BUCCANEERS slumped to a disastrous 35-16 home defeat to Queen’s University in their crunch Energia All-Ireland League Division 1B game played at rainswept Dubarry Park on Saturday. In this absolutely “must win” basement battle sponsored by Ganly’s of Athlone, Buccs performance became increasingly underwhelming as the game progressed. After a shaky start the visitors always looked the more likely to score, were more urgent in their endeavours and sharper in their handling as they earned a crucial bonus point win.

The home side made four changes with Orrin Burgess and Fergus Galvin returning after injury. Jensen Nagle made his first AIL start at fullback and Gavin Daly slotted into the back row. Mark Earle was switched to outhalf in place of the out-of-form Michael Hanley and, in the continuing absence through injury of Danny Qualter, Ryan O’Meara moved to the second row with Cian McCann operating at No.8. The Ulster side made five changes from their defeat against UCC. The most crucial of these was the return of James Humphreys who dictated the proceedings at fly-half.

Regular heavy showers and soft underfoot conditions added to the challenges posed by the occasion on a grey afternoon, yet Buccs began promisingly with Earle slotting over fine penalties after 2 and 8 minutes to lead 6-0. Burgess made a strong break on 11 minutes and off-loaded to Frank Hopkins but, with the line beckoning, he lost possession courtesy of James McKillop’s try-saving tackle.
Queen’s grew into the contest after a difficult opening quarter and Burgess had to put in a vital tackle to deny Jonny Hunter on the right flank but the Students, now enjoying their first spell of territory inside the home 22, made it count following a penalty to the left corner. From the lineout, their pack drove over the Pirates line with Harry Long applying the finishing touch on 23 minutes and Humphreys adding the conversion.

Buccs quickly responded and Earle landed a 40 metre penalty four minutes later. Josh O’Connor made good ground along the right soon afterwards but, when the ball was moved infield, Buccs held on too long and Queen’s were granted a relieving penalty. Hopkins then claimed a Students clearance and he sent McCann marauding along the left flank, bullocking through three tacklers before off-loading deliciously to the supporting Burgess who arced in to dot down for an excellent 30th minute try. Earle duly added the conversion and Buccaneers looked poised to kick on, 16-7 to the good. Surprisingly and disappointingly, that was to prove their last score.

The Ulster side then applied some sustained pressure and, following a number of sallies towards the home line, they were rewarded when Long forced his way over for his second try on 35 minutes. Queen’s were right back in the contest when Humphreys tapped over a penalty with the final kick of the first half to leave just a single point between the teams, Buccs 16-15 ahead.

The northerners, who had been building momentum in the second quarter, restarted with urgency and they regained the lead with a 44th minute Humphreys penalty. Nagle then took off on an exciting counter-attack from inside his own 22 and Burgess was soon making further ground with McCann also making a strong carry but Queen’s turned over possession inside their 22 to relieve the danger.

The Students now took the game to the hosts and following a spell of pick and goes from side to side Humpheys lofted a pinpoint diagonal ball to the unmarked Thomas Brigg who surged over for a 54th minute try wide on the right. The fly-half added an excellent conversion to stretch the College side’s advantage to 25-16 while Earle, who did well in his new role, missed a very kickable Buccs penalty soon after.
Audi Athlone Man of the Match Burgess and McCann both made typical feisty carries while Hopkins’ snipe took a combination of Queen’s players to halt before Humphreys 68th minute penalty took some further wind out of the Pirates’ sail. The Belfast side then finished with a flourish to secure a fourth try that earned them what may yet prove a priceless bonus point. It came in somewhat controversial circumstances as a Humphreys penalty to touch on the left was over-cooked and went dead but referee George Clancy over-ruled the ideally positioned touch-judge (not the only time he did so during the game) and awarded the lineout to the visitors. They took full benefit of this slice of questionable good fortune and Rory Telfer burst through for an added time try with Humphreys on target once more with the conversion to seal a 35-16 victory.

Buccs toiled manfully throughout but Queen’s, once they got into the contest after a dodgy opening quarter, always seemed to make ground that bit easier. They sprayed the ball around much better than the midlanders and in the languid Humphreys they had the key performer on the day. He more than anyone else would have appreciated this victory. The two Rorys – Telfer and Ellerby – were others to shine in their backline while James McKillop (withdrawn surprisingly in the third quarter), Alexander Clarke and two try Long did best in the pack.
Burgess, McCann, Nagle and Fergus Galvin did their utmost for the homesters but, in the absence of influential players Qualter and Stephen Mannion, they did not match the creativity and desire of their opponents and indeed they have yet to prevail over the Students in a home AIL fixture! Relegation now looks inevitable unless the Pirates can conjure some magic, not in evidence in this showing despite their whole-hearted efforts, in their remaining four fixtures but avoiding the drop is now out of their own hands.

Congratulations to St. Mary’s College on winning Division 1B and promotion to the top flight with four rounds of fixtures remaining.

BUCCANEERS:- J.Nagle; J.O’Connor, S.Layden, T.Shine, O.Burgess; M.Earle, F.Hopkins (captain); C.Ward, M.Victory, M.Staunton; F.Galvin, R.O’Meara; C.Walsh, G.Daly and C.McCann. Replacements:- M.Burke (for Staunton, 23 mins), M.Staunton (for Ward, h/t), C.O’Shaughnessy (for Burgess, inj. 63 mins), C.Ward (for Staunton, 63 mins), O.Dolan (for Daly, 66 mins), L.MacFarlane (for Hopkins, 63 mins), M.Hanley (for Shine, 69 mins) and D.Bolger.

QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY:- R.Telfer; J.Hunter, R.Ellerby, C.Florence, J.Wright; J.Humphreys, A.Christie; J.Boal, A.Clarke (captain), M.Miller; J.McCay, J.McKillop; T.Brigg, H.Long and P.Heasley. Replacements:- P.McAlpine (for McKillop, 46 mins), J.Stevens (for Long, 57 mins), F.Longstaff (for Miller, 66 mins), G.Coen, R.Johnston and B.Gibson.

Referee:- George Clancy (IRFU).