Buccaneers are Ulster Bank League Division 1B champions following their 30-23 victory over Naas in a thrilling and intensely competitive top of the table clash in front of a big crowd at Dubarry Park, Athlone.
Buccs got off to a flying start and then held their nerve when Naas fought back to tighten the arrears to three points. Promotion for the Midlanders is now assured with two rounds of fixtures remaining. They are the first club in the five divisions to be certain of their title as they return to the top flight after an absence of 10 seasons.
Buccaneers made five changes from the side that suffered a rare defeat away to UCC last time out. Alan Gaughan returned at fly-half after injury while Mata Fifita and Eoghan O’Reilly started in the centre and on the wing respectively. Simon Meagher also returned from injury at lock with Rory Moloney resuming after his red card against Dolphin. Naas were unchanged from the side that overcame Shannon in the previous round.
The game was, arguably, won and lost in the opening quarter when Buccs went on a scoring salvo to steam 20-0 ahead. Naas refused to give up and battled their way into an absorbing duel, reducing their arrears to 23-20 on the hour mark. However, the Pirates were that bit stronger, more accurate and more composed in a highly competitive encounter. They were quicker into their stride with Alan Gaughan landing a straightforward sixth-minute penalty. Four minutes later, Buccs pressure forced another infringement and Gaughan duly slotted this long-range between the uprights.
Then Jordan Conroy struck for a quickfire brace of tries. Buccs won possession in midfield and promptly got the ball to the young speedster and he accelerated away along the flank for a 14th-minute try. Five minutes later, the Pirates turned over ball from Naas on the home 22 and again got it swiftly to Conroy who turned on his turbo to leave the visiting defence trailing in his wake once more for another smashing try. Both touchdowns were wide on the left, but Gaughan had his radar very much in working order as he added two super conversions for a 20-point advantage by the end of the first quarter.
Naas were reeling at that stage, but Peter Osborne opened their account with a 26th-minute penalty. Gaughan’s only miss followed 10 minutes later when former Naas hooker John Sutton was tackled off the ball. Buccs had dropped their tempo either side of half time and the Leinster side grabbed a lifeline two minutes before the interval. They punted a penalty to the left and, following good lineout possession won near the home 10 metre line, the ball was slipped to Osborne. The fullback should have been shunted into touch, but he darted down the blindside to score a try that he could not convert from the left, but it reduced Buccs’ advantage to 20-8 at the break.
Five minutes into the second half, David Benn stretched over the home line for another unconverted Naas try before Gaughan steadied the Pirates ship with a 58th-minute penalty. However, following the restart, Conor McKeon’s attempted clearance was blocked down and Paulie Tolofua pounced for an opportunistic try in the right corner. Osborne’s conversion left just three points between the teams, 23-20 to the Midlanders as the cracking contest entered the final quarter.
But Buccaneers held their nerve in the pacey exchanges and Conroy completed his hat-trick of tries when Eoin Griffin sent him off on a run that left Fionn Carr, Johne Murphy, and Peter Howard chasing a shadow to touchdown at the posts after 70 minutes for his 17th try of the campaign. Gaughan’s conversion gave the Pirates a 10-point cushion which was enough to steer them to the title and promotion. Osborne completed the scoring with a late penalty that earned Naas a losing bonus point that could yet prove crucial as they chase the play-off berth.
This was another terrific team effort in a splendid season. Buccs have extended their lead at the top of the table to an uncatchable 16 points and due credit is extended to the full squad and mentors, particularly head coach Brett Wilkinson.