BUCCANEERS and Ballymena, the two clubs relegated from 1B last season, square up in the Energia All-Ireland League at Dubarry Park on Saturday next. Kick off is 2.30 p.m. for what is already a crunch clash between two clubs not accustomed to life in Division 2A.
Both suffered opening day defeats and Buccs encountered another dismal outing against Rainey Old Boys but Ballymena earned a 26-26 home draw against Nenagh Ormonde at the weekend. A late yellow card there helped the Tipperary side to level but the Braidmen will take heart from their improved performance in which they scored four tries. Busy scrumhalf Michael Stronge scored their opener with Sam Millar, called into the squad following the loss at Barnhall, then notching a brace. Their influence along with that of fly-half Glenn Baillie must be curbed. Connor Smyth and Ireland U-20 J.J.McKee form an effective partnership at lock while Ali Burke and Chris Cundell are two other solid performers in the Ulster side’s pack.
Shane Layden was forced off late in Buccs game at Magherafelt and his shoulder injury is a major concern for the Athlone outfit. Rory O’Connor, an out and out try scorer, could make a return in the centre where he has played before; his firepower would be a welcome addition. Otherwise, there is unlikely to be much tinkering with the backline although more may be demanded from the halfbacks.
Illness hampered Max Kennedy’s debut but he should be in better shape if selected for the Ballymena duel while Rory Moloney was withdrawn early in the second half. Hopefully, he will be fit to go while Ruairi Byrne will have his fingers crossed that he too can line out. Christian Maulaulau will be more familiar with his new teammates next week although No.8 may not be his strongest position. Head Coach Peter O’Donnell may vary some permutations in the Pirates pack that is not quite firing on all cylinders yet. Like his opposite number Andy Graham, he is relying greatly on youth this season and it will take time to jell. Saturday’s game will be a test of character and focus with decision making and pragmatism key ingredients on the day.