Buccaneers battle to the end to retain top spot

Buccaneers held up just short of the Ballymena line

Buccaneers held up just short of the Ballymena line

Although not playing to their true potential for long periods, Buccaneers showed their character by eking out an 18-13 Ulster Bank League triumph over Ballymena at Eaton Park on Saturday.

This key win keeps the Pirates on top of Division 1B as the league takes a seasonal break until the end of January.

On a dull, drizzly afternoon, heavy underfoot conditions were not conducive to Buccaneers’ style of play and it took the visitors a long time to get into their stride. They were not helped by a second-minute yellow card to Kolo Kiripati following an incident with Mark Best, and play was then held up for 35 minutes.

Ballymena resumed in a change of jersey to red after the break and were quickly into their stride. A break by Callum Patterson stretched the depleted Shannonsiders and Luke Carty’s misdirected clearance was fastened on by Ritchie McMaster who sent his side forward. When possession returned to the outhalf, his cross-field kick found James Beattie who made full use of his height advantage to win possession and crash over for a seventh-minute unconverted try near the right corner.

The Braidmen had a clear edge at scrumtime throughout, winning a steady stream of penalties. A 20th-minute penalty by McMaster put them 8-0 ahead. However, the Pirates steadied their ship with a fine series of pick and goes in which Martin Staunton was to the fore. They came close to getting over the home line with a number of sallies, but had to settle for Alan Gaughan’s 28th-minute penalty to open their account.

Ballymena struck back within three minutes, with prop Young surging over on the left for another unconverted try. Before the interval, a fine Gaughan penalty to the left corner brought the Athlone side within striking distance of the home line, but the lineout went awry and Ballymena were deserving of their halftime lead of 13-3.

Within moments of the restart, Cian Romaine was forced off through injury; U20 player Simon Meagher replacing the Buccs’ lock. Ballymena introduced David Shanahan at scrumhalf for the second period, but Creighton was soon back on for Rodger McBurney when the northerners’ fullback was injured.

Just before the hour mark, Ryan O’Meara replaced Rory Grenham and the young prop made an early impact when he stormed through the centre from midfield to set up a good spell of pressure by the visitors. This time the Pirates finished off the raid successfully when Shane Layden powered through for a 63rd-minute try and Gaughan added an excellent conversion from close to the right touchline.

From the restart, Mata Fifita put in a thumping tackle to turn over possession and the ball was popped to Layden, but his hack ahead was that bit too strong and a try opportunity evaporated. However, he was impeded by Patterson as he chased the kick and the referee awarded a penalty which Gaughan duly converted to level the scores at 13-13 on 66 minutes.

The decisive score came soon after when John Sutton zipped on to a loose pass close to the Ulster side’s line and Buccs went efficiently through a number of phases to suck in the cover before the ball was transferred smartly to the left and Boland capped his return with a well-taken touchdown. Although Gaughan was unable to add the conversion from close to the touchline, Buccaneers finally had an 18-13 advantage with eight minutes remaining.

Although playing below par for most of the opening hour, the Athlone side were finally galvanised and survived a test of character in the final moments when substitute O’Meara was sin-binned as Buccs’ problems at scrumtime continued, but they held out for what could prove a pivotal 18-13 win and can deservedly enjoy their festive break.

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