BUCCANEERS are the new Energia All-Ireland League Division 1B leaders following an impressive 35-18 victory away to Malone at Gibson Park, Belfast, on Saturday. The Pirates set the tempo from the off and were full value for their bonus point win that, allayed to UCC’s slip up at home to Naas, edges the midlanders to top spot on the league table.

Buccs made 4 changes in personnel, 3 enforced, from the home win over Old Belvedere. With Ciaran Booth, Oisin McCormack and Shane Jennings not available, Sean O’Connell, Cian McCann and Harry West came in to the starting XV where Frankie Hopkins returned at scrumhalf. Debutant West was his halfback partner with Michael Hanley switching to fullback while Danny Qualter moved to No.8.

Roadworks on the M1 in to Belfast caused long traffic tailbacks (but still moving a lot quicker than currently on the road at Bogganfin!) which delayed the arrival of the Buccs bus to east Belfast until just 45 minutes before kick-off. Nevertheless, the Pirates hit the ground running and were 13-0 ahead inside the opening quarter hour on a bright autumnal afternoon. Despite early morning rain the compact pitch was in near perfect condition.

Slick passing by the visitors earned a third minute penalty which Hanley converted to open the scoring. A couple of early Josh O’Connor flurries were a portent of what was to follow. West tidied up a kick ahead and sent O’Connor away up the left where his pace stretched the home defence. Drawing the fullback he off-loaded to Saul O’Carroll who evaded Stuart Dodington’s despairing tackle to notch a 10th minute try which Hanley converted.

Four minutes later the rangy O’Carroll was unlucky not to capitalise on his blockdown of a Malone clearance but the ‘Red Sox’ clearance went to Hopkins. As he broke forward he was high-tackled and Hanley’s penalty put Buccs 13-0 ahead; a perfect start.

At the end of the opening quarter Malone put some fine phases together and forced a penalty that was punted to the left corner. Following the lineout their impressive maul was finished off by Ben Halliday for a try converted by Rory Campbell. Three minutes later a telegraphed pass by West was swooped on and the midlanders were caught offside but Campbell’s placekick from near halfway was off-target.
Malone threatened again in similar fashion to their opening try but found Buccs defence less accommodating on this occasion and when the ball was moved infield Stephen Mannion’s sturdy tackle won a relieving penalty. Hanley tagged on a 36th minute penalty for the Shannonsiders while Malone got a fortuitous break just before the interval. The homesters knocked on at a ruck but the referee, on the opposite side, deemed Buccs to have infringed and Campbell reduced the northerners’ arrears to 16-10 with the final act of the first half.

Buccaneers started the second half as lively as they did in the opening period. Hopkins made a strong break that was carried on by O’Connell before Shane Delahunt surged clear to touchdown between the uprights for a 45th minute try which Hanley converted.

Malone responded with another penalty to the left corner from where they tried another rumble over the Shannonsiders’ line. Buccs held them out initially but the hosts patiently went through some pick and goes before a long pass was spun out to Mark McGlynn who scored an unconverted 50th minute try wide on the right to leave his side trailing 23-15.

Malone now enjoyed a resurgent spell and applied pressure inside the Buccs 22 and were held up over the line. A Buccs clearance was blocked down and then Martin Staunton was sin-binned for questionable offside. But Ruairi Byrne won a close-in Malone lineout and then Hopkins tidied up close to his line. The Belfast side gained reward for this pressure with Campbell slotting over a 61st minute penalty to leave just 6 points between the teams.

West’s restart went straight into touch but Buccs temporarily depleted pack forced a penalty from the resultant scrum. Mannion’s placekick from halfway tailed wide. The exchanges had now really ignited and an exciting angled break by O’Connor made 50 metres and a long Mannion kick ahead pinned Malone back. Andrew Bryans denied O’Carroll as he chased a chip ahead before Buccs, as they have done in recent matches, finished strongly.

12 minutes from time, Shane Layden displayed moves that would impress the ‘Strictly’ judges as he weaved one way and then the other from 30 metres out to wrong-foot the home defence and score a magnificent try between the uprights with Hanley adding the conversion.

The scent of a bonus point try was now in the Pirates nostrils and they applied fierce pressure in the closing stages during which Malone’s Michael Crothers was yellow carded. Buccs forced a number of close-in penalties and seemed to have secured the crucial fourth try when Delahunt grounded the ball at the right corner flag. However, referee Kieran Barry brought play back and awarded the Athlone side another penalty which West punted in to the same corner. Fergus Galvin claimed the resultant lineout and from there the outcome was inevitable with the Pirates pack driving over the home line for Delahunt’s second and, more importantly, Buccaneers fourth try. Although this final move score was not converted, Buccs triumphed by near double scores 35-18.

This was another efficient and generally composed performance by Buccaneers with their incessant workrate and tackling being again most impressive, particularly maintaining their desire to the very last move. Often unheralded locks Byrne and Galvin toiled industriously from start to finish as did O’Connell while Delahunt’s contribution was significant. Hopkins, on his 25th birthday, was their star performer in a backline that looked sharp and eager. The Pirates still have a couple of issues to iron out but will be more than pleased with their displays and four wins out of five to date. Neill Alcorn was pick of the home pack while Campbell’s line kicking asked questions of the opposition.

MALONE:- A.Bryans; R.Campbell, D.McMaster, B.Gibson, M.McGlynn; C.Spence, Z.Shore; B.Halliday, D.Kerr, R.Greenwood; N.Alcorn, A.McNamee; D.Maxwell, D.Cave (captain) and S.Dodington. Replacements:- L.Porter (for Halliday, 29 mins), S.Devine (for McNamee, 61 mins), S.Green (for Kerr, 70 mins), M.Crothers (for Dodington, 70 mins), P.Caves (for McGlynn, 72 mins) and J.McMurtry (for Shore, 72 mins).

BUCCANEERS:- M.Hanley; J.O’Connor, S.Layden, S.Mannion, S.O’Carroll; H.West, F.Hopkins; J.Kelly, S.Delahunt, M.Staunton (captain); R.Byrne, F.Galvin; S.O’Connell, C.McCann and D.Qualter. Replacements:- S.Lombard (for Kelly 65 mins), W.Reilly (for Hopkins, 74 mins), F.McDonnell (for McCann, 74 mins), D.Browne, O.Burgess and R.Fallon.

Referee:- Kieran Barry (IRFU).