City of Derry will start the second half of their AIL Division 2C game with a “season defining” block of fixtures according to Head Coach Paul O’Kane, beginning on Saturday with a crunch home clash against bottom side Midleton.
The Limerick side defeated Derry 18-3 at Towns Park in the final round of fixtures before the festive break, a result that means only 10 points separate third spot from bottom in a division in which any team could yet mount a promotion bid.
However, reverse logic then decrees any one of possibly five or six sides could yet find themselves in relegation danger and with fixtures to follow against leaders, Enniscorthy before two home games against Bangor and Tullamore, O’Kane says their destiny is in their own hands.
“This is a season defining group of games for us, that’s how we have sold it to the boys,” explained O’Kane, “When you come out of this block of four games you are either fighting for a play-off place or fighting relegation, that’s the reality.
“We are more than capable of turning over all those teams but, by the same token, we are more than capable of losing the games. For example, three wins out of four would have you up near fourth spot but it has to be one match at a time, we can’t look beyond Midleton.
“This week is massive. If anything the result we had against them before Christmas makes this an even bigger match. They win on Saturday and we could go bottom, simple as that. However, a win could kickstart a climb up the table.
“This game and the next three will have a huge bearing on our season. If we get anything at Enniscorthy it will be a bonus but that leads us into two home games against Bangor and Tullamore which, again, are must wins.”
O’Kane will welcome back the influential Neil Burns for Saturday’s game while Chris Lamberton’s timely return from America means he could start with David Ferguson the only injury concern.
“We have a decent squad out this week and are probably about as full strength as we can be. We are still waiting on Fergie. He’s still not 100 per cent but we will give him every chance to make the game.
“Training wise, the Christmas break wasn’t great because the days the scheduled training days were falling on were a disaster but we had a very positive team meeting on Saturday past to discuss a few issues and put a bit of clarity on what is required to play at this level.
“To be fair, there has been a very good reaction. The standards have maybe dropped over the past three or four years because of the club environment the younger lads were arriving into. Maybe I assumed some of the boys knew what was required but when you arrive in a club that is struggling, you can easily pick up the bad habits that has put the team in that position.
“We had a good chat. We were open and honest with the boys about the level we are at and they have responded. It is a very small squad and we told them we needed to be super committed because of that. If we are super committed, manage injuries and have a bit of luck, I’ll think we be okay.”
Not that O’Kane is taking anything for granted because he knows Midleton, and indeed all the side toward the foot of the table, will have similar aspirations to Derry’s.
“The game before Christmas was probably a case of the wrong team on the wrong pitch. It was a spud field of a pitch, it was snowing, there was heavy rain and while our boys tried to play rugby, it wasn’t the day for it.
“Midleton are a good, workmanlike team with some decent players. Again they have had their own struggles like ourselves with players go back to junior rugby or moving to bigger teams in Limerick or Cork. They are trying to keep themselves afloat this year but we’re up fighting for promotion last year and they don’t think they are that far away.
“We have to approach the game in a positive frame of mind. This is not about avoiding defeat, it is winning a game we are capable of winning. I think if we play well we have the potential to get a bonus point, I really do. If we can sort our line-out out, make sure we have a nice platform and play good rugby, we are capable of that.
“There has been a real good buzz this week. Hopefully we get the supporters out in numbers because it has to be a full club mentality. Midleton brought the whole parish out to greet us down there and that’s something we have to try and replicate, try to build a community ethos about the club.”