For the second successive match, Buccaneers lost by a solitary point, as Ballymena held on in an exciting finish to win Saturday evening’s Ulster Bank League Division 1B game 15-14 at Dubarry Park.
Buccs had several changes from the previous week’s loss at Dolphin, with only one of their six players involved in the Connacht Eagles midweek match starting.
Stalwarts Alex Hayman and Garreth Halligan were involved for the hosts at out-half and hooker respectively with Ruairi Byrne coming in at lock and Paul Gallogly at number eight. Conor Lowndes made his first start at scrum-half as did Evan Galvin at openside flanker. Ballymena had three changes, all in the pack where they could call on Ulster duo John Andrew and Alan O’Connor, and the more settled northerners dominated territory in the first half during which they had the benefit of the slight breeze.
A couple of grubber kicks in the opening quarter caused unease in the home ranks, but Lowndes and Galvin retrieved both situations for Buccs, the latter outpacing Matthew Harkness following a mazy Martin Irwin run. O’Connor then did well to deal with a teasing Alan Gaughan kick when Lowndes was unlucky not to snaffle possession before the first real opportunity of the game came to the visitors.
However, Ritchie McMaster drilled a straight-forward penalty from in front of the home posts on the 22 wide of the target on 28 minutes. Within three minutes, the out-half found the target with a penalty after Buccs strayed offside.
After a quiet opening half hour, the exchanges livened up considerably and Buccs responded following the opening score. Quick hands got possession to Gaughan and his clever kick over the cover was gathered by Rory O’Connor for his sixth try of the campaign after 33 minutes. Gaughan’s conversion from wide on the right faded past the far upright. Two minutes before half-time, a great drive by the Braidmen’s pack was finished off for a try wide on the left by Glenn Baillie. Although McMaster failed to convert, Ballymena led 8-5 at the interval.
Despite losing both winger O’Connor and lock Michael Mannion to injury late in the first half, Buccaneers took the game to Ballymena on the change of ends. Rory Moloney came on in the backrow where Stephen McVeigh moved to number eight and Gallogly switched to the second row. The scores were level on 44 minutes with Gaughan landing a fine penalty and he was unlucky seven minutes later when his drop goal attempt went narrowly wide.
Just before the hour mark Ballymena punted a penalty to the left corner and, after winning good possession from the lineout, the Ulster side drove over the home line where David Whann knocked on as he attempted to ground the ball. Buccs’ respite was brief as, from the resultan 5-metre scrum, they were driven off the ball and this time the visitors made no mistake with Matthew Rea touching down for a 59th minute try. Andrew McGrath added a fine conversion for a 15-8 advantage.
But Buccs were now taking the game to their opponents and, six minutes later, Gaughan slotted over a penalty after the joint leaders went offside. A further six minutes on and Gaughan notched another penalty to leave just the minimum between the teams. Buccs battled on commendably, but Ballymena had the best two late chances. Substitute McGrath was wayward with a 76th-minute drop goal effort and was then short with a kickable penalty in the final minute.
Ballymena remain in second place, one point behind leaders St Mary’s College, and they had key contributions from backs Baillie, Irwin and Rodger McBurney with O’Connor and Rea effective in the bulkier visiting pack. Meanwhile Buccs helped by a losing bonus point retain fifth position in the league table and Galvin, showing no rustiness after his injury impressed, while McVeigh, Martin Staunton and Byrne did well. Buccs scrambled well defensively with Ben Carty, Eoghan O’Reilly, and Callum Boland prominent in the backline.