Buccaneers face a long journey and an acid test when they travel north on Saturday to take on Ballynahinch in the Ulster Bank League promotion/relegation play-off at Ballymacarn Park. Kick-off for this repeat battle of the 2013-14 season in the Mourne Mountain foothills is 2.30pm.
Ballynahinch propped up Division 1A for virtually all the season and trailed Galwegians by five points going into last weekend’s final round of matches. Even at halftime, it looked like a Connacht derby was imminent as Wegians lead Cork Constitution and Hinch were only narrowly ahead of Garryowen. But, as expected, Cork Con, in need of a win to ensure a home top four semi-final, eventually overcame the westerners.
However, with Hinch having an inferior scoring difference of about 40 points compared to Wegians, it was not expected that the Ulster side would win by a whopping 54 points against Garryowen. This facile 59-5 victory over a team with nothing to play for confirms a weakness in the AIL structure as also evidenced by Highfield’s dramatic pipping of City of Derry to their division’s title, compiling a massive winning margin in their final match in similar circumstances.
Nevertheless, it is the hills of County Down that Buccs must set sail for come Saturday. The elevated ground in the shadow of Sliabh Croob is a testing venue, particularly if the elements are not kind. One can virtually be assured that it will be windy. Hinch will be greatly encouraged by last week’s relieving win, which they will hope will be part one of a great relegation escape.
Like the Pirates, they have quite a number of young up-and-coming players in their squad, including Ireland Sevens duo Aaron Cairns and David McGuigan, possibly on the wing and at number eight respectively. Scrumhalf Paul Rowley is on Ulster’s books and wing Chris Quinn has been in excellent place-kicking form throughout the season, while Sam Windsor is another back to be wary of.
Busy flanker Paul Pritchard captains the side and prop Craig Trenier, lock John Donnan, hooker Zac McCall and promising number eight Lorcan Dow have all worn the red hand jersey of Ulster teams, as has back-rower Connor Joyce, formerly of Malone.
It looks like a formidable and mobile side facing Buccs who have no less than 12 survivors from the side that lost 35-13 when the clubs met in a play-off in 2013-14. Callum Boland, Conor Finn, Alex Hayman, Eoghan O’Reilly, and Ben Carty were backs who saw action on that occasion, with Garreth Halligan, Martin Staunton, Kolo Kiripati, Ruairi Byrne, Jacob Walshe, Evan Galvin, and Danny Qualter all contributing in the forwards' battle. The latter was playing well in that game, but an early injury was a big blow to the Athlone side.
The Pirates have the experience of what to expect and hopefully they will react positively to their below-par performance away to Shannon. Buccs can and must play much better than at Thomond Park. If the whole matchday squad play to their individual and combined potential, then a tremendously exciting and competitive joust is in prospect. Needless errors must be eliminated and decision-making improved with better discipline than last Saturday essential.
If Buccs can put in a collective pragmatic and sustained effort, there is the talent and ability to overcome the home side.