BUCCANEERS suffered a chastening 40-8 defeat to Queen’s University when the Energia All-Ireland League recommenced after the mid-season break. This was a most disappointing outcome to what had been a terrific Division 2A duel contested at Dubarry Park on Saturday. The match was in the balance until past the hour mark but then Queen’s showed why they are clear table toppers when they scored 4 tries in the final quarter hour to extend their lead at the top of the leaderboard. It was nip and tuck for an hour but the Ulster side were clinical when chances, too often through home errors, presented themselves while Buccs toiled to gain reward from a fair share of good territory and possession.

Both teams made four changes from their pre-Christmas meeting in Belfast, both evenly divided between backs and forwards. Saul O’Carroll was fit to resume on the left wing for the hosts who gave Eoin O’Reilly the nod at scrumhalf. Oisin McCormack returned at blindside flanker and Sam Illo made his first start at tighthead prop. The northerners gave starts to Simon McMaster and Ben Power in their backline with Lorcan McLoughlin and George Saunderson coming into their pack where David Whitten switched to No.8.

On a dull afternoon with a light breeze Buccs got a tonic start. The visitors knocked on the kick-off and the hosts quickly forced a penalty which Michael Hanley nailed after just 2 minutes. Within 6 minutes the lead changed hands when, following a scrum in midfield, Queen’s moved the ball smartly to the stand side where Simon McMaster drew the final defender before sending Michael Orr in for a try converted by Ritchie McMaster.

Buccs responded swiftly when McCormack and Ciaran Booth made strong carries following a penalty to the left touch and O’Carroll finished off this phase with another typically well-taken try in the corner. Hanley’s conversion was narrowly off-target but the Pirates led 8-7. That advantage, however, lasted just two minutes with Queen’s again making ground on the left before McLoughlin finished off this fine move for a try to the right of the goalposts. Ritchie McMaster duly added the conversion. The College side then stretched Buccs just before the first water break but O’Carroll put in a good tackle near the corner flag. Shortly afterwards Shane Layden had to be steadfast to halt the ever-dangerous Orr.

Next it was Buccaneers turn to threaten with Illo and Booth combining to make good ground leading to a 30th minute penalty that Hanley punted to the left. From the lineout the homesters moved the ball quickly infield where Ben Heath’s deliberate knock-on earned the centre ten minutes in the sin bin. The midlanders now piled forward, camped in the visitors’ 22, but lacked precision and cuteness to unlock committed defending by the Students although it took a 33rd minute try-saving tackle by Power to deny O’Carroll a second try. O’Carroll was injured in this incident and Thomas McGann was shunted into touch moments later within touching distance of the Queen’s line. The on-going pressure saw Conor McMenamin yellow carded for obstruction but the visitors somehow hung on to their 14-8 advantage after a first half that was a great advertisement for club rugby.

Five minutes into the second half Stephen Mannion’s long-range penalty was off-target while Conor McKee’s placekick for the visitors from half-way rebounded off an upright. On the hour mark there was a clearcut forward pass in a Queen’s move that led to a penalty but justice was served when McMaster’s kick went wide. With the game still finely balanced, Donegal man McMenamin was a shade fortunate not to incur a second yellow card following an untidy tackle that stopped McCormack’s progress. Buccs pressed forward after the resultant penalty and looked sure to score a try as they stretched the Ulstermen from side to side but a telegraphed and unwise long pass was picked off by James Humphreys (son of David) and the substitute raced over 80 metres to score an unconverted try that took the wind out of the Pirates sails. This was the score that turned the tide against the home crew.

Buccs now capitulated and Queen’s added a further three tries in the closing stages. An impressive 70th minute maul was finished off by Chris Poole with McMaster landing the conversion. Three minutes later two home players dithered and allowed the ball to hop and Hanley’s scrambling effort to pass was fastened on to by Heath for a try converted by Humphreys. It was now all going awry for the hosts and Robbie Johnston notched his side’s sixth try with Humphreys conversion completing the 40-8 scoreline.

This was Queen’s third visit to Athlone where they have prevailed each time. While the winning margin flattered them on this occasion they were nevertheless the better outfit, being smarter and sharper when it mattered. The versatile Whitten is a key cog in their play and McLoughlin was their outstanding performer. Meanwhile his opposite No.6 McCormack was Buccs best operator and he was a deserving winner of the Audi Athlone Man of the Match accolade. Booth had another decent outing in the forwards exchanges while O’Carroll’s injury robbed the Shannonsiders of their main scoring threat. Buccaneers are not that far off what is necessary at this level but need stronger on-field leadership plus more patience and ruthlessness inside the opposition’s 22. The margin of this defeat did not truly reflect their contribution to this absorbing contest.

BUCCANEERS:- R.Fallon; T.McGann, S.Layden, S.Mannion, S.O’Carroll; M.Hanley, E.O’Reilly; M.Staunton, D.Browne, S.Illo; R.Byrne, D.Qualter; O.McCormack, E.Galvin (captain) and C.Booth. Replacements:- T.Shine (for O’Carroll, inj. 32 mins),W.Reilly (for O’Reilly, h/t), D.Adamson (for Browne, h/t), J.Kelly (for Staunton, 53 mins), T.Maree (for Byrne, 57 mins), M.Staunton (for Illo, 70 mins) and R.Byrne (for Qualter, 73 mins).

QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY:- M.Orr; S.McMaster, B.Heath, R.Johnston, B.Power; R.McMaster, C.McKee; G.Saunderson, H.Long, M.Millar; N.Philipson, C.McMenamin; L.McLoughlin, C.Pollock and D.Whitten (captain). Replacements:- A.McGrath (for S.McMaster, 26 mins), C.Poole (for Long, 50 mins), A.Lupari (for Millar, 50 mins), J.Humphreys (for McGrath, 52 mins), P.McAlpine (for Saunderson, 57 mins) and A.McGrath (for Philipson, 70 mins).

Referee:- John Flynn (IRFU).