Buccaneers are on the cusp of promotion following this bonus point 39-27 Ulster Bank League Division 1B victory over nearest challengers UL Bohemian on the 4G pitch in the University of Limerick campus on Saturday.
On a bright afternoon, conditions were near ideal for the fast-moving styles favoured by both teams and a highly entertaining contest unfolded in which Buccs stretched their magnificent unbeaten sequence to 12 matches.
With Shane Layden and Jordan Conroy both in Portugal with the Ireland Sevens squad, the Pirates’ growing strength in depth was signalled by their replacements in fit-again Shane O’Leary and the availability of Luke Carty.
Meanwhile, Saba Meunargia also returned to front row duty (probably for the last time as he has joined Doncaster Knights in the English Championship for the remainder of the season ) with Rory Grenham on the bench. UL Bohs had a quartet of changes from their defeat at Shannon, with Darragh Frawley coming in for Ed Kelly in the second row. In the hosts’ backline, Joe Murray, Jamie McNamara, and James Lennon were replaced by Rory White, Robbie Bourke, and Angus Lloyd. The latter pair linked up at halfback with Rick McKenna switching to fullback.
The Red Robins, aided by the breeze, were swiftly on the offensive and Kiwi McKenna’s fifth-minute penalty opened the scoring. However, Buccs quickly struck back and punished a McKenna clearance that curled back into play when smart interplay got the ball to Alex Hayman. Strong running by the centre earned him a 12th-minute try near the posts, with Alan Gaughan adding the conversion. Seven minutes later Gaughan landed a penalty to which McKenna replied with a 24th-minute placekick. UL Bohs regained the lead on the half-hour mark with Harry Fleming getting through.
Buccs retorted with a tremendous rampage by Meunargia, in which he could have scored had he backed himself, but the move was carried on by Kolo Kiripati before Frankie Hopkins was held up just short. However, the Pirates arrived in numbers and the powerful Kiripati was not to be stopped, burrowing in between the posts for a 35th-minute try converted by Gaughan to give Buccaneers a 17-13 half-time lead.
Buccaneers made two changes at the interval with Shane Delahunt making a rare appearance in place of John Sutton and Evan Galvin coming on for Stephen McVeigh. Just three minutes into the second half, UL Bohs again retook the lead when Hopkins juggled to try to control a high pass, but McKenna swooped to steal possession on his own 10-metre line. With the visitors all pressing forward, the New Zealander had a clear run for an opportunist try, which he converted.
Buccs then made a further three changes in quick succession, all enforced, with Dan Keane coming in on the left wing for Callum Boland, McVeigh retuning to the back row for Rory Moloney, and Dean McMahon slotting in for Hopkins at scrumhalf. Gaughan gained some reward for this pressure with a 58th-minute penalty to tie the scores 20-20.
The final quarter provided thrills and scores aplenty. With both sides gambling on long passes, it was inevitable that further intercept scores would occur, and the alert Keane was next to profit as the Red Robins chased the game when he fastened on to a skipped pass to race in from the 22 for a 69th-minute try converted by Gaughan. Sutton then rejoined the fray in place of McVeigh.
Four minutes later, the Athlone side forced a scrum near halfway. The ball was flashed left to right to Rory O’Connor who hared down the flank to secure the bonus point try. Gaughan’s conversion was his only miss of the game, rebounding off the near upright, but Buccs now looked home and dry, 32-20 to the good.
But the homesters continued to battle and Rory White finished off decent play for a 77th-minute try which McKenna converted to set up a dramatic finish. With just five points separating the scores, UL Bohs chased a converted try needed to win, but again the swift harrying and eagle-eyed covering by Buccaneers was rewarded when O’Leary smartly read an intended pass near halfway and he surged forward to touch down between the posts for the Midlanders’ fifth try. Gaughan’s conversion to make it 39-27 was the final action of a lively affair.