Buccaneers face AIB Cup holders Ballynahinch for the first time at home in Dubarry Park, Athlone, on December 5, when the sides clash in a crunch AIB League division 1B encounter kicking off at 2.30pm. Even though the season has not yet reached the halfway stage, this a game that both clubs absolutely must win.
Ballynahinch had a dream season last year culminating in promotion for the first time ever to division one. They won all round them in Ulster too as well as enjoying a memorable AIB Cup campaign that saw them defeat league champions Shannon away from home, overcome fancied Garryowen up north and then crowning it all with a tremendous and totally merited triumph over hot favourites Cork Constitution in the final here in Athlone. That was a superb all-round performance in front of hordes of “Hinch on tour” supporters.
However, last season’s success comes at a price. Other clubs are now not underestimating the Co Down side whilst the performances of Ireland U20 props Paddy McAllister and Davy McGregor has seen them more involved with Ulster this season with flanker Willie Faloon also getting more game time with the province. Their form has dipped, yet they were decidedly unfortunate when losing their grip on the Cup at the first hurdle against last season’s runners-up Con. They have also suffered narrow losses to Ballymena and Dungannon so are not, perhaps, too far off the mark although they prop up division 1B at the moment. Their only win to date was a gritty victory over Galwegians.
Outhalf Ryan Bambry has been their saviour many a time but he is also, frustratingly, an inconsistent placekicker. Indeed, his cup final performance maybe mirrored his endeavours, missing efforts early on that would have given Ballynahinch a comfortable platform but he came good when it mattered to seal a sweet and memorable success. He is also quite pacey and Buccs cannot afford to give him or influential scrumhalf Harry McAleese too much time or space. Fullback Jonny Cullen is another adroit runner but injury rules out exciting wing Aaron Ferris with Nevin Spence his likely replacement. Hinch’s pack was cohesive and superbly well-drilled last season with skipper Stuart Lamb driving his side on at No 8. Lock John Gunson and flanker Michael Graham are two key forwards in a pack that will miss the influence of injured Chris Napier but the Ulster side may be able to call on second rower Ed Donoghue, formerly of this parish who is now an Ulster regular.
Ballynahinch were in action last weekend when they gained revenge at Dungannon in the Ulster league while Buccaneers have had no match since their trip to Stevenson Park. Buccs fielded a quite depleted side that day due to injuries and the unavailability of Connacht contracted players. Alex Hayman and Adam Kennedy joined the injury list in that outing but mentors are hoping that they’ along with Paul Harte, JH Potgeiter and John O’Brien, will all be fit to return to the fray for this vital tie.
The Midlanders’ pack should be along expected lines with the strength and experience of Colm Rigney, Garreth Halligan, and Stephen Burke to bring the best out of Conor Higgins, Martin Staunton and Co.
Neither side can afford to lose further ground on the other clubs so this promises to be a real hell of a battle that is likely to be tight and, in boxing parlance, go the distance. Consequently, Buccs must maintain commitment, shape’ and discipline to the bitter end in this their final home league game of the year. Hopefully, the Pirates endeavours will provide some early Christmas cheer in this Tubbercurry Engineering sponsored match.