Buccaneers regained leadership of the Energia All-Ireland League Division 1B with a fully deserving 31-24 victory over St. Mary’s College in front of a big attendance at Dubarry Park on Saturday.
In a reversal of their display at Banbridge, the Pirates hit the ground running and took early control of the proceedings scoring two converted tries in the opening seven minutes in this Russell Brennan Keane sponsored fixture. With the bonus point in the bag early in the second half the margin of victory should have been a lot more comprehensive but a final quarter St. Mary’s revival earned the visitors a losing bonus point and made it an unnecessarily nervous finish for home supporters.
Buccs made a quartet of personnel changes with Shane Layden returning in the centre while Michael Hanley switched to his best position in the absence of fly-half Harry West, who is in the Ireland U20 squad. Team captain Martin Staunton resumed at tighthead prop with Oisin McCormack and Ciaran Booth coming in to the back row.
In murky but mild weather, Buccaneers kicked off towards the clubhouse goal and promptly took the lead. Saul O’Carroll got up swiftly to block down an attempted clearance and the homesters pinned back the Blues with Ruairi Byrne’s lineout catch setting a clinical attack in motion in which Layden’s awareness saw him loft a deft angled kick to the Bounty corner where Josh O’Connor swooped for his 10th try of the campaign after just one minute and twenty seconds on the stadium clock. Hanley slotted over a fine conversion from the right.
Michael O’Gara opened the visitors’ account with a fourth minute penalty but Buccs were 14-3 ahead within a further 4 minutes. The metropolitans were caught offside in midfield and Hanley made good yardage to touch on the left with the penalty. A formidable maul followed with Steveni Lombard applying the finishing touch and Hanley added the conversion.
These early scores lifted the gloom from last week’s setback and the brightness of Buccs attacking play matched the arrival of some sunshine. The midlanders had to show defensive steel for a period as St Mary’s probed inside the home 22 before regaining their momentum with Booth waltzing his way through for a 25th minute try converted by Hanley.
The Dublin side struck back nine minutes later, Conor Dean’s clever chip over the cover bouncing favourably for Conor Hickey to dot down for a try converted by O’Gara. The visitors conceded a growing number of penalties as the half progressed and referee Stuart Gaffikin saw fit to speak to Dean, who had assumed the captain’s role following the earlier withdrawal through injury of Ronan Watters. Yet in the final move of the half when Buccs were denied a try scoring opportunity by an apparent deliberate knock on, the referee blew for halftime with the Pirates 21-10 to the good.
Nevertheless within moments of the change of ends, that lead was stretched further with Buccs carving out a bonus point try. Shane Jennings, Layden and O’Carroll combined in a blistering attack down the left flank that should have yielded a try that was held out just short of the visitors’ line. However, the Shannonsiders recycled possession calmly and Hanley delivered a perfect crossfield kick to the opposite flank where O’Connor spun around two tacklers to notch his second try of the match. Hanley added a terrific conversion of this bonus point try from near the touchline to push Buccs 28-10 ahead.
A comfortable home victory looked most likely at this stage, especially when Blues backrower Ethan Baxter was yellow carded for an ill-judged 45th minute tackle. But despite ground-making forays by Cian McCann and Stephen Mannion, Buccs did not add to their tally and the visitors got back into the contest when O’Gara applied the finishing touch following a 57th minute maul and he duly added the conversion.
A high tackle on Layden by Hickey earned a central penalty which Hanley slotted over after 63 minutes but Buccaneers failed to reimpose themselves on the proceedings and O’Carroll had to put in a try-saving tackle on Adam McEvoy near the right corner. Six minutes from time, Daniel Leane’s quickly tapped penalty brought St. Mary’s close to the home line where O’Gara poached another self-converted try to leave just seven points between the teams.
The Blues sensed an unlikely share of the spoils but Buccaneers defended well in the closing stages, crunching tackles by Layden and McCann ensuring that the Pirates held firm to prevail 31-24 after an entertaining and competitive tussle. Booth was named Audi Athlone ‘Man of the Match’ and young McCann was surely a strong contender too for this honour. Will Reilly had one of his best outings in Buccs colours in the backline where O’Connor continues to display his try-scoring ability with 11 to date. Dean and Hickey were St. Mary’s chief threats for whom the losing bonus point was not enough to make ground for the play-offs but Buccaneers bonus point win, coupled with City of Armagh’s loss at resurgent Old Belvedere, sees the Athlone club reclaim top spot on points difference.
One minute’s silence was observed prior to kick-off in memory of the late Peter Layden, father of Buccaneers centre Shane.
BUCCANEERS:- S.Jennings; J.O’Connor, S.Layden, S.O’Carroll; M.Hanley, W.Reilly; M.Burke, S.Lombard, M.Staunton (captain ); R.Byrne, D.Qualter; O.McCormack, C.McCann and C.Booth. Replacements:- R.O’Meara (for McCormack, h/t ), J.Kelly (for Burke, 53 mins ), O.Dolan (for Lombard, 55 mins ), S.Lombard (for O’Meara, 70 mins ), M.Burke (for Staunton, 70 mins ), F.McDonnell, T.Shine and R.Murphy-Sweeney.
Buccs Host Queen’s in All-Ireland Semi-Final
Buccaneers renew their recent rivalry with Queen’s University when the sides clash in the All-Ireland semi-final of the Bateman Cup at Dubarry Park on Saturday, the action kicking-off at the earlier than usual time of 12.30pm.
The Athlone club pipped Queen’s for promotion from 2A last season with a dramatic one point victory at The Dub. The Belfast outfit are again pacesetters in their division and will surely go up this season. Meanwhile, the Pirates are the surprise packets in 1B as they too top their division.
Bewilderingly to this scribe, it seems that Buccaneers will go in to an All-Ireland semi-final without any of their Connacht Academy representatives who are apparently on ‘time out’, but the Pirates must deal with that and it will give a real opportunity to fringe players to stake their claims for future selection.