BUCCANEERS take on holders Sligo in an intriguing Connacht Cup clash on Saturday when, due to the France v Ireland Six Nations match, the action at Dubarry Park kicks off at the earlier than usual time of 1 p.m. This will be a tough test for the Pirates as Sligo have been steadily improving in recent seasons while Buccs will, on this occasion, likely be minus their Academy players. So fine margins may well decide this contest which could be played in a contrast of styles.

Sligo have some Latin flavour in their backline where South American internationals Guilherme Coghetto and Stefano Giantorna will pose a threat while Josh Reeves or Euan Brown are highly reliable place-kickers. This has helped the north-westerners to a comfortable mid-table position in Division 2B of the All-Ireland League where they will still harbour hopes of making the play-offs. When the teams met at Hamilton Park in the very first competitive fixture after a near two-year pandemic lockdown, Sligo’s powerful pack that has a further cosmopolitan flavour in Pedro Bengalo and Kuba Wotjtkowicz dominated as the north-westerners prevailed 43-10.

But that was last August when Buccs fielded a callow squad and the midlanders have improved immeasurably in the interim as they too chase a top four berth in 2A. They will look to Evan Galvin, Danny Qualter, Tabo Maree, Ruairi Byrne, Martin Staunton and Rory Grenham to lead in the forwards battle. Here Darren Browne, James Kelly, Cian McCann, Sean O’Connell, Sam Kroupa, Nato Kiripati and Brian McDonnell will be vying to start in the pack. If they provide sufficient decent ball, then Ruaidhri Fallon, Stephen Mannion, Michael Hanley and the wily Shane Layden will ask questions of the visitors’ defence. Thomas McGann, Harry Hughes, Ross Murphy-Sweeney and Thomas Shine have pace and potential to profit from possession while there will be an internal duel between Eoin O’Reilly and Graham Lynch for the key scrumhalf role. So, despite various absences, Buccs now have some options and strength in depth and the recently returned Ryan O’Meara could feature.

Sligo have a habit of starting each half with intensity which the Athlone players must match. If they do that, and avoid getting sucked into an arm wrestle, then the Pirates can advance to a final meeting against Ballina on St. Patrick’s Day. Meanwhile supporters are again reminded that Saturday’s kick-off is at 1 p.m.