Chris Lamberton travelling in the US and Canada for the next 18 months, O’Kane’s squad will once again be over reliant on youth and he admits he’s been caught by surprise at how difficult it has been it attract players to the north west.
“We can’t compete in terms of some of the incentives the boys are being offered but there is a lot of hard work going on behind the scenes to try and grow things at the club over the next few years,” revealed O’Kane
“Having come back from Limerick with Foyle College only this week, you get your eyes opened a bit down in that environment in terms of how far behind we are and just how professional the game as a whole is becoming.
“We tried to bring in overseas players from New Zealand or South Africa but if you go to England, Scotland, Wales or France, at this level the players are being paid so you are trying to do the best we can but we don’t have the resources to compete.
“We have lost some big players but the new boys coming in has given the place a bit of a lift and we are working hard still to bring more in. We are targeting the tier two, tier three countries.
“We managed to pick up the Dutch boys through a bit of good fortune. Quermy is a big No. 8 or second row, a big, physical guy and he looks a really useful player. Ricardo is a sevens international, an underage international who can play scrum half or full back and again, he is a very useful player who will give us options.
“We have also re-signed Neil Burns back from Malone which is a boost while Keelan is like a new signing. Stephen Kelly will also be a decent replacement for Conor (McMenamin). He was Conor’s partner in the second row for ulster Under 19s.”
Despite the difficulties, O’Kane has been encouraged by what he has seen in pre-season games against Ballymoney and Coleraine and believes the arrival of AIL Division 1B Armagh will give him a good indication of where his team is at in its development.
“It’s pre-season,” he adds, “We’ve played Ballymoney and Coleraine. Ballymoney was a decent game but Coleraine was maybe too easy and Armagh is probably a challenge we need at the minute.
“It should focus our minds and come 4pm on Saturday we will know what we need to work on. It’s a free hit ahead of Bruff in the AIL essentially but we will have to manage the Ulster League fixtures.
“There are too many games. If you are playing the Ulster League games full on, and we have a bye into the quarter-final of the Senior Cup, you would be playing seven games in a row which a squad like ours can’t handle unless we are very lucky.
“We have Dungannon away the week before Bruff and we might have to look at rotating and resting guys. For Armagh we will put out as strong a team as we can but there will be boys missing.”
Looking further ahead to the AIL, O’Kane acknowledges that survival in Division 2C will be the target but he believes he has a squad that can achieve that.
“We have a squad here that can keep us in the division, certainly. Our back line has really been looking the part in pre-season. Up front we might be lacking a bit of bite and weight at the minute.
“We are relying on bringing guys like Adam Marley from the Under 18s. We do have experience but it’s a big ask to bring in so many young players together. We are still working to see if we can bring anyone else in but it is very hard to do it.
“We’re still at a point where we are rebuilding. The likes of Clonmel have been tapping on the door of senior rugby for 10 years and building toward it, they will be tough prospects.
“Enniscorthy who came up through the round robin are a very tough side; Sunday’s Well are a massive club who have come down, Skerries are a good side. I think Omagh will be pushing given the number of local player they have back - it is going to be a very tough division this year but we have plenty of talented players here too.”