Buccaneers face a tough opening test when the Ulster Bank League resumes on Saturday with the Midlanders heading north to Ballynahinch for a much-anticipated Division 1B joust at Ballymacarn Park. Buccs are then at home to Shannon on the following Saturday, which is also the Pirates’ family day.
Although ‘Hinch overcame Buccs in last season’s promotion/relegation match, the northerners lost their subsequent game to Dublin University and were thus relegated, leaving no Ulster club in the top flight. However, you can bet your bottom dollar that the Mourne men will be seeking to earn an immediate return to Division 1A and will be striving to be firing on all cylinders from the off.
Ballynahinch are top of their section of the Ulster Senior League following wins away to Dungannon (43-21 ) and home to Ballymena (31-11 ). They have a lot of new names in their match squads, captained this season by backrower Mike Graham. However, some of the more familiar names are likely to trot out on to this elevated pitch on Saturday. Hooker Johnny Murphy and backrowers Conor Joyce and Lorcan Dow have enjoyed some game time with Ulster as has fly-half Sam Windsor while scrumhalf Aaron Cairns is a notable Sevens player. Justin Rea, Stuart Morrow, and Davy Nicholson are capable backs, while Jordan Grattan looks a promising centre. John Donnan, Ben Pentland, and Jack Simpson could feature in the home pack.
Buccs will reflect on missed opportunities on their last visit to Ballymacarn Park. Player errors gifted the home side’s two first-half tries and the northerners were fortunate to lead 17-14 at half time before the Midlanders suffered a double whammy early in the second period. Following an incident 10 minutes after the break, Kolo Kiripati was surprisingly the only player singled out for a yellow card, and during his period in the sin bin ‘Hinch added a brace of tries. Then they looked a formidable outfit but, prior to that, the contest was very even.
That is in the past and Buccaneers too must hit the ground running on Saturday. They retained their Connacht Senior League title, winning the key encounter against Galwegians in decent style. Buccs should have the majority of last season’s squad available for this match, although Ben Carty, only recently returned from the USA, may not be considered - younger brother Luke could be included in the Pirates crew. Shane Layden made a welcome return to action after a lengthy injury lay-off for the previous visit to Ballynahinch and he is in flying form at the moment as are wingers Rory O’Connor and newcomer Jordan Conroy.
A hat-trick hero in that previous loss to ‘Hinch, Eoghan O’Reilly is also back from overseas and is a strong contender to start. Mata Fifita is another for whom last season was a nightmare due to injury but he is likely to start in the centre for the Midlanders. Conor McKeon or Graham Lynch with Alan Gaughan are the likely pairing at half-back and they must dictate the tempo and style of this contest.
Kiripati skippers the Pirates this season, his third time to captain Buccs, and he will look to influential efforts from his front row where Martin Staunton, Shane Delahunt, and Saba Meunargia look the key performers. New arrivals, prop Dylan Quinn and hooker John Sutton, can make an impact here too, although the latter is versatile and mobile so could feature in the back row where Stephen McVeigh and Evan Galvin look the likely starters as Rory Moloney could be needed by Connacht.
Ireland U20 prop, Conor Kenny, will surely make an impact when available. Cian Romaine, Ruairi Byrne, and James Foley are the main contenders in the second row. Rory Grenham, Ryan O’Meara, and Scott Flanagan will be challenging for front row berths.
Ballynahinch will provide Buccaneers with a serious challenge very early in the season. The Midlanders have a promising mix of flair and enterprise, pragmatism and grunt, guile, and spirit. If they play to their collective strengths and eliminate errors, then a sustained effort by the Athlone side can steer them to victory.