A tremendous first half display against the elements laid the foundation for Buccaneers 25-17 victory over Cashel in their Energia All-Ireland League Division 2A promotion semi-final played in front of a bumper attendance including many Buccs supporters at Spafield, Cashel, on Saturday. Both teams bore little resemblance to the side’s that fulfilled their final league fixture at the same ground just a fortnight ago. Indeed there were just two survivors on each starting XV with the two Aidans – Butler and O’Connor featuring in the home pack while Michael Hanley and Ruairi Byrne retained their positions at fly-half and lock respectively for the Pirates. The sand-based pitch was in perfect condition for this crunch encounter with a strong breeze blowing from end to end being the only unsettling matter for the contestants. Prior to the kick-off one minute’s silence was observed in memory of recently deceased Buccaneers stalwart Pat Hynes.

Cashel had first benefit of the influential breeze but Cian Mullane was unable to harness it for a central 5th minute penalty after Buccs were guilty of slowing the ball illegally. The visitors were on the defensive but were not found wanting in the opening exchanges and 8 minutes had passed before they made ground of any note but Declan Adamson was isolated on his foray. Nonetheless, the midlanders drew first blood just 4 minutes later when, after Danny Qualter had won lineout possession on Buccs ten metre line, Oisin McCormack romped forward before off-loading to the supporting Will Reilly and the scrumhalf raced away to touch down at the posts for a try converted by Hanley.

Lots of the play took place in the visitors’ half yet outside their 22 but Buccaneers defence was well up to the challenges particularly that posed by the home pack. They extended their lead at the end of the opening quarter, Hanley striking a fine penalty into the tricky wind. Sam Illo was the next Buccaneer to make serious progress but support was tardy in arriving. Nevertheless, the Athlone standard bearers were now making yardage more readily and they forced Cashel into a bit of a muddle at their left corner flag where the hosts struggled to clear their lines. Buccs seized the opportunity presented and, following a five-metre scrum and several sallies towards the Reds line, the ball was flashed wide to the opposite flank where Saul O’Carroll powered over for an unconverted 27th minute try and a 15-0 lead.

Cashel were coming off second best in the collisions with Byrne putting in a thumping tackle to halt a homesters’ raid while Josh O’Connor made a notable catch as the Munster men sought to retrieve the situation. They finally got a breakthrough following a sustained attack with Niall Fitzgerald grounding the ball to get his side on the scoreboard. Following a brief flare-up, Ruaidhri Fallon was yellow-carded for an earlier tip tackle. Mullane’s missed conversion kick was the final action of the half after which Buccaneers led 15-5 but Cashel had just been thrown a lifeline.

Following the change of ends, Hanley did not allow enough for the swirling breeze with a 47th minute penalty from the ten-metre line. Three minutes later Evan Galvin escaped censure when not retreating ten metres as he tackled Josh Pickering following the home scrumhalf’s quickly tapped penalty. Buccs then showed their defensive mettle to hold their line intact and earned a relieving penalty which Hanley drilled to half-way. From the lineout the ball was swiftly into the hands of Ciaran Booth and he stormed through from 40 metres to touchdown at the uprights. Hanley added the conversion to push the Pirates advantage to 22-5 with half an hour remaining.

But Cashel did not cave in despite their 17 points deficit and within 3 minutes a powerful maul put Buccs in reverse and they could not prevent Ciaran Ryan breaking away to notch an unconverted try on the left. Within another 3 minutes the midlanders opted for a penalty but Mannion’s long-range effort from well inside his own half was narrowly off-target.

Further hard work by the home pack yielded a second similar try by prop and Mullane finally got his range right to narrow Cashel’s arrears to 22-17. This set up the promise of a grandstand finish and really got the home support in full voice. Buccs were not having it all their own way but mounted a serious raid just after the hour mark in which they seemed to get over the home line. The referee’s signalling was not clear in this incident but the outcome was no try for the visitors! However, Buccaneers steadied their ship and Hanley struck a real beauty on 69 minutes, his penalty proving the final score. Then substitute Darren Browne’s impetuosity cost him a visit to the sin bin with 4 minutes to go but Buccs had the composure and wherewithal to see out the game.

The better team advanced to next Saturday’s promotion final as Cashel mainly one-dimensional style was not enough to overcome the Athlone side who were recording their third win this season over their Tipperary rivals. Buccs tackling was crisp and committed while their lineout work was sublime but they got sucked in on occasions during the second half into playing the game the way the home side preferred. However, they met fire with fire in the forwards exchanges and the Shannonsiders backline was the more potent unit. The Pirates may have felt that the job was done when leading at the interval and perhaps, with the elements in their favour following the change of ends, felt that matters would be straight-forward. That is an attitude that cannot be repeated at The Dub next weekend.

Nevertheless, this was a pretty decent all-round effort by the Athlone team with Booth, Adamson and Qualter most prominent in the forwards’ battle. Defensively Buccs were generally rock solid with Mannion and Shane Layden strong in the centre while Reilly was a busy link at scrumhalf. Mickey Wilson, Ciaran Ryan and Fearghaill O’Donoghue gave it their all in the home pack while Alan McMahon was their key threat in the backline.

CASHEL:- S.McMahon; R.Kingston, A.McMahon, B.Murray, C.Cashman; C.Mullane, J.Pickering; C.Ryan, N.Fitzgerald, B.Ryan; R.Moran, A.Butler; A.O’Connor, F.O’Donoghue and M.Wilson. Replacements:- B.Crosse (for Butler, inj. 31 mins), J.Blair (for O’Connor, 42 mins), M.Hickey (for Pickering, 60 mins), A.Dunne (for Kingston, 68 mins), L.Shine (for Moran, 69 mins), D.O’Neill (for Mullane, 69 mins), M.Kelly (for Fitzgerald, 73 mins) and C.O’Donnell.

BUCCANEERS:- R.Fallon; J.O’Connor, S.Layden, S.Mannion, S.O’Carroll; M.Hanley, W.Reilly; C.Ward, D.Adamson, S.Illo; R.Byrne, D.Qualter; O.McCormack, E.Galvin (captain) and C.Booth. Replacements:- F.Hopkins (for Reilly, 60 mins), J.Kelly (for Ward, 63 mins), T.Maree (for Qualter, 63 mins), M.Staunton (for Illo, 66 mins), D.Browne (for Adamson, 66 mins), C.McCann (for McCormack, 73 mins), D.Adamson (for McCann, 76 mins), G.Lynch and T.Shine.

Referee:- Henry Richmond (IRFU).