BUCCANEERS maintained their winning ways with a hard fought 27-24 victory over Malone in their Energia All-Ireland League Division 1B game contested under the Dubarry Park floodlights on Saturday evening. Buccs were forced to make a handful of changes for this encounter and, similar to Ireland earlier on the day with their much-changed side, the Pirates found it difficult to produce a cohesive effort. Of course, the Belfast side, battling for survival in this division, played their part too in making life difficult for the homesters.

The Pirates had five changes from the starting XV against UCC, three in the pack and two in the backline. Ross Murphy-Sweeney came in at fullback with Conor FitzGibbon in the centre. Prop Matthew Burke and flankers Sean O’Connell and Ryan O’Meara started in the pack. Malone made half a dozen personnel changes with Sam Green, Ricky Greenwood and Patrick Fullarton-Healey coming into the forwards unit, a new halfback pairing in Shane Kelly and Yasser Omar, and placekicker Rory Campbell returning on the right wing.

On a dry but cold evening, playing conditions were quite good on a surface that is in remarkable condition for this stage of the season, a crossfield breeze being the only problem for the players. Malone were swiftly into their stride with some lovely passing interplay being rewarded with an unconverted David McMaster try after just one and a half minutes.

Buccs took only six minutes to take a lead that they would not relinquish. Steveni Lombard fastened on to a Malone overthrow at a lineout inside the home 22 and the ball was moved on neatly via Ciaran Booth, Stephen Mannion and FitzGibbon to Murphy-Sweeney. The fullback received possession just inside his own half and steamed forward, leaving McMaster in his wake to score a smashing try wide on the left which Michael Hanley converted with aplomb.

Seven minutes later O’Meara got over the ball to win a penalty on the ten metre line. Hanley’s placekick rebounded into play off an upright but the midlanders kept the pressure on with Lombard and Booth making strong carries before Hanley, Josh O’Connor and FitzGibbon combined to transfer possession to Saul O’Carroll who powered through for a try. Hanley struck another sweet conversion from wide on the left to give Buccs a promising 14-5 lead.

From the restart, Will Reilly raced forward and chipped over Andy Bryans who took out the home scrumhalf. The northerners’ fullback was duly sin-binned and Hanley slotted over the resultant penalty that could justifiably have been a penalty try.
But Buccs were very sloppy whilst having the extra man and the Ulster side narrowed their arrears during this ten minutes period through a trio of Campbell penalties, all needlessly conceded. The Shannonsiders only response was a Hanley penalty that gave Buccaneers a 20-14 halftime advantage.

With dark clouds looming overhead at the interval, onfield matters soon looked equally gloomy when Danny Qualter was yellow-carded for a shoulder tackle on 49 minutes and the Ulstermen attacked strongly. Lombard and Martin Staunton and then the two centres did well in quick succession to hold Malone out, but the pressure eventually told when Green finished off this fine spell by Malone for a 55th minute unconverted try that narrowed their arrears to a single point.

The dynamic Booth made a tremendous burst that was somehow held up by the visitors and then O’Connor made a couple of exciting breaks but Buccs just could not penetrate defiant defending by Malone until three minutes from time. This followed a series of close-in penalties to touch near the left corner from which the Pirates lacked precision but this sustained spell eventually yielded reward, albeit stemming in an unorthodox fashion. Kelly mishit a clearance which Qualter leaped to gather and the home lock was tackled illegally. Following another penalty to the corner, this time Buccs got both their lineout and maul working effectively and O’Meara grounded the ball for a try. Hanley made it three conversions out of three from wide on the left.

But there was another twist in the final moments as the hard-working visitors made one final sally forward with Stuart Dodington twice making decent ground. Buccs looked to have stemmed this attack when Reilly snaffled possession to pirouette away close his own tryline but his offload was intercepted by the ever alert Green who pounced for his second try of the contest. Campbell failed to convert all three tries but the 27-24 final score meant that Malone travelled home with a precious losing bonus point, which was the least that their endeavours merited.

This was a mixed display by Buccaneers, some fine endeavour but at other times they looked unconvincing and vulnerable. Both teams had many changes so that cannot totally explain the Pirates stuttering showing, especially on their own lineouts. Booth was a most deserving recipient of the Audi Athlone Man of the Match award and he got good support in the forwards battles from Ruairi Byrne and Lombard. O’Connor, Mannion and Reilly were pick of the backline as Buccaneers retain second place on league table. Green, Dave Cave and the wily Kelly did best for Malone.

BUCCANEERS:- R.Murphy-Sweeney; J.O’Connor, C.FitzGibbon, S.Mannion, S.O’Carroll; M.Hanley, W.Reilly; M.Burke, S.Lombard, M.Staunton (captain); R.Byrne, D.Qualter; R.O’Meara, S.O’Connell and C.Booth. Replacements:- O.Dolan (for Staunton, 55 mins), A.O’Carroll (for S.O’Carroll, inj. 65 mins), J.Kelly, F.McDonnell, C.Walsh and T.Shine.

MALONE:- A.Bryans; R.Campbell, B.Gibson, N.Brown, D.McMaster; Y.Omar, S.Kelly; B.Halliday, S.Green, R.Greenwood; N.Alcorn, P.Fullarton-Healey; D.Maxwell, D.Cave (captain) and M.Crothers. Rolling Replacements:- S.Corr, L.Porter, S.Dodington, L.Perez, J.McMurtry and M.McGlynn.

Referee:- Sam Holt (IRFU).