Pressure was the order of the day at the Palace Grounds as City of Derry were the visitors. Last season both the home and away fixtures between these two clubs in the league and the cup, went the way of the Maiden City side, but from the outset it was not to be the case on Saturday.
Armagh were determined to get the ‘monkey of their back’ of four previous defeats. Armagh had the first break of the game with an early penalty which was duly kicked by Adam Gowing. This gave a small but necessary advantage to the home side in the confidence stakes. And they took it.
Armagh were back on the offensive as soon as the whistle was blown for the restart. The determination shone through against some excellent City of Derry defence, but the brute strength and skill of Andrew Willis showed a clean pair of heels and the first try went to the way of the home side. Unfortunately, the angle did not allow the conversion, but Armagh were buoyant.
This start to the game had obviously rattled Derry and they showed their frustrations by giving away two penalties in quick succession. In front of the posts their was no stopping Gowing boot, but the second was not to be from the line.
Armagh were lucky to have the wind behind them in this first half and were using their kickers to their best advantage. Steady progress saw them edging ever closer to the 22 and then the 10metre line, but the Derry defence at this point was fantastic and held out their opposition. In a game with so much prior history and tension it was almost inevitable that it would spill over into a skirmish. Good handling by the referee diffused the situation and allowed the game to continue. But Armagh won the penalty and Gowing stepped up to make it 14-0.
Excellent ball handling skills from Eddie Irwin and place kicking from Johnny Steenson let the pack work the line out and scrum.
But it was Eddie Irwin’s speed that allowed the vocal Armagh crowd to cheer with his excellent score and Gowing placed the lick perfectly to get the goal.
But the half was not over. Derry had defended to the best of their ability and had bided their time. It was then the steady push of both ruck and maul worked for a score in the corner, but as with the home side the angle was too deep for the conversion.
Hill and James Morton were stunning in taking first and second ball and their partnership worked well together and helped continue the pressure into the second half.
An injury to Andrew Willis’s quad saw the welcome return of Johnny Allen who slotted well back into the back row. But even with this change there was to be no let up from Derry as they ambushed Armagh with attack after attack. The defence was only able to hold on for so long and Derry again pushed over for try number 2.
But even with mistakes on both sides the game carried at pace and the excitement continued to build especially with the extremely vocal crowd.
The game continued end to end with the pressure leading to spectacular runs from both Manu and Irwin and more superb lineout work from Hill and Morton.
An unfortunate forward pass from a Derry hand spoiled the run of play slightly but this was a game that had everything and the kitchen sink thrown at it. It is just now hoped that the return can live up to the billing it will be inevitably given.