Buccaneers travel to the Co Down foothills on Saturday where they square up to long-time league leaders Ballynahinch in the Ulster Bank League with this division 1B clash kicking off at Ballymacarn Park at 2.30pm. Buccs lost their opening day fixture against the northerners who, spurred on by the tragic deaths of Nevin Spence, his father Noel and brother Graham, played with passion and zeal to defeat the Pirates in a decent contest that really could have gone either way. Since then, Hinch have been on a mission to achieve promotion and are very much in the driving seat, nine points ahead of their nearest rivals UCD with just four rounds of matches remaining. Barring a calamity, they look certainties to go up at this stage.
However, Buccs can be counted on to put it up to the northerners at this elevated pitch where one can certainly feel a chill coming down from the nearby hills. The Athlone outfit may lack numbers and size compared to their main rivals in division 1B; nevertheless, they are not far off the mark as recent narrow away defeats to teams above them testify. Their schedule has not helped them either, this being their third successive away fixture againstthird, second, and now first-placed in that order! The dice are certainly loaded against the Pirates!
Buccs had an enforced rest last weekend due to the game against Belfast Harlequins being postponed as Quins claimed inability to travel in the adverse conditions up north. It seems to this writer that the match was postponed rather hastily, influenced perhaps by a weakened panel available to the Belfast outfit. Tullamore were able to journey north and play in nearby Portadown on Saturday while some Harlequins supporters, unaware that the game was deferred, were also not best pleased when they arrived at Dubarry Park on Saturday.
Hinch recruited strongly for this campaign, particularly from Ballymena with Blane McIlroy, Chris Carey and Roger McBurney now key figures in their squad. Michael Lawton joined from Dungannon and adds a placekicking potency to their side. Of course, Dungannon and especially Ballymena have suffered greatly as a consequence. Wily prop Chris Stevenson leads from the front with guile and grunt while Chris Napier and Paul Pritchard are two other fine forwards. Stuart Morrow and Aaron Ferris are two backs whose influence may need curbing.
Buccs are unlikely to make many changes although Diarmuid Higgins and Peter Reilly could be on from the start on this occasion. Eoghan Grace is doubtful while Shane Layden’s injury jinx continues this term. But, if Buccs are focused and disciplined from the start, keep their workrate high and error count low, then an absorbing encounter can unfold. Hinch have lost just once this season and that was, surprisingly, at Ballymacarn Park where Buccs have claimed a victory or two in recent seasons.