City of Derry Rugby Club created history on Saturday last when they defeated Portadown at Chambers in a playoff to return to All Ireland League Rugby after an absence of two years. City of Derry were relegated from senior rugby two years ago and in the same season Portadown themselves returned to the senior ranks after an absence of just one year. This has been a richly deserved victory for Head Coach Bevan Lynch and his players who have only been beaten four times in the last two seasons once in the Ulster Qualifying League and three times in All Ireland Round Robin fixtures.
The final score does not really tell the story of the game, when City of Derry were leading by 26pts to 8 pts after seventy two minutes of the game gone. The home supporters were making their way to the exits having given up on their team and suddenly within five minutes there were just four points between the teams with Derry hanging on as time ebbed away. The final minutes of the game saw the Derry supporters on tenterhooks as they thought what would have been a deserved victory and their team’s destiny was going to be snatched from their grasp. The referee blew the final whistle with Derry in possession having won a penalty in their own half and when Andrew Semple dispatched the ball towards the Derry supporters the time for celebration had just come.
This has been a long hard season for the City of Derry Coaches and Players who have had to play fifteen games since the thirtieth of January. They only lost one game to Seapoint from Dublin that being in the first All Ireland Round Robin fixture. Derry played ten League fixtures in that period and had to win each game and also score four try’s in each game to put themselves in a position where they had to have a playoff with Armagh to determine the Ulster Qualifying League winners. Portadown have only played five All Ireland League fixtures in the same period winning two in fact they only won four league fixtures in the whole season. The difference between the two teams on Saturday last was that because of their winning habit City of Derry expected to win the game and Portadown hoped they would win and that became more evident at the game went on, especially when Portadown went into an 8pts to 6pts lead just after half time.
City of Derry played all the rugby in the early stages of the game helped by the breeze and were 6pts up after twenty eight minutes courtesy of two penalties from Richard McCarter. Despite Derry’s dominance Portadown could have been ahead early when they intercepted on two occasions with on the attack inside the Portadown 22 metre line but good tracking back by the Derry backs prevent try’s. Portadown eventually got into the Derry 22 and good work by Philip Jackson and Chris Banks saw captain Diarmiad O’Kane almost get touchdown but was snared by David Witherow but from the resulting ruck hooker Steven Morton got in for an unconverted that left Drry leading by 6pts to 5pts at the break.
Colin Lawson dropped a goal immediately after the restart to give Portadown a two point lead. Derry were finding it difficult to break down the Portadown midfield defence but David Founston eventually almost broke through and then Richard McCarter put an exquisite kick in behind the Portadown defence and only an unlucky bounce stopped him scoring. The alarm bells were sounding for Portadown as McCarter moved his level of influence on the game up several notches. He was the catalyst for Andrew Semple to also produce and as the Derry back row of Stephen Corr, Stephen Simms and Karl Gimmell raised their play to another level the game was about to turn in Derry favour.
There was fifty two minutes gone and it was all Derry when Simon Logue got in for an unconverted try in the corner to put Derry back in the lead. Three minutes later Mc Carter showed vision to find a gap in the Portadown defence and got in for an unconverted try for a 16pts to 8pts lead for Derry. Sam McAuley, Sam Duffy and Philip Brady were carrying ball to keep Portadown going backwards. Mark O’Connor replaced Peter Henderson and kicked a penalty for Derry and then ten minutes from the end of the game McCarter again chipped the Portadown defence and caught the ball above his head and touched down for a try which O’Connor converted to give Derry a 26prs to 8 pts lead and what looked like an unassailable lead.
With seventy two minutes gone Dave Whitten produces a try out of nothing and Craig Woods converted to reduce the arrears. Three minutes later a quick tap and go for Portadown saw a break from Sonny Gaye and some good interplay from the other backs which allowed Gaye to score and when Woods converted there were only four points between the teams and the game was back on. Derry survived the late surge from Portadown and when Derry turned over Portadown ball and won a penalty Andrew Semple kicked for touch to complete a two year journey for Derry back into All Ireland Senior Rugby.
City of Derry Team; Peter Henderson, Josh Lewis, Jared Bennett, David Founston, Simon Logue, Richard McCarter, Andrew Semple, David Witherow, Sam McAauley, , Sam Duffy, David Houston , Philip Brady, Karl Gemmell, Stephen Simms, Stephen Corr. Replacements; Jason Mitchell, Chris Shields, Christopher Cooper, Mark O’Connor, Rudi Moore.