High-flying Buccaneers were shot down at Rifle Park on Saturday when revitalised Banbridge were in rampant mood as they outgunned Buccaneers 43-15 in their Energia All-Ireland League Division 1B game. It was a virtual reverse of the scoreline at Dubarry Park where Buccs won 44-13, which was not as clearcut as the margin may suggest and there were other similarities on this occasion. However, it was the Ulstermen who came flying out of the traps to gain ascendancy over the disappointing and disappointed Pirates raiders.

Both teams were greatly reconfigured from their early December meeting, the Shannonsiders fielding five changes and the Northerners a whopping eight. The absence of Buccaneers most experienced duo, Shane Layden (bereavement) and Martin Staunton (illness), proved huge losses on a day when their guile and leadership was clearly lacking. Shane Jennings filled the void in the centre with Michael Hanley coming in at fullback while Will Reilly replaced injured scrumhalf Frank Hopkins. Sam Illo and Matthew Burke were the starting props and teenager Oisin Dolan played at blindside flanker. Banbridge had an even 4/4 split of changes between backs and forwards with the return after injury of James Humphreys at flyhalf being key.

The Co. Down side had first benefit of the influential breeze blowing from end to end on a grey afternoon and they swiftly dictated the proceedings, scoring two converted tries inside the opening 8 minutes. Both stemmed from Buccs lineouts on halfway that went awry, a portent of what was to be an area of disarray for the remainder of the game. David McCann won both lineouts and the hosts swiftly countered with Adam Doherty carving a gap in the visitors defence after just 3 minutes to score at the posts. Five minutes later some smashing off-loading saw Peter Cromie send his brother Josh over for the second touchdown. Humphreys converted both early touchdowns for a 14-0 lead.
It looked like Buccaneers had steadied their ship when they regrouped effectively with Illo and then Steveni Lombard driving forward before Hanley’s skipped pass sent Jennings over for a 13th minute try which the fullback was unable to convert from wide on the left. But Banbridge responded with an 18th minute Michael Cromie try following a terrific maul, Humphreys adding the conversion.

Buccs retorted by going through numerous phases and countless hands that brought them close to the home line and this time Qualter and Hanley combined to send Saul O’Carroll over for an unconverted 24th minute try also wide on the left to reduce the arrears to 21-10. But the homesters met the challenge head on, going through many phases too before Ulster’s McCann got over between the uprights to secure their bonus point try with less than half an hour played. Humphreys added the straight-forward conversion.

A smart throw-in by captain for the day Danny Qualter sent Burke on the charge but he lacked quick support and the prop was penalised for holding on. In the final minute of the half, Josh O’Connor (who scored 4 tries when the teams met in Athlone) was very harshly yellow-carded after a lengthy chat between the referee and a touch-judge for a perceived high tackle when his opponent ducked very low. Following the resultant penalty, Buccs defended resolutely with O’Carroll putting in a try-saving tackle and so Buccaneers trailed 28-10 at half-time.

James Kelly replaced Burke at the interval and Buccs, although temporarily depleted, applied good pressure for a spell but Banbridge held them out before working their way into the Pirates danger zone where they mauled over for a 46th minute Peter Cromie try converted by Humphreys. Play ebbed from end to end with the northerners coming closest to adding to their tally when, after O’Carroll went to ground retrieving a kick ahead but was not allowed back up, the referee amazingly awarded a close-in penalty to Banbridge after which they mauled forward but were held up over the line by some gallant defending.

Young Fionn McDonnell replaced the injured Qualter at the hour mark and Buccaneers continued to battle but could not breach the home defence until Hanley’s angled kick was knocked into touch by Jamie Mullan and the alert O’Connor popped a swift throw-in to the on-rushing Jennings who sped in for 64th minute unconverted try wide on the right to narrow the arrears to 33-15.

Hopes of salvaging a bonus point or two were soon dashed, Humphreys landing an excellent 67th minute penalty and he then converted McCann’s second try four minutes from the end to seal their 43-15 victory.

This was a chastening defeat for Buccaneers who were outgunned by a Banbridge side who benefitted from their lightening start and regular errors by their opponents whose lineout misfired despite changes for most of the contest. Similar to their meeting in Athlone, this was a closer affair than the scoreline would suggest for the Pirates had plenty possession and territory but came up against a Banbridge team bristling to atone for their heavy defeat. The Ulster side’s defensive shift was immense and Humphreys (the former Queen’s player would have relished this win more than his teammates) orchestrated their display with able assistance from his halfback partner Neil Kilpatrick while McCann was pick of their pack. If the Co. Down outfit continue to play like this they will surely move up the league table.

A rare defeat this season for Buccaneers and the only one that they have come away pointless from means they have lost their leadership of the league to City of Armagh but everyone in the club would have been very happy ahead of the season to have the team in such a lofty position at this stage of the campaign. The concession of the two early tries, both initiated through errors, meant Buccs were chasing the game from early on against a fired-up side playing much better than their league position suggests. Defensive shortcomings were exposed despite Jennings being the Pirates best performer on the day with West also catching the eye while Qualter and Lombard were prominent in the forwards exchanges.

BANBRIDGE:- A.Doherty; J.Buller, C.Field, J.Cromie, J.Mullan; J.Humphreys, N.Kilpatrick; C.Reid, P.Cromie (captain), M.Cromie; M.Lyttle, A.Thompson; D.McCann, D.Carson and G.Jones. Replacements:- J.Chambers (for M.Cromie, 33 mins), A.Kennedy (for Field, 44 mins), M.Cromie (for Chambers, 50 mins), M.Vorster (for Carson, 56 mins), R.Cartmill (for Kilpatrick, 71 mins), A.Weir (for Mullan, 71 mins) and T.Savage (for P.Cromie, 71 mins).

BUCCANEERS:- M.Hanley; J.O’Connor, S.Jennings, S.Mannion, S.O’Carroll; H.West, W.Reilly; M.Burke, S.Lombard, S.Illo; R.Byrne, D.Qualter; O.Dolan, C.McCann and R.O’Meara. Replacements:- J.Kelly (for Burke, h/t), F.McDonnell (for Qualter, inj. 56 mins), M.Burke (for Illo, 56 mins), C.Daly (for Dolan, 70 mins), T.Shine (for Hanley, 76 mins) and R.Murphy-Sweeney (for O’Carroll, 76 mins) and H.Balsiger.

Referee:- Robbie Jenkinson (IRFU).