Sligo captured the Connacht Senior League title in style when dethroning Buccaneers 49-17 in front of a big crowd at Hamilton Park, Strandhill, on Saturday. This final round fixture of the Bank of Ireland league was, in effect, the decider and the north-westerners were full value for their victory, dominating from start to finish. In the process they denied the Pirates a third successive title but, more importantly, for the hosts they finally put recent disappointments against the Athlone club behind them with a well-balanced and sustained performance.

Both teams were close to full strength although the midlanders, for whom skipper Frank Hopkins was fit to play, clearly lacked the power and experience of the injured lock Danny Qualter. In his absence, home second-rower Archie Maclean was the game’s outstanding performer winning lineouts at will and being influential all-round the paddock.

On a dry day, conditions were much better than expected, with only a diagonal breeze for the players to contend with. Buccs had some benefit from it in the opening half. But they messed up an early scoring opportunity from a close-in scrum and were then caught too far forward as Sligo countered, forcing them to concede a 6th minute penalty which Euan Brown drilled over to open the scoring. From the restart, the Shannonsiders earned a penalty which Michael Hanley slotted over to tie the scores 3-3 but that was as close as Buccs got thereafter on the scoreboard.

A 30-metre maul by the home pack was a portent of things to come but Buccs held this one up over their line. They then knocked on in a promising attack and, following the resulting scrum, Sligo attacked strongly with Gary Duffy shrugging off Cian McCann’s tackle to score an unconverted 23rd minute try in the right corner.

Buccs were still in the contest but two lineouts in quick succession inside the Yeats County side’s half went awry. The home side’s forwards got to work again following a penalty to the left and Martin Earley was driven over for a 30th minute try which Brown converted.
Buccaneers responded swiftly with Oisin Dolan’s pass sending Ryan O’Meara thundering forward and his deft offload sent skipper Hopkins in for a 33rd minute try converted by Hanley. Brown then kicked a second penalty and, although Buccs finished the half close to the home line, Sligo held an 18-10 advantage at the interval.

The challengers added to their lead five minutes into the second half. Another penalty gave them good territory and Poland prop Kuba Wojtkowicz powered over on the right for a 45th minute unconverted try. The match was still there for the taking and Buccs were rewarded with a 50th minute penalty try after Tom Gormley brought down a promising maul close to the home line. This also earned a trip to the sin bin for the homesters’ prop.

But Buccaneers fell apart in the final quarter with Finn Bamber punishing soft tackles for a 64th minute bonus point try and four minutes later the centre’s mazy run secured Sligo’s fifth try. Both teams now utilised their bench but Sligo, despite having James O’Hehir sin-binned, finished the stronger. They were now in free-flow mood and touchdowns by Ethan Faitaua and Philip Carter took their try tally to seven. Brown added three conversions to stretch their winning margin to 49-17.

That margin may have flattered the new champions (just their second time to win the title since their formation in 1890) but, nevertheless, they were richly deserving of their win. They have proved Buccs closest challengers in recent seasons and, when they got chances to atone for setbacks and disappointments, their greater desire was ruthless and unrelenting. They also look as if having the potential to make an AIL promotional challenge this season while, ahead of that, they host holders Terenure College in a Bateman Cup semi-final on Saturday week.

From Buccs perspective this was, for whatever reasons, a flat and very much below par display lacking invention in which few players can be pleased with their efforts. But they now have three weeks to reassess and regroup ahead of the AIL kick-off away to St. Mary’s College on October 7th.

New Connacht Rugby President (and proud Sligo man) Michael O’Hehir presented the magnificent Senior League trophy to victorious captain Martin Earley after the match.

SLIGO:- P.Carter; L.McVitty, E.Faitaula, F.Bamber, D.Feehily; E.Brown, B.Cunningham; K.Wojtkowicz, M.Earley (captain), T.Gormley; A.Maclean, G.Duffy; B.West, J.O’Hehir and A.Bamber. Replacements used:- B.Hynes, E.Lang, C.Cummins, M.McMorrow, R.Tiernan, B.Donald, J.Fleming and C.Creaven.

BUCCANEERS:- S.Mannion; C.O’Shaughnessy, S.Layden, M.Earle, H.Balsiger; M.Hanley, F.Hopkins (captain); J.Kelly, O.Dolan, S.O’Connell; F.Galvin, C.McCann; L.Balsiger, C.Walsh and R.O’Meara. Replacements:- R.Murphy-Sweeney (for H.Balsiger, inj. 46 mins), F.McDonnell (for McCann, 68 mins), D.Bolger (for O’Connell, 68 mins), MacFarlane (for Hopkins, 68 mins), T.Shine (for Layden, 74 mins), C.Brill (for Kelly, 74 mins), Cian Daly (for Dolan, 74 mins), Colin Daly (for Earle, 74 mins) .

Referee:- Andrew Fogarty (Connacht).