Buccaneers were especially generous leaking three tries in a 23-8 Ulster Bank League Division 1B defeat against Ballymena at Dubarry Park, Athlone, on Saturday. This win strengthened the Northerners’ promotion push as they sit in second place in the league table. It also ensured the hosts' miserable home form continues as only one win has been posted to date this season. Ironically, the Pirates have lost just once on their travels, and they stay in fifth place in the standings.
Both teams were depleted due to Connacht Eagles and Ulster Ravens being in action. Buccs were hardest hit in this regard and, had also to make two late changes to their three-quarter line just before the start, had no less than nine absentees from their previous outing at UL Bohemian. They fielded a whole new front row trio while David Butler made his debut at centre in the much-changed squad.
Buccs did not help their cause making too many errors throughout including infringing right from the kick-off. Ritchie McMaster punted a first-minute penalty to touch in the left corner and, following the lineout, Ballymena mauled their way over the home line where skipper McComish finished off for a try. Just when the Pirates were settling into the game, Alex Hayman’s attempted clearance following a fine Eoghan O’Reilly mark was blocked down by Mulholland who pounced on the ball for an opportunist 12th minute try.
Ross Keller opened the home account with a 19th minute penalty for offside while McMaster was wide with a kick 12 minutes later. However he found the range within two minutes and then added another three minutes before half-time. The second of these followed a terrific break by Martin Irwin after which tackler O’Reilly was yellow-carded for not rolling away. Ballymena were again reprimanded for offside just before the interval but Keller’s tricky penalty with the final kick of the half tailed wide and thus Buccaneers trailed 3-16 at half-time.
McComish was held up at the home line shortly after the change of ends and Buccs generally had the better of exchanges in the third quarter without improving their position on the scoreboard. Butler made one promising break down the right flank and Billy Henshaw’s committed chase soon afterwards earned a foothold in the visitors’ territory.
Then further disaster befell Buccs on 63 minutes and effectively killed the game off as a contest. Callum Boland could not hold on to a kick ahead as the greasy ball squirmed from his grasp. His opposite number Sean Taylor could hardly believe his side’s continuing good fortune and he galloped in for a try at the posts with McMaster adding the conversion for a 23-3 advantage.
Buccaneers responded promptly with Kolo Kiripati surging through the centre to set up his team’s best sequence of the game. The ball was moved right and then back to the centre with Ballymena proving not as accommodating as the hosts until possession was switched to the left where O’Reilly dodged in for a 65th minute try. Keller, hampered by a leg strain sustained in the warm-up, could not convert.
The Braidman chased a winning bonus point and, after the Midlanders were guilty of crossing following the restart, the hosts did well to stop a Ballymena maul while Butler showed his defensive qualities to put in a solid tackle that spoiled an overlap for the Ulstermen. But it was the Athlone side who came closest to scoring on a number of occasions as Kiripati and Butler were both stopped just short while the visitors had substitute Dominic Gallagher in the sin bin.
Typical of Buccs misfortunes on the day, the attentions of two defenders caused luckless Boland to knock on as he endeavoured to dive on a grubber kick for a consolation try in the dying moments while Mark Dolan inexplicably kicked a penalty dead in the last action of the match.
McComish and Mulholland were influential for the winners as was McMaster’s use of the ball from hand. Buccaneers will point to a litany of missing personnel, but they need to be more pragmatic and precise when in possession. They also commenced the season of goodwill far too early in virtually gift-wrapping all three Ballymena tries. Home form will simply have to improve for the second half of the league campaign.