Despite a splendid hat-trick of tries by Eoghan O’Reilly, Ballynahinch again proved Buccaneers’ nemesis when they defeated the Midlanders 41-19 in their Ulster Bank League promotion play-off at sunny Ballymacarn Park on Saturday.
O’Reilly was a late call-up to the Buccs starting XV when, in the pre-match warm-up, Callum Boland had a recurrence of a hamstring injury sustained in training on Thursday. Fit again Alan Gaughan returned at full-back. Darin Classen was included in an extended bench due to Alex Hayman’s unavailability.
Hinch made three changes from their demolition of Garryowen, with Mike Graham moving to lock in place of James Simpson and Lorcan Dow coming in at number eight. Stuart Morrow and David Nicholson replaced Chris Quinn and Robin Harte in the home three-quarters line. The late change did not disrupt Buccs as they attacked from the off.
A Conor McKeon up-and-under was allowed hop by Justin Rea with the home full-back then left in no-man’s-land by the bounce of the ball on the rock-hard surface. O’Reilly promptly made his presence felt when surging on to the ball to scoot in for a try inside 40 seconds. McKeon’s conversion gave the Athlone side a perfect start and a 7-0 lead.
The hosts got a lucky break on 12 minutes when Nicholson intercepted a pass to send Aaron Cairns scampering in for a try at the posts. Rea’s conversion levelled the scores totally against the run of play and, for a period, Buccs played a bit too much rugby in their own half.
However, they settled again and Conor Finn made a strong break from halfway. As the defence converged on him, he punted an astutely angled grubber kick that was fastened onto by O’Reilly to notch a 19th-minute try wide on the left, McKeon getting his place-kicking back on radar with the conversion. Carty, who had sustained a knock early on, was replaced by Classen after 28 minutes. Rea landed a 36th-minute penalty from the right for Hinch.
In the final move of the half, Buccs suffered a double disaster when McKeon and Classen were both blocked down inside their own 22 in swift succession and Ballynahinch gratefully gobbled up a gift-wrapped score. Windsor dinked the ball over the cover and won the race to touch down for a try which Rea converted to put the home side into a fortuitous 17-14 lead at the break.
Rea added a penalty within two minutes of the restart and Ballynahinch had their self-belief restored. Following a brief flare-up on 50 minutes, Kolo Kiripati was singled out for 10 minutes in the bin and the northerners promptly added to Buccs’ discomfort. They kicked the resultant penalty to touch on the right and, following the line-out, drove over the Pirates’ line in impressive fashion for Connor Joyce’s try which was converted by Rea.
Six minutes later, a snappy Windsor break led to David Busby grounding the ball between the posts for Hinch’s fourth try, with Rea again on target with the conversion to stretch the home side’s advantage to 34-14.
O’Reilly completed his hat-trick just after the hour mark. The Midlanders attacked on the right initially before the ball was switched to the opposite flank where O’Reilly again demonstrated his finishing ability for an unconverted try close to the touchline. This reduced the arrears to 34-19 and ushered in hopes of a dramatic finale.
In the 72nd minute the Pirates’ lineout went awry. Hinch Hooker Jonny Murphy could hardly believe his good fortune to win possession from the throw before powering over the line for an opportunist try. Rea’s conversion completed the 41-19 scoreline.
The result, while flattering Ballynahinch, was disappointing for Buccs, who need to be more measured and patient at times and be prepared to go through more phases. However, there are still positives to be gleaned from a long season in which a mainly youthful Pirates crew battled with skill in the vast majority of fixtures.