Despite a monumental effort Buccaneers came up tantalisingly short in their bid to qualify for the promotion play-offs when losing 31-24 to Division 1B winners City of Armagh in their final Energia All-Ireland League fixture of the season. Played in front of the biggest gate of the year at Dubarry Park, this Hodson Bay Hotel Group match was a terrific contest from start to finish. Apart from a diagonal breeze, conditions were near perfect as the game flowed from end to end.

Buccaneers made two personnel changes from the side that under-performed at Old Wesley. Ireland U-20 Harry West returned at fly-half and Cian McCann started in the back row while Danny Qualter switched to lock. City of Armagh also fielded a fairly settled side with Ulster pair Frank Bradshaw-Ryan and Josh McKinley in the second row and young Australian Michael McDonald at scrumhalf.

The home side got off to a flying start. Will Reilly, operating again on the left wing, made ground through the centre and off-loaded to Stephen Mannion who drew the final defender along the stand touchline where he sent Ciaran Booth racing away to touch down for a try with the stadium clock reading one minute and twenty-two seconds. West added a fine conversion from wide on the left.

But Armagh struck back within five minutes and Tim McNeice wrong-footed Reilly to dart in for a try near the uprights with McDonald’s conversion (that looked wide) levelling the game. The Orchard County side then enjoyed a spell of possession in the home half which was rewarded with captain McNeice’s second try on 14 minutes. At the end of the opening quarter, West slotted over a penalty after the Ulstermen strayed offside to leave Buccs trailing narrowly 10-12. City of Armagh made a swift counter-attack three minutes later but the ball went loose. However, Buccs could not control it and Eoin O’Hagan capitalised to grab a fortuitous try on the left with McDonald adding the extras.

The exchanges continued at a lively tempo and a high tackle by Sam Cunningham earned Buccs a penalty on the Armagh ten-metre line. Nigel Simpson prevented Frankie Hopkins taking a quick tap and go and the visiting flanker was duly yellow carded on 28 minutes. The Pirates now had a decent spell in their opponents’ 22 following the resultant penalty to touch on the right. The northerners defence took some time to be breached until skipper Martin Staunton, in his final Senior outing, stretched over for a try converted by West that had Buccs 19-17 adrift at half-time.

Buccaneers, who had replaced the ill Reilly early in the match with Saul O’Carroll, introduced Fergus Galvin for Qualter at the interval while City of Armagh made a quartet of substitutions at the break.

The champions dictated the early second half exchanges and were held up over the line but secured their bonus point unconverted try on 48 minutes when Matthew Hooks finished off good work at The Bounty corner. Buccs responded with a smashing West 50/22 but their lineout went awry in a promising position while City of Armagh got away with a sleight of hand when McDonald popped the ball straight to his No.8 at a defending scrum close to their try-line! The Ulster side stretched their advantage just before the hour mark when their player of the season Ryan O’Neill whirled away from the home defence for a try which was converted by McDonald for a 31-17 lead.

Buccaneers refused to give up on their cause and took the game to the visitors for the final quarter. Daniel Hawkshaw’s offload found West who linked with O’Carroll and his pass sent Mannion racing through, beating four tacklers enroute to scoring a magnificent 65th minute try which West converted. This set up a grandstand finish but they could not again breach committed Armagh defending and so the new champions prevailed on a 31-24 margin.

This was one of Buccaneers best displays of the season and arguably the finest contest of the campaign, a fitting finale for both teams’ endeavours. City of Armagh are worthy of their promotion through canny leadership by McNeice and the effervescence of O’Neill, allayed to the input of Bradshaw-Ryan and Simpson. The Division 1B trophy and medals were presented after the match by Des Kavanagh (IRFU President last season who presented to Buccaneers in Belfast last May). Buccs congratulate the winners and wish them continued success in 1A.
Meanwhile, it was final day frustration for the Athlone club who enjoyed a tremendous first half of the league but then, due to injuries and players being involved with Connacht, lost their momentum in the final third. Nevertheless, it has been a hugely successful season for the Pirates as consolidation following promotion was the main target and that was readily achieved. Add in a Connacht Senior League and Cup double and, with many young players gaining AIL experience such as Audi Athlone Man of the Match Cian McCann, Buccaneers have much to be proud of and build on. The players and mentors are to be thanked for their efforts and they can all now look forward to the Players Awards Event on Sunday week.

BUCCANEERS:- S.Mannion; J.O’Connor, C.FitzGibbon, D.Hawkshaw, W.Reilly; H.West, F.Hopkins; M.Burke, O.Dolan, M.Staunton (captain); R.Byrne, D.Qualter; S.O’Connell, C.McCann and C.Booth. Replacements:- S.O’Carroll (for Reilly, 11 mins), R.O’Meara (for O’Connell, 21 mins), J.Kelly (for Burke, 21 mins), F.Galvin (for Qualter, h/t), S.O’Connell (for O’Meara, h/t), M.Burke (for Staunton, 42 mins), M.Staunton (for Burke, 60 mins), R.O’Meara (for O’Connell, 60 mins), D.Bolger and M.Hanley.

CITY OF ARMAGH:- S.Cunningham; A.Willis, M.Hooks, T.McNeice (captain), D.Nelson; E.Crummie, M.McDonald; J.Morton, J.Treanor, E.O’Hagan; J.McKinley, F.Bradshaw-Ryan; N.Simpson, R.O’Neill and N.Faloon. Replacements:- P. Fletcher (for Morton, h/t), D.Poyntz (for O’Hagan, h/t), J.Glasgow (for McKinlay, h/t), R.Taylor (for Nelson, h/t), J.McKinlay (for Bradshaw-Ryan, 64 mins), J.Morton (for Treanor, 64 mins), J.Crummie (for Faloon, 62 mins), A.Johnston (for Hooks, 70 mins) and M.Hooks (for McNeice, 77 mins).

Referee:- Christopher Lough (IRFU).