Buccaneers square up to recent conquerors Dungannon in their final home game of this season’s Ulster Bank League when the sides renew acquaintance at Dubarry Park, Athlone, on Saturday afternoon, March 26. Kick off for this Division 1B encounter is 2.30pm.
These clubs served up a highly entertaining contest at Stevenson Park just a few weeks ago when Dungannon pipped the midlanders on a 28-25 scoreline. The home win assured the northerners of Division 1B status for next season while Buccs, who collected a pair of bonus points, retain second place on the league table with just two series of fixtures remaining. They are now four points ahead of closest challengers Lansdowne for the second automatic promotion berth so it looks down to the wire again for Buccaneers for the third season in a row, albeit this year the Pirates are happily chasing promotion and not trying to avoid relegation as they did successfully for the previous two campaigns.
Buccaneers face Lansdowne (who travel to Bruff on Saturday ) in a final showdown so they simply must defeat Dungannon in Athlone to keep their edge on the Dublin club. Much may depend on Dungannon’s attitude on Saturday. The Tyrone side are safely nestled in mid-table and may not have the desire they demonstrated when overhauling Buccs twice in the final quarter to take the spoils last time out. Nevertheless, they have their pride as well as some immensely promising players such as back three Conor Gaston, Chris Cochrane, and Michael Lawton who kept Buccs on their toes. Add Ireland u20s Patrick Jackson and the exciting Craig Gilroy to that mix and the Ulster club has a pretty potent backline. They have a tidy pack too with Ali Birch, Rowan Halsall, and Adam Duhig all handy operators, so Buccs will need to be fully focussed and committed throughout.
For their part, Buccs will be hoping that Daniel Qualter will feature after his Ireland u20 heroics while the availability of Colin Watters is uncertain at time of writing. The dynamic flanker is lined up, apparently, for ‘best man’ duties at a wedding on Saturday and, indeed, he missed the away game due to the stag that preceded the forthcoming nuptials! Bill Shankly would never have approved of such distractions on match days! Watters generally goes where angels fear to tread on the pitch and his guile and cunning were dearly missed up north despite a decent input from Eoin Rooney. Buccs lacked the killer instinct on that outing when they led twice in the second half but did not close the game out, enabling Dungannon to grab a late winning try. This time Garreth Halligan, Kolo Kiripati, Clifford Richardson, and Stephen Burke must get the upper hand in the forwards’ battle and maintain it to the bitter end.
Buccaneers backline has tons of potential too. Fullback John O’Brien has been busy with the Ireland Club International XV who won both their games on recent weekends. Jack Carty, Paul Harte, and Conor Lavelle are other young talented performers who surely have much to look forward to on the playing fields. However, Adam Kennedy sustained a nasty injury in Connacht A’s win over their Leinster counterparts last Friday and is surely ruled out of Saturday’s fray. David Connellan would, however, be an accomplished direct replacement. Home supporters will look to the power of Shane Monahan and guile of Aidan Wynne or Alex Hayman to lead their less experienced colleagues and the presence of Brian Touhy, if available, would be a decided advantage.
Buccaneers demonstrated that they had the wherewithal to overcome Dungannon last time out but were not as composed or clinical as perhaps they needed to be. First up tackling did not measure up to the high standards set in earlier matches but, with a three week break, these minor details will surely have been ironed out whilst the rest will have done the players a world of good in the interim. With a big home support roaring them on, the midlanders can forge the win they crave (and perhaps eke out a bonus point too ) that would give them the perfect platform for the final showdown.