BUCCANEERS got off to a winning start in this season’s Energia All-Ireland League, snatching victory in dramatic fashion with a last gasp final move of the match Ruadhri Fallon try to pip Cashel 18-16 at Dubarry Park on Saturday. An at times rip-roaring Division 2A contest held the attention of the sun-soaked attendance from start to finish. Buccs were the slicker outfit in the opening half while the Munster men dominated the second period during which the Athlone side incurred a hat-trick of yellow cards.

The homesters had just five survivors starting from the time these clubs last met as the Pirates, under new coaching duo Kolo Kiripati and Henry Bryce, gave youth its chance. Debuts were granted to Fallon, Josh O’Connor, Charlie Ward and Stephen Mannion with Tabo Maree also getting his first taste of AIL fare. Wearing their bright new yellow shirts, presented pre-match to the players by British & Irish Lion Robbie Henshaw, Buccs began equally brightly in the ideal conditions, a light breeze aiding them.

But their early pressure was spoiled by an impatient grubber kick that the visitors dealt with comfortably and the Munster men were soon on the offensive, being rewarded with a 6th minute Stephen McMahon penalty. But this did not phase the Pirates and Maree made his presence felt with a fine drive forward up the centre that was carried on by Ward and Shane Layden before the ball was flashed wide where Ross Murphy-Sweeney held off Richard Kingston to dot down for a try at the left corner. Michael Hanley added a superb touchline conversion to this 9th minute try.

Five minutes later Hanley landed an excellent penalty from just inside the Cashel half for a 10-3 lead. Mikey Wilson then made a threatening break for the visitors but Buccs turned the ball over and Mannion surged forward but a knock-on in subsequent play spoiled a promising situation.

Buccaneers then showed their resilient capabilities, something they would repeat more as the game progressed, after Cashel punted a penalty close to the home line. They held the formidable red pack out and then young Fallon, growing into his role at fullback, made a super catch to claim a teasing kick ahead.

But play was soon back at the scoreboard end following a mazy 28th minute O’Connor break along the left before the ball was spun acrossfield where Daniel Qualter made huge ground but the Cashel cover herded Maree into touch close to their line.
Five minutes later, following another fine Daragh Lyons penalty to touch on the right inside the home 22, Buccs cleaned up following the lineout and Hanley made a magnificent clearing kick to touch on the opposite flank. This soon led to a penalty to Buccs five metres inside their own half from where Mannion hit a monster placekick straight and true to edge the Shannonsiders 13-3 ahead.

But in the final moments of the half, matters started to go awry for the hosts. Maree did wonderfully well to snaffle possession at a ruck near the halfway line, clearly not going off his feet, but referee Andrew Cole incredibly penalised the home No.8. Lyons drilled the penalty into the Bounty corner where Buccs had to defend desperately with Oisin McCormack incurring a yellow card.

Buccaneers held out, still 13-3 ahead at half-time, but then conceded a soft penalty for offside just three minutes into the second half. Stephen McMahon gratefully accepted this gift to narrow the arrears. Then matters got worse with Ward being yellow carded on 49 minutes, two Pirates now in the sin bin. Cashel opted for scrums from a number of penalties against the depleted home crew and the referee awarded them a 50th minute penalty try even though as the Cashel pack drove forward they dropped the ball forward! This tied the scores at 13-13.
Buccs were wilting at this stage but still continued to defend heroically with Hanley making one key tackle on the Cashel fullback. Now assisted by a much fresher breeze, the Munster side were piling on the pressure and a try looked inevitable but they spurned their best chance just yards from the home line when a pass to a two man overlap went directly into touch. However, Stephen McMahon’s third successful penalty nosed Cashel ahead as the game entered the final quarter.

On 64 minutes Layden then became the third Buccaneer to start ten minutes in the sin bin as the homesters seemed to incur the wrath of the referee. But although pinned back for long periods, the midlanders restricted Cashel opportunities, a 70th minute chip over the cover proving their final chance of note.

There was still a sense that if Buccs could fashion one chance they would take it. And take it they did, albeit far later than was good for many a heartbeat among the Pirates supporters! Will Reilly’s snappy breaks following his introduction kept the visitors on their toes and the replacement scrumhalf set the decisive score in motion when he made good ground that saw Buccs make a rare second half visit into the opposition 22. Fine sustained play followed, yielding a penalty as Buccs continued their late offensive. With the referee playing advantage, Hanley lofted a sublime diagonal ball to the left where teenager Fallon outwitted a Cashel defender to win possession before notching a thrilling winning touchdown. It mattered little that Hanley was, for once, off-target with his placekick for it was the final action of a gripping encounter.

This was an uplifting victory for Buccaneers with a youthful and relatively inexperienced squad playing with panache early on and then showing huge commitment and workrate when the tide seemed to be turning against them. The returning Qualter put in a massive shift, constantly carrying forward and putting in big hits time and again. He proved a worthy winner of the AUDI ATHLONE Man of the Match award.
All the forwards gave it their all with Martin Staunton and Ruairi Byrne rolling back the years and getting great support from their younger cohort of whom McCormack was prominent and South African Maree also had good moments. Hanley did exceptionally well in his half-back duel with the similar sized but vastly more experienced Lyons. Mannion, son of former Ireland No.8 Noel, and Roscommon U-20 footballer Fallon showed composure beyond their years and O’Connor looked a real threat with ball in hand.

Wilson and Fearghall O’Donoghue were pick of the Cashel forwards with Lyons, Stephen McMahon and Josh Pickering best of their backs.

One minute’s silence was respectfully observed prior to kick off in memory of the too many club and/or family members who have passed during lockdown. May they all rest in eternal peace.

BUCCANEERS:- R.Fallon; J.O’Connor, S.Layden, S.Mannion, R.Murphy-Sweeney; M.Hanley, E.O’Reilly; M.Staunton, D.Browne, C.Ward; R.Byrne, D.Qualter; O.McCormack, E.Galvin (captain) and T.Maree. Replacements:- S.O’Connell (for Ward, 49 mins), C.Booth (for Maree, 59 mins), D.Adamson (for Browne, 52 mins), W.Reilly (for O’Reilly, 52 mins), R.O’Connor (for Murphy-Sweeney, 68 mins) and C.Ward (for Staunton, 69 mins).

CASHEL:- S.McMahon; R.Kingston, A.McMahon, C.Cashman, A.Dunne; D.Lyons, J.Pickering; Ciaran Ryan, N.Fitzgerald, J.Blair; A.Butler, R.Moran; F.O’Donoghue, J.Ryan and M.Wilson. Replacements:- Cathal Ryan (for Ciaran Ryan, 52 mins), R.Foot (for Fitzgerald, 52 mins), B.Ryan (for Blair, 57 mins), B.Crosse (for Moran, 69 mins), C.Mullane (for Cashman, 72 mins) and Ciaran Ryan (for Butler, 72 mins).

Referee:- Andrew Cole (IRFU).