BUCCANEERS suffered their first home defeat in the Energia All-Ireland League when a fired up and physically stronger Highfield came out on top 27-7 at Dubarry Park on Saturday. The Cork side brought an aggressive intensity that the depleted Shannonsiders could not match in this Division 1B encounter sponsored by Glasson Lakehouse.

Buccs had been fortunate regarding injuries until the final stages of the campaign but a late withdrawal of experienced lock Ruairi Byrne in the warm up added to the absences through injury of Shane Layden, Saul O’Carroll, Cian McCann and Oisin McCormack. With Shane Jennings and leading try scorer Josh O’Connor involved in Connacht’s win over Edinburgh and Harry West not available following his Ireland U-20’s exploits, Buccaneers resources were really stretched. Meanwhile, Highfield restored Travis Coomey and Sean Garrett in their pack with Luke Kingston returning on the left wing.

Following the recent heavy spells of rain the pitch, although soft, stood up well to the on-field exchanges (kudos here to Damien Phelan and his fork!) on a dry, mild afternoon that should have warranted a bigger attendance for this crucial fixture.

The Pirates enjoyed the better of the early exchanges. Stephen Mannion’s chip following a promising break was blocked while Michael Hanley most untypically was off-target with a 12th minute central penalty. A warning of Highfield’s potency followed shortly afterwards when James Taylor’s tap near his own tryline caught Buccs off-guard and he sent Ben Murphy steaming up the right flank where a super chase tackle by Mannion denied an almost certain try.

The Corkonians lost No.8 Miah Cronin through injury after 6 minutes but the withdrawal of Buccs hooker Steveni Lombard at the end of the opening quarter was a massive loss for the hosts who missed his strong carrying ability. Oisin Dolan was his replacement joining fellow U-20 Fionn McDonnell who had started at lock.

The visitors took the lead on 25 minutes, speading the ball smartly from right to left where flying winger Kingston surged away for an unconverted try. Just after the half-hour mark Frank Hopkins did very well to intercept an offload by Garrett and the pressure on the home defence grew as the half progressed. Twice the Munster men were held up over the home line but they added to their tally in the closing moments of the half. Matthew Burke was harshly penalised for a knock-on and Taylor’s penalty gave Highfield an 8-0 half-time lead.

Seven minutes into the second half, Mannion made a terrific break but his attempt to offload in the tackle went forward. Highfield countered swiftly and Kingston sped in for his second try. Disappointingly he was allowed run in to touch down at the posts ensuring Taylor had little difficulty adding the conversion.

Six minutes later the visitors notched their third try following a penalty to the left. From the resultant lineout crisp passing across the paddock yielded an unconverted try out wide by Murphy, a replica of many of Highfield’s tries this season.

The Corkonians swiftly added their bonus point try, albeit in contentious circumstances. Hopkins was clearly out of play as he endeavoured to catch a Highfield kick to touch on the left but the touch-judge bewilderingly awarded the lineout to the visitors. Following this lineout, Cian Bohane slipped through the cover to dot down between the uprights and Taylor’s conversion pushed his side’s advantage to 27-0.

Buccs continued to give of their best and Ciaran Booth made a fine break to link up with Will Reilly but the replacement scrumhalf was hauled down just short of the line. Booth made another terrific snipe on 68 minutes but, apart from Hopkins, he lacked support in this move and a try opportunity evaporated.

However, the midlanders gained some reward for their efforts when sustained attacking saw Dolan send fellow substitute Cathal Walsh over for a 76th minute try converted by Mannion that completed the 27-7 scoreline.

Buccaneers unexpected promotion challenge is running out of steam despite the best endeavours in this game by Audi Athlone Man of the Match Booth, Mannion (this writer’s MoM choice), Danny Qualter and Hanley. Highfield’s bonus point victory brings them to within a point of Buccs who had some consolation in that the top two, City of Armagh and Old Belvedere, also lost.

BUCCANEERS:- S.Mannion; H.Balsiger, C.FitzGibbon, D.Hawkshaw, R.Murphy-Sweeney; M.Hanley, F.Hopkins; M.Burke, S.Lombard, M.Staunton (captain); F.McDonnell, D.Qualter; S.O’Connell, R.O’Meara and C.Booth. Replacements:- O.Dolan (for Lombard, inj. 22 mins), W.Reilly (for Balsiger, 49 mins), F.Galvin (for O’Meara, 49 mins), C.Walsh (for O’Connell, 57 mins), J.Kelly (for Staunton, 60 mins), R.Teape (for Murphy-Sweeney, 70 mins) and M.Staunton (for Burke, 70 mins).

HIGHFIELD:- L.McCarthy; B.Murphy, C.Bohane, M.Dorgan, L.Kingston; J.Taylor, R.Cassidy; C.Buckley, T.Coomey, D.Fitzgerald; S.Garrett, E.Keating; D.O’Connell (captain), A.Porter and M.Cronin. Replacements:- M.Fitzgibbon (for Cronin, inj. 6 mins), I.McCarthy (for Fitzgerald, 30 mins), R.Murphy (for Coomey, 57 mins), C.Banon (for Cassidy, 57 mins), J.O’Callaghan (for Garrett, 60 mins) and S.Buckley (for L.McCarthy, 60 mins).

Referee:- Oisin Quinn (IRFU).