Ulster Bank: All Ireland League Division 2B
City of Derry 20, Wanderers 39
It finished as it started, with defeat to Wanderers, but amid the disappointment of relegation, there were reasons for optimism. Eight to be exact.
With Head Coach Trevor Will confirming his departure from the Craig Thompson Stadium, and indeed his departure from coaching, following Saturday's 20-39 defeat, his reign could inadvertently provide Derry with the base upon which they will rebuild the club.
New Director of Rugby Paul O'Kane will be the man charged with overseeing that rebuilding job but the trying circumstances Will has been working under just have unearthed the next generation of Derry players.
The first half against Wanderers provided the perfect example of the potential that has emerged from a season of difficulty
Eight of the squad named against a Wanderers team that had already defeated Derry 71-3 this season were Under 20. That wasn't by design but Will was left with no option. He had to turn to youth this season and despite the inevitability of relegation, the work he has done with the likes of Thomas Cole, Alec and Callum McDonnell, Jake McDevitt, Isaiah Morris and Conor Cummings could provide Derry with the nucleus of a squad for seasons to come.
They will be better for this season. They will be better for working under Will who has conducted himself with great dignity all season. It hasn't turned out how he would have wished but Derry could be benefiting from the work he has done with young players long after he has returned to his native New Zealand to take up a scouting role.
“I can see development over the season here," said Will reflecting on the season, "For me, it’s just about focusing on skills like handling, tackling, aggressive body height and general aggression. All those sorts of things that aren’t always put in place at an early age.
"Some of the young guys – they kept me going. Guys like Jake McDevitt and Isaiah Morris, who are both under 20. If they’re handled right and keep things going on their progress, they’re going to be exciting club players. There should be optimism.”
On the pitch it was a familiar story of frustrating optimism. Optimism because Derry produced one of their best displays of the season in the first half to go in leading 20-15; frustrating because that first half was followed by the inevitable territorial rugby Wanderers were always going to employ. You knew it was coming but Derry couldn't reproduce their first half display against the visitors heavier pack and they ground them down.
A frustrating end to a frustrating year, especially after the first half it followed.
Derry were on the scoreboard within four minutes and it was one of the 'new boys' Thomas Cole who finished off a flowing Derry move that saw the pack produce some superb work on the right before the ball was switched left to allow Cole the space to finish with aplomb. Less than three minutes later it got even better but amid all the youth, it was one of the 'old' brigade who took centre stage.
With play in midfield, David Graham spotted a gap and with Wanderers back tracking, he switched on the afterburners to catch everyone out and decimate the Wanders defence. every that is except his centre partner Paddy Blenerhassett. Graham drew the cover, popped inside to Blenerhassett who run in under the posts for the try. Alec McDonnell converted and Derry were 12 points up and dominating.
A Peter Brougham penalty was the only reward Wanderers could manage for a period of pressure and Derry responded in style.
When play was restarted, Cole brilliantly gathered a clearing kick and spun a pass to Graham. There was no immediate danger but Wanders hadn't learned their lesson and this time when Graham hit the accelerate button no one could keep with his blistering pace and he stormed over for a richly deserved try and a 17-3 lead.
Unfortunately the final 10 minutes of the half brought two Wanderers tries and it proved crucial.
First big second row Brian Quill bulldozed his way over for an unconverted score before flanker Tom Walsh couldn't believe his luck as the Derry defence backed off waiting for him to offload and he simply kept going to the line with a minimal of interference.
Peter Brougham's conversion brought Derry's lead back to 17-15 and even with a late McDonnell penalty, there over riding impression was Derry out to have been further ahead.
The swirling wind wasn't exactly in the faces of Derry second half but it was in favour of Wanderers and they used it superbly, constantly kicking to the corner and grinding Derry down with drive after drive.
It took 11 minutes of the second half for their first try of the second period but once up and running there was little doubt of the outcome.
Hooker Johnny Lee, Quill's again, scrum-half Eoin O'Shaughnessy and out-half Fionan Sheahan were the scorers and the final scoreline was harsh on Derry. They defended well for periods but inexperience played its part in a couple of the tries.
The whistle brought Derry's AIL season to an end. When the play again it will be as a Division 2C team. There is much work to do at the Craig Thompson Stadium but at least they appear to have some decent raw material with which to rebuild.
City of Derry: Ross Harkin, David Ferguson, Rodney Hill, Adam Bratton, Gerard Doherty, Stephen Corr, Jake McDevitt, Isaiah Morris, Tiernan Thornton, Alec McDonnell, Conor Cummings, David Graham, Paddy Belenerhassett, Jack Beattie, Thomas Cole. (Replacements) Cathal Cregan, Barry Laverty, Craig Huey, Callum McDonnell, Richard McCarter.
Wanderers: Fionan Sheahan, Johnny Lee, Ronan O'Mara, Brian Quill, Geoff Mullan, Tom Walsh, Eoghan Nihill, Eoin O'Shaughnessy, Peter Brougham, Harley Murray, Cian Doddy, Marty Ryan, Niall O'Donoghue, Ciaran Wade. (Replacements) Shane Johnston, Stuart O'Sullivan, Conor O'Higgins, Cian Farrell, Mark Poland.
Referee: Jason Cairns (IRFU)