With Lansdowne already guaranteed a home semi-final, they fielded a somewhat experimental squad for the visit of Buccaneers for the final Ulster Bank League Division 1A fixture at the Aviva Stadium last weekend, where the hosts prevailed 26-17.
Ireland Sevens duo Ian Fitzpatrick and Foster Horan came in, as did Leinster’s Tom Daly in the home back line. In sunny but almost surreal conditions in front of a couple of hundred supporters in the vast arena, Buccaneers were able to start an unchanged XV for the first time in this campaign.
Unfortunately, that lasted just a single minute, before prop Conan O’Donnell sustained an injury that forced his withdrawal. As if that was not bad enough for the Midlanders, Adam Boland charged in for a Lansdowne try before two minutes had elapsed, after the Dubliners punted a penalty to the left corner and then mauled their way to the visitors’ line. Conor Murphy’s conversion made it a perfect start for the 2016 champions.
Some 12 minutes later Jordan Conroy made a splendid break along the left, leaving a trio of Lansdowne players in his wake, but home full-back Fitzpatrick got across to deal with the winger’s chip ahead.
On 16 minutes, Darragh Corbett made a good sally up the opposite flank to link up with Alan Gaughan, but the out-half’s offload to Conor McKeon was forward, thus ruling out a Buccs try.
Lansdowne were more economical in their raids. Following another penalty kicked to touch in the left corner, their bigger pack mauled to the Pirates’ line, where Boland dotted down for his second try. Galwegian Murphy again added the conversion for a 14-0 lead after 24 minutes.
Buccs enjoyed a substantial chunk of territory and possession before the interval, with Daniel Law making a couple of strong carries. Martin Staunton was in the vanguard of this sustained pressure, but handling errors spoiled richly promising positions on more than one occasion for the Athlone side. McKeon eventually opened their account with a penalty from the 10 metre line just before the break to leave Buccs trailing 14-3 at half-time.
Lansdowne sealed the issue with a try just four minutes into the second half. Once again it was their impressive maul that caused the damage to Buccaneers. Their pack made ground following a lineout to the left, and Alan Bennie then darted in for a try which Charlie McMickan converted.
The home scrum-half soon notched his second try when Gaughan knocked-on. Lansdowne countered swiftly with a neat Bennie dummy giving him the space to touchdown after 49 minutes. Substitute McMickan was unable to convert on this occasion.
Gaughan made a promising swerving break for Buccs as the game entered the final quarter, but Adam Leavy intercepted his offload as Lansdowne were again forced to defend. During this period their lock Josh O’Rourke incurred a yellow card as the metropolitans infringed once too often.
Corbett fastened on to a cute McKeon dink ahead and scooted up the right wing before moving infield to score a try at the posts for Buccs with five minutes remaining. McKeon quickly tapped over the conversion and, to their eternal credit, the youthful Pirates crew kept battling. Their endeavours were again rewarded when, after a Ben Carty snipe, McKeon angled in for a final move try, which he also converted to complete the 26-17 scoreline.
With little but pride to play for, Buccaneers can take considerable credit and encouragement from another sustained and gritty effort. Lack of precision on occasion was again a hindrance to their endeavours, with handling errors frustrating the Pirates, for whom McKeon, Corbett, Paul Boyle, Simon Meagher, Evan Galvin and the ever willing Staunton put in sterling efforts.