BUCCANEERS earned some richly deserved festive cheer with a splendid 26-19 victory over third-placed Blackrock College in a tremendously exciting Energia All-Ireland League Division 1B encounter at Stradbrook, Dublin, on Saturday. Contested in front of a big crowd on an almost balmy bright afternoon, Buccs finally delivered on the potential in their squad to spring a surprise but worthy win as they also retained the Ray McLoughlin Cup.

Buccs made five changes from their previous week’s lineout. Buccs skipper Frank Hopkins and Orrin Burgess were ruled out through injury with recent U-20’s Leo MacFarlane and Tom Shine replacing them in the backline. Danny Qualter was fit to return in the second row, Sam Illo came in at tighthead prop and Ryan O’Meara got the nod at blindside flanker. Rock had six changes, split evenly between backs and forwards with Brian Colclough returning to captain the city side at fullback. Lock Gavin Thornbury was absent on duty with Connacht as was the Pirates prop Matthew Burke.

In the near perfect conditions, the midlanders made a less than perfect start with Stephen Mannion knocking on and James Kelly then straying needlessly offside. Blackrock punted the resultant penalty to touch on the left where they won the lineout. Several phases followed and they sucked in Buccs defenders leaving Graham Curtis unattended when the ball was spread to him for a 4th minute try wide on the right. James Fennelly landed a fine conversion.

But Buccs were quickly back on level terms. Conor O’Shaughnessy made a couple of snipes up the left flank, the second of which was ended by a high tackle by Curtis who saw yellow for his misdemeanour. The Pirates worked the touchline from the resultant penalty where Fergus Galvin won clean lineout possession and the pack mauled over the home line on the left for a 10th minute Matthew Victory try which Michael Hanley converted excellently to tie the scores 7-7.

Eight minutes later, Rock profited from another knock-on in midfield and they moved the ball to the left where David Heavey’s pace was too hot for the Shannonsiders defence as he raced in for a try. Referee Christopher Lough overruled his touch-judges to award Fennelly’s conversion.

Early in the second quarter Qualter blocked down an attempted clearance but the ball went over the deadball line before he could ground it. Buccs then had a five-metre scrum but lost possession while, on 28 minutes, their driving maul did not yield a second try. However, that was not delayed for too long when Buccs forced another penalty on the 22. With most anticipating a penalty to touch, Cian McCann’s smart tap and go caught the home defence napping and he powered over for a try at the left flag. Hanley was unable to add the touchline conversion but the Pirates were very much in contention in what was a lively and evenly contested affair, being just two points adrift 14-12 at half-time.

It was Buccaneers who made the quick start following the changes of ends. Their committed defending forced a hurried Rock pass and O’Shaughnessy pounced to intercept before racing 60 metres to touchdown for a 41st minute try. Hanley duly slotted the conversion to give Buccs the lead.

However, they then conceded a couple of penalties in swift succession that brought Blackrock within touching distance of the Athlone’s side’s line. From the second of these Rock mauled their way over for an unconverted Chris Rolland try that levelled the scores at 19-19 after 44 minutes.

But just four minutes later the Pirates were back in front. Victory’s pinpoint lineout throw was tapped by Qualter to MacFarlane who fed Hanley. The outhalf’s skipped pass found O’Meara and the ball was moved to Shine who made good ground on the left. The supporting O’Shaughnessy then drew the final defender before sending Liam McNamara in to secure a bonus point try for Buccaneers with Hanley adding the conversion.

Following the steady scoring of the opening 50 minutes, it was surprising that the final half-hour proved scoreless. Here the defensive endeavours of the Pirates was crucial especially when they had two players in the sin bin at the same time. Captain on the day Layden was yellow carded for a foot offence on 53 minutes and hooker Victory joined him in the sin bin following a harsh yellow for a perceived high tackle. But with Qualter in outstanding form and displaying great leadership, Buccs repelled all that Blackrock could throw at them. Indeed the Athlonians went close to adding to their tally during this spell but O’Meara was held up.

The Pirates maintained creditable intensity with Qualter claiming a Rock lineout and young Shine putting in a vital block after the metropolitans escaped with crossing in the build-up. They utilised their bench, where Martin Staunton was a surprise inclusion, to good effect too and last season’s skipper provided a calming force in the closing stages. Buccs had a chance to put the game beyond the hosts on 75 minutes but Hanley’s 35-metre penalty unluckily rebounded off an upright. However, they were not found wanting in what seemed a generous period of added time to hold on for a crucial, morale-boosting 26-19 victory.

This performance was a truly all-round team effort, a total contrast to the error-ridden display against Garryowen. Mistakes were eliminated in the main and the players were relentless from start to finish as they profited from a more open style of play. Qualter was magnificent, his guidance and industry being vital. McCann is a truly exciting prospect and all the forwards including replacements (where Charlie Ward was making his first appearance in over a year following injury) can be happy with their contributions. O’Shaughnessy was the star in the backline where Layden reminded us of what he still has to offer. Mannion put in a tireless shift and MacFarlane’s swift deliveries benefitted his team.

Despite a losing bonus point and the endeavours of McCarthy, Blackrock lost ground on their neighbouring pacesetters St. Mary’s College and Old Belvedere on a day when all the away teams won apart from UCC who shared a high-scoring draw at Garryowen. Meanwhile, this victory and its manner will instil believe and confidence in the Buccaneers ranks during the festive break.

BLACKROCK COLLEGE:- B.Colclough (captain); G.Curtis, M.Dwan, D.McCarthy, D.Heavey; J.Fennelly, R.Baron; P.McSweeney, N.Hardiman, J.Mullany; J.Burke, L.Keys; J.Dixon, D.Fortune and O.Ring. Replacements:- L.Nicholson, S.Connolly, J.Gardiner, C.Reilly, C.Rolland and J.Moriarty.

BUCCANEERS:- L.McNamara; T.Shine, S.Layden (captain), S.Mannion, C.O’Shaughnessy; M.Hanley, L.MacFarlane; J.Kelly, M.Victory, S.Illo; F.Galvin, D.Qualter; R.O’Meara, C.Walsh and C.McCann. Replacements:- C.Ward (for Kelly, 20 mins), J.Kelly (for Ward, h/t), O.Dolan (for Galvin, 60 mins), C.Ward (for Kelly, 60 mins), M.Staunton (for Illo, 65 mins), G.Daly, M.Earle and J.Nagle.

Referee:- Christopher Lough (IRFU).

Other result:- Connacht U-18.5 League – Buccaneers 21 Castlebar 14.