In these times of no ‘live’ sport, sports editors in the media are constantly endeavouring creatively to fill the diminished space generally afforded to match reports and latest sporting news. Hence Kieran Galvin of the ‘Westmeath Independent’ contacted yours truly with a number of ideas to fill some space including to select my all time Buccaneers or Athlone team.
Kieran has constantly granted consistent coverage to Buccs and indeed prior to that to Athlone RFC over many years in his role as Sports Editor. So I was glad to oblige, especially as I imagined it would be a fairly straight-forward selection project. Little did I realise the time it would take, particularly in attempting to be fair and honest in the team selection. I remind readers that the choices are mine and that many other better qualified members of the club would most likely pick different personnel in their fantasy squads!
I quickly realised that I am not well enough qualified to cover the pre-Buccaneers era in the club so I focussed on players from season 1993/94 when Athlone-Ballinasloe kicked off life in the All-Ireland League. The name changed to Buccaneers the following season for AIL purposes. Consequently, legendary figures such as Leo Galvin, Paddy Kilcommons (RIP), Michael Stapleton, Ray McLoughlin, Kevin Canavan and Derry Fitzpatrick are not included.
That reduced the time span to review to just less than 30 years but, nevertheless, did not make the task much easier! Nevertheless trawling through Buccaneers matchday programmes and match reports brought back many great memories, characters and occasions. The crowds that attended club games in the early days of the AIL before the professional era took over. ‘Buccs 3-2-1’ when the club progressed from Division 3 to the top flight in successive seasons. “The Fields Of Athenry” being sung first of all at Buccs games, when Paudge Finn commandeered the PA at Moher Road following a live TV win over Lansdowne if my memory serves me well! Full trainloads of supporters going to away matches as far afield as Ballymena, Cork and Dungannon. Ah yes, who can forget that second leg play-off away at Stevenson Park when Buccaneers, trailing 17-7 from a then rare home defeat, truly upset the rugby applecart. Giving possibly the club’s best ever team performance, Buccs won 27-10 on the day (25th April, 1998) to secure an overall 34-27 aggregate win and with it promotion to Division One!
Players gaining international recognition from underage up to senior level was a further side effect culminating, of course, in Robbie Henshaw’s selection on the British & Irish Lions squad. Just some of the highlights since the emergence of Buccaneers. But, ironically, Robbie does not feature in this Buccaneers squad and I better swiftly explain my thinking in that regard. Robbie was good enough to play on our Firsts XV while he was a mere schoolboy but AIL regulations did not permit secondary schoolboys to be selected! Consequently, he played less than a handful of matches for Buccs Senior side, perhaps only two full games, before he was fast-tracked by Connacht and the rest is history. All players on ‘my’ squad featured regularly for Buccaneers for more than a season.
And so to my final choices. The first name that came to mind when choosing players was Tayto! Eoin Brennan. 3 times our Senior player of the year (the only one to achieve that). 3 times club captain. 4 Connacht Senior League and Cup medals in his locker. Joined from Old Kilcullen via AIT, Eoin was honoured by Irish Colleges and all too infrequently by Connacht. A courageous flanker who was a true club treasure.
The second name on my list was Gavin Schoeman, another back-rower. ‘Shoe’ was a passionate Springbok who played with Western Province and also occasionally with Connacht. A fierce on-field competitor contrasted with his quieter demeanour off it, Gavin was our Senior player of the year in his first two seasons at the club.
The back row selection was swiftly completed with Koronato Kiripati getting the No.8 jersey. The South Sea Islander joined from Wanderers and enjoyed 9 successfully seasons in the midlanders’ colours. A great ball carrier, he skippered the Pirates and was Senior player of the year. Kolo and his family have been heavily involved in the club since their arrival and, along with his wife Mele, he was joint ‘Club person on the year’ in 2016. And it seems that his involvement may become even more influential in the coming season!
The signing of Brian Rigney was a masterstroke by Buccaneers, a vastly experienced lock at a number of clubs including Shannon where he won 2 AIL titles. His chequered career included 8 Ireland appearances, ‘Bru’ skippered Buccs for 2 seasons, the first of which saw him lead the Pirates to Division One in that memorable victory over Dungannon (when head coach Eddie O’Sullivan was absent on duty with the USA Eagles!).
Mark McConnell completes a formidable second row pairing. He was the club’s only ‘contracted’ player in the season that Buccaneers gained promotion to the top flight. But the Kiwi was a hard and classy operator at lock. Injury and a subsequent move from Connacht to Ulster curtailed his involvement thereafter.
The front-row, once the noted launchpad of winning Buccaneers teams, proved the most difficult to finalise as there were numerous strong and fearsome contenders.
Martin Staunton is my loosehead prop choice. ‘Mairt’ has given sterling, loyal and sometimes undervalued service for over a decade. He has played at both sides of the front row as well as answering the call with brief stints at No.8 and elsewhere in the pack. Staunton was honoured as Buccs Player of the Year on two occasions and received the Connacht Club Player of the Year accolade in 2018. Senior Captain for two seasons, he is the epitome of a true clubman being first to training virtually every time.
