Buccaneers face Shannon in the last round of the Ulster Bank League Division 1B fixtures in Limerick on Saturday in a match that is of utmost importance to both clubs.
Buccs currently lie in the final promotion playoff berth, three points ahead of Old Wesley, and a win or draw for the Pirates will seal that spot for the following weekend’s playoff semi-finals.
Destiny is in the Midlanders’ own hands and a cursory look at the league table might indicate that Buccs should readily progress. However, closer inspection will reveal that Shannon, although seemingly secure in sixth place, will be fighting desperately to preserve their Division 1B status.
Although Belfast Harlequins are already relegated, just two points separates the four teams above them - including Shannon. The nine-times champions will certainly not wish to slip up on home soil on Saturday and their proud history will ensure that they will battle to avoid slipping into a relegation mire.
They are level on 34 points with Dolphin, who are away to champions St Mary’s College, while UL Bohemian and Blackrock College are tied on 32 points. Both of these clubs are away to Dublin opposition, UL against Old Wesley and Rock at neighbours Dublin University. Although home wins look likely there, Shannon cannot rely on results going their way, so Buccaneers can expect a rousing challenge from Marcus Horan’s charges.
Shannon lost their opening four fixtures but bounced back to win the next quartet. They climbed the league table in the mid section of the fixtures list but have slumped to five successive defeats in their last handful of matches, which has seen them slide back into the danger zone. Inconsistency seems to be their major problem. However, they have quality players in their squad, particularly their backline where Greg O’Shea and Stephen Fitzgerald are really exciting young players.
Tadhg Bennett, Richie Mullane, and David O’Donovan provide a wealth of experience in this sector, where Shane Airey, Ronan McKenna, Will Leonard, and Dave Evans are all decent operators when in the mood. The Munster side has not always been able to field a settled pack, but Frank Bradshaw-Ryan, Conor Glynn, Tony Cusack, and skipper Lee Nicholas are promising forwards.
Meanwhile, a good run of form since the start of the year has seen Buccaneers renew their promotion aspirations. The Athlone side’s backline is an exciting and enterprising unit that can also put in the hard defensive duties. Rory O’Connor is the division’s leading try scorer while fly-half Conor McKeon has been mightily impressive in steering the back line.
Conor Finn has forged an impressive centre pairing with Ben Carty since his return after a lengthy injury lay-off, while versatile duo Alan Gaughan and Callum Boland have been hugely consistent throughout the season. Conor Lowndes and Graham Lynch continue to battle for the scrumhalf berth while Eoghan O’Reilly and Alex Hayman are strong options in the backline. Shane Layden has been putting in a massive effort following his cruciate injury last September and is close to returning to match action.
The Pirates pack has been steadily impressive in the second half of the season, with Kolo Kiripati repeatedly turning back the clock at No 8 and Cian Romaine growing in importance for Buccs at lock where Danny Qualter’s power and experience, although he is still only in his early 20s, can prove crucial come Saturday. Rory Moloney puts in a tremendous amount of work, while Evan Galvin is growing in confidence in his first full season at this level.
In the front row captain Martin Staunton continues to put his body on the line. Saba Meunargia has benefited noticeably from a settled run in the front row where hooker Shane Delahunt can be a key contributor against Shannon.
Head coach Brett Wilkinson can also call on forwards Rory Grehan, Michael Mannion, Paul Gallogly, Cilliene Walsh, Ruairi Byrne, and Garreth Halligan, so he has decent alternatives despite the absence of Stephen McVeigh and Jacob Walshe.
Buccs must grant Shannon due respect, be prepared to work hard as a team and be disciplined for as long as it takes to earn the spoils.