Buccaneers’ hopes of a top four finish were boosted while also consigning Corinthians to bottom place in Division 1B after a hard-fought Ulster Bank League encounter under the Clounacauneen floodlights on Friday night when the Pirates shaded the 17-14 verdict. A decent attendance braved a nippy night with intermittent showers for this Connacht derby and, while it lacked fluency, it was always committed and close.
Buccs made five changes from the sides’ meeting earlier in the season and also their most recent loss to Galwegians. Eoghan O’Reilly returned to the backline with David Heffernan, Daniel Qualter, Mata Fifita, and Stephen McVeigh beefing up the pack where Luke Satchwell was unavailable. Corinthians were also missing their regular No 8 Eoghan Masterson and fielded a complete new front row trio from their narrow win in Athlone.
The hosts had first benefit of the elements, but Buccs had the opening two opportunities, particularly a strong break and chip ahead by Shane Layden that almost unlocked the home cover. Corinthians settled into the contest in which the tackling was keen throughout and a lazy effort by Fifita earned them advantage in a dangerous position but, following a subsequent row, referee David Wilkinson reversed the award to the relief of the visitors. Buccs worked the line shortly afterwards with a penalty that was out of range before Callum Boland had to put in a telling tackle as Pat O’Toole tried to squeeze through a gap.
But when the westerners went offside early in the second quarter, Alan Gaughan judged his placekick to perfection to open the scoring with a 22nd-minute Buccs penalty from the left. Home supporters thought Joey Merrigan was through 10 minutes later, but the hooker had knocked on in gathering possession. However, they had plenty to cheer about in the closing stages as Corinthians made ground through a series of pick and goes until James Connolly carved a gap in the Buccs defence to score a try near the posts. Conor Murphy’s conversion with the final kick of the half put the host 7-3 ahead at the break.
Buccs were the brighter outfit on the restart and McVeigh made splendid ground down the left. Heffernan and Layden also made progress through the centre and a score for the Athlone side looked imminent, but they lost possession on 47 minutes and Miah Nikora almost caught them out when he hared away from his own 22. Full-back Layden was equal to the challenge and his tremendous chase overhauled the Connacht fly-half with Billy Henshaw winning a clearing penalty in the follow-up play.
Buccs scrum looked the stronger and, as the Pirates mauled menacingly into Corinthians territory, Merrigan infringed to incur a 50th-minute yellow card. Boland punted a pinpoint penalty to the right corner and, while it took some time, there was only going to be one outcome in this phase. The Shannonsiders piled on the pressure, opting for scrums from a series of penalties and, eventually, the referee lost patience with transgressions by the depleted home pack to award a 55th-minute penalty try which Gaughan converted 10-7 to Buccaneers who now looked like they would kick on with further scores.
But Corinthians had other ideas and a Nikora dummy was bought hook, line, and sinker by the visitors’ defence just four minutes later as the South Sea Islander darted in for a try, with Murphy’s conversion (going over via an upright ) restoring the homesters’ narrow advantage. This really stung Buccs and they set about redressing the situation as they now surged forward. The Midlanders seemed to have missed a really good chance on 68 minutes when they switched direction back infield although they had numbers wide on the right. They patiently went through the phases and recycled possession well to eventually stretch the home defence to breaking point and Cian Romaine powered over for a try wide on the left. Gaughan added a conversion to edge Buccaneers back in front.
Corinthians, desperately in need of points in their relegation battle, sensed a real opportunity following Kolo Kiripati’s sin binning and threw everything at the depleted visitors in the closing stages. However, this Pirates crew came to battle and defended with equal commitment, Henshaw making one shuddering tackle that sent the ball back 40 metres but also resulted in the game being stopped for some time as the brave back received on-field attention before being stretchered off. Corinthians finished the game tantalisingly close to the opposition line but, unlike last year, Buccaneers held on to the spoils.
Corinthians battled to the bitter end, with their shorter passing game being more effective at times. Nikora and particularly Connolly were a constant threat but they needed more than a losing bonus point. However, Buccaneer’s greater strength in depth on this occasion proved crucial, and they maintained a solid work ethic from start to finish. Their more adventurous passing style was not always prudent in the conditions but their commitment and industry could not be faulted. Jacob Walshe, Heffernan, Qualter and replacement Romaine made impacts in the forwards contest while Layden and Alex Hayman regularly tested the home defence.