Garreth Hallligan was another long-serving and very able and mobile operator whose consistency warrants his name on the No.2 hooker’s jersey. Joined the club from Skerries when he arrived to AIT and captained the club to a rare Connacht Junior Cup triumph before becoming Senior skipper on two occasions. ‘Hally’ scored final day bonus point try against Dublin University to clinch AIL Division 2 title.
Martin Cahill holds off stiff competition to earn the tighthead berth. A fans favourite, he was the first ever Buccaneers player to score a try for Ireland when playing for the Development XV. He also has U-21 and A caps and ‘The General’ also represented Connacht and Munster. His influence in the forwards trenches saw him selected on AIB/Irish Times team of the year. A handy hurler too!
Selections in the backline proved no less challenging, beginning at half back:-
Jack Carty was an all-rounder at Marist College, being capped at U-15 soccer by Ireland and playing gaelic football up to Minor with Roscommon, before focussing on rugby. Here he was, arguably, a slow burner before blossoming at Connacht and then progressing to the Ireland squad that played in RWC 2019. He now has 10 Senior caps in addition to appearances at U-18, 19 and 20 levels and was named ‘Virgin Media Sport Supporters Player of the Year’ 2019. He captained Buccaneers to their All-Ireland U-19 Cup triumph in 2011. With Jack in the pivotal outhalf berth, Buccs teams were a more potent force.
Chris Keane would have been an ideal halfback link for Carty. The Dubliner was a strong and direct scrumhalf who also arrived via Buccaneers strong ties with Athlone Institute of Technology. A fellow Skerries clubmate of Halligan, ‘Conehead’ played for Ireland Colleges and Sevens sides and won a Heineken Cup medal with Leinster.
Jordan Conroy’s lethal finishing propelled Buccaneers to Division 1A in 2017 when he won the ‘AIL Division 1B Player of the Year’ accolade. The left winger scored 18 tries in just 14 games for Buccs and his try-scoring prowess helped the Athlone club also claim a Connacht Senior League and Cup double that season. The Tullamore native was surprisingly spurned by Connacht but Ireland Sevens noted his talents and potential. He is now a key player in their squad, winning the ‘Rugby Writers Sevens Player of the Year’ award in 2019. His loss to Buccs was massive but we hope to see him in full flight at next year’s Olympic Games.
Aidan Wynne and Alex Hayman would be my centre partners and both have unique distinctions. The former has won Leinster and Connacht Senior Schools Cups while the latter is a Scot who played for England! Wynne, who was backs coach for the past two seasons, was an elegant performer who won Ireland caps at Youths, U-19 and U-20. Indeed he was key cog in the U-20’s Grand Slam title. Meanwhile, ‘Haggy’ represented England Students and Universities. He was twice honoured as ‘Senior Player of the Year’ at Buccaneers whom he also captained on two occasions over a lengthy career at the club.
Mike Devine mans the right flank. His competiveness and leadership were crucial to a fledgling Buccaneers alliance and ‘Biffo’ was the first man to captain the squad under the Buccaneers moniker 1994/5. Devine played gaelic football for Offaly and represented Connacht for whom he scored a hat-trick against Munster! Mike epitomised what was best about Buccs.
To complete I go from one of the 1993/4 players (Devine) to one of the current crop, Shane Layden. ‘Laydo’ is another player who has given wonderful and dedicated service to Buccaneers whom he captained for the past 3 seasons. He played gaelic football for Roscommon at underage before rugby took over. His potential was quickly recognised and he represented Ireland at Sevens and U-20 grades, winning a ‘Six Nations Man of the Match’ accolade under the Dubarry Park floodlights in 2013 having been a key figure as Connacht achieved an U-20 interpro Grand Slam that same season.
BUCCANEERS SELECTION with replacements in italics:-
15 Shane Layden Callum Boland
14 Mike Devine Gordon Curley
13 Alex Hayman William Wallace
12 Aidan Wynne Kieran Slevin
11 Jordan Conroy Ted Robinson
10 Jack Carty Simon Allnutt
9 Chris Keane Conor O’Loughlin
1 Martin Staunton Jimmy Screene
2 Garreth Halligan Joe McVeigh
3 Martin Cahill David Henshaw
4 Brian Rigney (captain) David Kelly
5 Mark McConnell Daniel Qualter
6 Gavin Schoeman Des Rigney
7 Eoin Brennan James Tormey
8 Koronato Kiripati Noel Mannion
Selecting this squad proved challenging and rewarding and will, of course, not find agreement with everyone. Nevertheless, it passed many hours (far more than I had envisaged!) whilst cocooning in these strange pandemic times! I am sure Kieran Galvin would welcome alternative selections and, perhaps, someone may endeavour to pick an Athlone RFC XV.