BUCCANEERS maintained their lead at the top of the Energia All-Ireland League Division 1B following their 44-13 victory over Banbridge at Dubarry Park, Athlone, on Saturday. Buccs ran in six tries against the Ulster side but this contest, sponsored by Ganly’s of Athlone, was much closer than the scoreline would suggest, with another strong finish by the Pirates reaping three final quarter tries.

Buccs made four changes for this outing, a brace each in the pack and backline. Michael Hanley and Will Reilly formed a new partnership at halfback while skipper Martin Staunton returned in the front row and fit again Ciaran Booth started at No.8. The visitors new coaching team rang the changes with six fresh faces including Ulster duo Greg Jones and David McCann in the backrow and Ian Porter replacing the injured James Humphreys at flyhalf.

On a mild, breezeless afternoon, the Pirates struck for their opening try as the crowd still arrived. Following a lineout on halfway, Buccs moved the ball to the right and then back into the centre where Oisin McCormack forced a gap in the Banbridge cover to romp away from outside the 22 for a try between the posts with just 90 seconds on the clock. Hanley duly added the conversion but Porter replied for Bann with a 7th minute penalty.

Shane Jennings and Stephen Mannion were both involved in the lead up to Buccs second try with the latter’s grubber kick being tidied up by the northerners cover but Porter’s clearance failed to make touch and Josh O’Connor countered from wide on the right at the ten metre line. His weaving, snappy attack left a handful of Banbridge tacklers clutching at thin air as he raced in for a 9th minute try. Hanley’s conversion gave the Athlone side an early 14-3 lead and the visitors looked in for a long hard battle.

But the Ulstermen won possession at a close-in Buccaneers lineout and a few phases later their captain Peter Cromie was diving over the home line for a 15th minute try converted by Porter. Three minutes later McCann was fortunate to escape with just a penalty against him for a high challenge on O’Connor while the midlanders did not control possession in their maul following the subsequent penalty. Banbridge were competing gamely and Robin Sinton was whistled back for an offside infringement having intercepted after 23 minutes.

Hanley then slotted over a brace of penalties before Porter landed one in response. Buccs notched their third try of the half, again following a lineout won at halfway on the left by Danny Qualter, with the ball being switched smartly infield where Shane Layden found a gap before punting a measured angled kick ahead that O’Connor outpaced Ulster’s Lyttle to score. Hanley’s conversion from wide on the right, the last act of the half, rebounded wide off the near upright but Buccs had a promising 25-13 lead at half-time.

The Shannonsiders replaced one Reilly with another at the interval, Colm coming in at scrumhalf instead of Will, while James Kelly came on for Staunton. The contest looked well within the Pirates control but Banbridge had other ideas and pounded the home defence for the majority of the third quarter. Porter was unable to land a 42nd minute penalty from just inside the Buccs half while Jennings dealt with a probing crossfield kick as the Bann intensity increased with Booth incurring a yellow card as Buccs defended desperately. But their improved defensive resilience, that began to flourish towards the key end of last season, was again in evidence and they twice held the visitors up over their line.

When they finally regained their momentum, Qualter sent Mannion racing away from halfway. The centre chipped over the cover but was tripped by Lyttle who was despatched to the sin bin. Buccs worked the line with the resultant penalty and Ruairi Byrne won possession, setting up a concerted home attack involving backs and forwards and Mannion was not to be denied this time, cutely grubbering ahead to swoop for a 64th minute bonus point try. Hanley’s sweetly struck conversion from the touchline pushed Buccaneers 32-15 ahead and deflated the visitors after all the hard work they had just done.

Buccs then scored a scintillating fifth try almost from the restart with Jennings fielding a clearance close to the right touchline. The elegant fullback surged forward evading three tacklers before off-loading to Layden who delivered and audacious over the shoulder flick to O’Connor who claimed his hattrick when dotting down in the right corner. Once again Hanley added another excellent conversion to leave Buccaneers in command 39-13 ahead.

The Pirates were now in full flow and went close to adding to their tally on a number of occasions before Hanley sent an inch perfect crossfield kick to O’Connor on the right where he swept past two Banbridge defenders and then had the strength to get over the line despite having McCann hanging on to him to notch his fourth try which completed the 44-13 scoreline.

This was a most entertaining contest in which Banbridge played their part. Again Buccs put in a sustained all-round team performance, and they had to, with O’Connor’s quartet of tries ensuring that he was a truly worthy winner of the Audi Athlone Man of the Match award. Since he was tempted back from his brief retirement Byrne has been playing out of his skin and did so again in this match in which Mannion was also to the fore. Buccs workrate was immense once more, their defensive duties committed and sustained, and all allayed to some sublime attacking play as they recorded a first ever win over the Co.Down club. Jones and McCann did their utmost in Banbridge’s cause as did Ben Carson.

BUCCANEERS:- S.Jennings; J.O’Connor, S.Layden, S.Mannion, S.O’Carroll; M.Hanley, W.Reilly; M.Staunton (captain), S.Lombard, S.O’Connell; R.Byrne, D.Qualter; C.McCann, O.McCormack and C.Booth. Replacements:- C.Reilly (for W.Reilly, h/t), J.Kelly (for Staunton, h/t), M.Staunton (for Kelly, 57 mins), D.Browne (for O’Connell, 60 mins), F.Galvin (for Qualter, 65 mins), J.Kelly (for Lombard, 65 mins), T.Shine (for Layden, 68 mins) and O.Burgess (for O’Carroll, 68 mins).

BANBRIDGE:- R.Lyttle; R.Cartmill, J.Cromie, B.Carson, J.Mullan; I.Porter, N.Kilpatrick; J.Chambers, P.Cromie (captain), R.Haughey; M.Lyttle, D.Carson; D.McCann, R.Sinton and G.Jones. Replacements:- C.Trimble (for Haughey, 54 mins), M.Laird (for M.Lyttle, 60 mins), R.Haughey (for Trimble, 60 mins), A.Allen (for P.Cromie, 70 mins), A.Kennedy (for Kilpatrick, 70 mins), A.Weir and A.Morrow.

Referee:- Glenn Sheridan (IRFU).