Buccaneers consolidated second place in the Ulster Bank League Division 1B when they outpointed University College Cork 49-36 in a cracking contest played at Dubarry Park, Athlone, on Saturday.
Twice the Pirates built up promising leads in the 85 point-scorefest, leading 25-3 after half an hour and 35-22 at the hour mark, but they had to work assiduously to the very end to shake off the spirited endeavours of the Students.
Buccaneers made five changes for this encounter, three in the pack and two in the backline. Kolo Kiripati and Cian Romaine were ruled out through injury with Evan Galvin and Ruairi Byrne replacing them and Stephen McVeigh switching to number eight. Saba Meunargia made his first start at tighthead prop with Dylan Quinn on the bench. Eoghan O’Reilly got the nod on the right wing ahead of Rory O’Connor while Alan Gaughan returned at fly-half with Luke Carty reverting to fullback.
In perfect weather and playing conditions, Buccs hit the ground running with Jordan Conroy making an immediate impact, the winger maintaining his impressive try-scoring form with two touchdowns in the opening 14 minutes. Conor McKeon opened the scoring with a third minute penalty before Shane Layden snaffled possession three minutes later to send Conroy scampering away for his first try.
Kevin O’Keeffe opened UCC’s account with a ninth-minute penalty. As College struggled to contend with the Athlone side’s tempo, McKeon added a 12th-minute penalty before good pressure reignited by John Sutton sent Conroy in for his second try of the game and fourth of the AIL season, McKeon converting this 14th-minute score. A knock-on then denied McKeon a try of his own, but the home pressure saw Slowey yellow-carded on 18 minutes as the penalty count mounted against the Students.
However, just as Slowey returned to the fray, Murray Linn’s deliberate knock-on in front of his own posts earned the UCC centre a trip to the sin bin and also left referee Mark Patton with little option but to award a 26th-minute penalty try, converted by McKeon, to give Buccaneers that hugely promising 25-3 lead.
However, after a sparkling opening half hour, Buccaneers’ pace and efficiency dropped. UCC got a foothold at last and, following a penalty kicked to touch in the left corner, Robert O’Donovan forced his way over for a try in the final move of the half to give the visitors a lifeline. O’Keeffe converted to reduce the Midlanders lead to 25-10 at the interval.
UCC were a reinvigorated force following the change of ends and, after Meunargia was yellow-carded for obstruction, the Students swiftly punished the hosts. They again punted the penalty to the left corner and, after a good drive followed the lineout, Conor Barry stretched over the home line after 42 minutes for a try again well converted by O’Keeffe.
Four minutes later, College turned over possession in midfield and quick hands by the Students yielded a Chris McAuliffe unconverted try in the right corner. This tightened the scoreline to 25-22 before McKeon got the scoreboard ticking again for the Pirates with a 54th-minute penalty.
Buccs regained their momentum and some terrific interplay involving Danny Qualter, Layden and O’Reilly five minutes later was finished emphatically by Meunargia for a bonus point try converted by McKeon. But the Cork side refused to roll over and their pressure resulted in Carty visiting the sin bin, swiftly followed by Barry’s second try which also secured a bonus point for the visitors. O’Keeffe’s conversion left the game finely balanced at 35-29 after 65 minutes.
Buccs responded to this prolonged challenge with a period of wonderful sustained and composed pressure before McVeigh stormed through for a 70th-minute try converted by Gaughan. UCC continued to battle and Feeney got through for his side’s fifth try three minutes from the end. O’Keeffe’s conversion looked like earning them a second bonus point but the Pirates had the final say when Mata Fifita wrestled possession from the Students and he powered through for Buccaneers’ sixth try. Gaughan’s conversion completed both the action and the 49-36 scoreline after a roller-coaster thriller.
There was much to enthuse from the performances of both teams in a topsy turvy match that warranted a larger attendance. Buccs were exhilarating at times, especially in the opening half hour, but then perhaps became somewhat complacent.
Conroy is a very talented and exciting prospect in Buccs’ backline where Layden, skippering the team in Kiripati’s absence, and McKeon did well. McVeigh was outstanding in the forwards battle where Meunargia was influential and Byrne continues to enjoy his best season at this level as Buccs narrowed the gap on league leaders UL Bohemian.