BUCCANEERS 21 SLIGO 19
10 points down with 4 minutes to play Buccaneers executed a ‘smash and grab’ to snatch Connacht Senior League glory when defeating Sligo 21-19 at well-attended Dubarry Park on Saturday. The visitors led from the 7th minute until Danny Qualter’s final move of the game try wrestled their dreams of adding to their solitary Senior League title from them in a thrilling climax to an absorbing duel worthy of the occasion.
Buccaneers made 3 changes from the side whose win at Corinthians ensured that this contest would be a winner takes all affair. Qualter’s availability, in place of Ryan O’Meara whose injury in that win ruled him out, was a big lift to the home pack. Shane Layden returned too in the centre with Eoin O’Reilly starting at scrumhalf. Playing conditions on a warm, bright afternoon were ideal for this much-anticipated joust.
The north-westerners were not phased by the occasion and, with their bigger pack imposing themselves on the proceedings, they worked their way into the home half where Darragh Feehily finished off this fine build-up play for a 7th minute try on the right with Euan Brown adding the conversion.
Ten minutes later it got even better for Sligo, who won this title for the first time just two seasons ago. Not for the first time in the contest, the Pirates had made promising headway but were turned over by aggressive Sligo defending. This forced a hurried Buccs pass which Calum Goddard intercepted and he hared along the stand side and seemed certain to score until Saul O’Carroll somehow made up considerable ground to halt his progress. However, the supporting Brown picked out Daire Byrne with a pinpoint crossfield kick and the outhalf’s conversion of Byrne’s try gave the hoops a 14-0 advantage before the end of the opening quarter.
It looked like getting even worse for the midlanders when Finn Bamber raced through to touchdown on 23 minutes but a touch-judge flagged an off the ball incident and a Buccaneers penalty was the outcome, with Michael Hanley opening the homesters’ account with the resultant placekick. End to end rugby continued to the interval with Hanley slotting over his second penalty with the final kick to reduce the Shannonsiders arrears to 14-6.
Matters became much brighter for the hosts following the change of ends. Sligo’s hooker Shane O’Hehir was sin-binned for cumulative penalties by his side and dissent then brought the resultant penalty ten metres forward with Hanley drilling over the placekick just 3 minutes into the second period.
Buccs were now making better inroads through their backline and Orrin Burgess made a splendid charge upfield where Bamber was guilty of slowing possession illegally and incurring a yellow card for his efforts. Buccs now with a 2-player advantage camped in the Sligo 22 for a spell but errors hampered their endeavours, letting the visitors off the hook.
Amazingly, it was depleted Sligo who scored next. Brown thumped a long ball downfield to ease the mounting pressure on his side but Burgess was too leisurely clearing his lines. The young back was blocked down and Brown was swiftest to react and notch an opportunist unconverted try. This gave Sligo a 19-9 advantage with the game now in the final quarter.
Both sides were ringing the changes at this stage and the Athlone outfit had the stronger options off the bench. They continued to take the game to Sligo who remained defiant until that dramatic finish. With the stadium clock ticking towards 80 minutes (but several minutes still to be played due to stoppages) Buccaneers won a Sligo lineout throw on the right. The ball was moved crisply to Layden who charged forward, making big yardage before he sent O’Carroll scampering away for a splendid try on the left. Hanley matched the score with a fine penalty and now the arrears was down to 2 points.
Buccs now threw everything at the north-westerners who were wilting in the face of the sustained defensive work they had put in and the Pirates increased intensity. Composed and tidy interplay by the Athlonians eventually stretched Sligo to breaking point and a smashing pass to the left found Qualter in acres of space and the powerful No.8 romped through for the winning try. Hanley was unable to add this conversion but it mattered not a whit to Buccaneers who had now claimed their 13th Senior League title with their stirring climax.
It was tough to take for the visitors who led for so long, due in no small measure to their more driven approach but also assisted by home errors. However, they can be proud of their contribution to a thrilling decider and if they maintain this form they can anticipate a good season in the AIL. Brown and Kuba Wojtkowicz were their standout contributors.
Buccs efforts at more expansive play misfired on occasion and they did not nourish possession as often as they should. Yet they continued to bring the game to their opponents and persevered even when it looked like not being their day. This victory will provide the young players particularly with self belief, especially to keep going when the going is tough, and it also earns the Athlone club a semi-final berth in the Bateman Cup. Flyhalf Hanley was their best performer on the day with prominent assistance from Ruairi Byrne, Stephen Mannion, Qualter and Darren Browne.
The magnificent League trophy was presented by John Carr on behalf of Connacht Rugby to victorious skipper Martin Staunton after the game.
BUCCANEERS:- R.Fallon; O.Burgess, S.Layden, S.Mannion, S.O’Carroll; M.Hanley, E.O’Reilly; M.Staunton (captain), D.Browne, S.O’Connell; R.Byrne, F.Galvin; C.McCann, G.Daly and D.Qualter. Replacements:- F.McDonnell (for McCann, inj. 27 mins), J.Kelly (for O’Connell, 47 mins), C.Daly (for Browne, 60 mins), T.Shine (for Fallon, 60 mins), A.Flanagan (for O’Reilly, 60 mins) and S.O’Connell (for Staunton, 70 mins).
SLIGO:- E.Gavin; C.Goddard, F.Bamber, D.Byrne, D.Feehily; E.Brown, B.Cunningham; M.Earley, S.O’Hehir, T.Gormley; E.Ryan, C.Trimble; K.Wojtkowicz, J.O’Hehir and J.East (captain). Replacements:- B.West (for T.Gormley, inj. 29 mins), J.Gormley (for Trimble, h/t), M.Rooney (for Goddard, 44 mins), C.Trimble (for J.Gormley, 58 mins), B.Hynes (for S.O’Hehir, 70 mins) and A.Ward (for Cunningham, 70 mins).
Referee:- Shane Gaughan (Connacht).