Buccaneers host Ballymena in a greatly anticipated Ulster Bank League showdown at Dubarry Park when Division 1B resumes after the lengthy festive break.
This game will take place under the newly upgraded floodlights at the Athlone ground on this Saturday night with the action kicking off at 7.30pm. Although not playing anywhere near their full potential, Buccs eked out an 18-13 victory when the teams last met, and it was a result that kept the Midlanders on top of the league table. Ballymena lie in fourth place, 12 points adrift of the Pirates.
Focus and discipline will be vital factors for Buccaneers as they strive to keep their momentum going. The Athlone side lost their opening AIL game of the season away to Ballynahinch, but since then have recorded eight victories on the trot.
Buccs got a bit of a whacking away to Cork Con in the Bateman Cup last weekend, but they had to field a considerably weakened squad.
Hopefully, they will have their Connacht Eagles contingent available for this vital test. Forwards Cian Romaine, Danny Qualter, Saba Meunargia, Rory Moloney, and Shane Delahunt were all involved with the province against the Cornish Pirates, as was versatile back Luke Carty. Injury ruled scrumhalf Conor McKeon out of that contest, but likely replacement Frankie Hopkins has had his first start, albeit not in the best of circumstances for the u20s at Temple Hill.
However, he will have benefited from that outing, as will Callum Boland, Eoghan O’Reilly, Rory O’Connor, and Alex Hayman who have not had a lot of game time recently. Shane Layden sustained an injury in Cork but, hopefully, he will be fit and ready to link up with Mata Fifita in the centre, while much may depend on the form of Alan Gaughan. The outhalf needs to be on top of his game for this encounter and, if Jordan Conroy performs likewise, the speedy winger can show what was missing when the teams met last month.
The forwards exchanges are likely to be keenly contested and here Kolo Kiripati may come in for some close attention. Martin Staunton, Stephen McVeigh, John Sutton, Evan Galvin, Ruairi Byrne, and Rory Grenham can be counted on, while youngsters like Simon Meagher and Ryan O’Meara will be itching to be involved.
Stephen Mulholland and Bryan Young are the leaders in the Braidsmen’s pack where Connor Smyth and David Whann will work to the very end for their cause. Mark Best is having a memorable season in the centre, while strong-running fullback Rodger McBurney is a real threat. David Shanahan, if available, is an enterprising scrumhalf, and James Beattie is another danger in the northerners’ backline. Ballymena were aggrieved to lose at home last time out and they desperately need to win to keep in touch with the pacemakers so will be fired up for this battle.
However, Buccs, if near to full strength, have the artillery to deal with their challenge. If their application and endeavour is what it needs to be, then the Athlone side can continue their winning ways in this floodlit encounter.