Buccs secure Top Four play-off berth


BUCCANEERS confirmed their place in the Energia All-Ireland League Division 2A promotion play-offs with a comfortable 19-3 victory over fourth-placed Ballymena in front of the biggest crowd of the season who created a great atmosphere at Dubarry Park on Saturday. On a bright, breezy afternoon Buccs dictated this Hodson Bay Group fixture from start to finish and really the Pirates should have put up more scores against their fellow contenders. Buccs complete their league fixtures next Saturday away to Cashel in what will be a dress rehearsal for their semi-final duel after Easter. Meanwhile, despite going home empty-handed, Ballymena retain the final play-off berth ahead of the final round of fixtures as both Old Crescent and MU Barnhall came a cropper although the latter’s losing bonus point edged them above the Limerick club into fifth position.

The Athlone side made four changes from their win at Nenagh, two each in both backs and forwards. Shane Layden returned in the centre after illness with Graham Lynch coming in for Josh O’Connor on the left wing. Charlie Ward started at loosehead prop with the versatile Martin Staunton switching to tighthead while Tabo Maree replaced the injured Oisin McCormack at blindside flanker. The Braidmen had eight changes in personnel from their early season win over the Pirates, four apiece in both the pack and backline.

Buccs forced the pace from the start and opened the scoring through a 6th minute Michael Hanley penalty after the northerners’ scrum had been dismantled, a portent of what was to follow. But an offside by the homesters presented Ross McKay with the opportunity to level matters just three minutes later. Shortly afterwards Ruaidhri Fallon made a wonderful fetch that led to territory in the visitors 22 where Ballymena conceded another scrum penalty, Hanley duly slotting over this placekick on 15 minutes.

Three minutes later, a Hanley penalty found touch on the right near the 22 in the opposition half. Ciaran Booth won lineout possession and popped the ball to Tabo Maree. Smart crossfield handling via Will Reilly, Hanley and Fallon followed to send substitute Saul O’Carroll darting in at the left corner for a try which Hanley converted from the touchline for a richly promising early 13-3 lead. Surprisingly this was to prove the Pirates sole try of the afternoon despite a plethora of possession and territory.

This was due primarily to errors once the midlanders got to the Braidmens’ 22. A knock-on spoiled a good opportunity for Booth while the move of the match which saw Layden get over to touch down was ruled out as the final pass was marginally forward. And so Buccs half-time advantage remained at 10 points.

A similar pattern continued following the change of ends with Hanley’s third successful penalty pushing Buccs 16-3 ahead after 50 minutes. Buccaneers continued to apply pressure and a very youthful Ballymena squad creaked regularly but still retained their discipline and defiance. Buccs applied a sustained spell almost on the Ballymena line but just could not get over it. Stephen Mannion made a terrific break on 58 minutes and Danny Qualter carried it on before a diagonal kick eluded Rory O’Connor near the right corner flag. In a rare attack just after the hour mark, Fallon had to put in a super tackle to halt Pierce Crowe with Lynch clearing the danger.

Try as they might Buccaneers just could not breach the Ulster side’s defence a second time and Mannion completed the scoring with a long-range 67th minute penalty. Ballymena finished the game on the offensive, a penalty following a rash and needless Darren Browne intervention giving them a rare foothold in the host’s danger area. The Athlone side then had to put bodies on the line as the visitors asked serious questions of the midlanders’ defensive qualities during which Maree and Hopkins put in vital tackles. The final whistle arrived with Ballymena held up over the home line but, overall, Buccaneers were in control more-or-less from start to finish and were worthy winners.

The exciting talent that is Fallon was named Audi Athlone Man of the Match, an accolade that could just as easily been awarded to Evan Galvin who led like a true captain. Maree and Declan Adamson were prominent in the pack where locks Qualter and Murray had too much power for their opponents. Mannion and Reilly were busy in the backline. Ballymena’s squad is even younger than the Pirates crew and they came off second best in most collisions but they will develop into a fine side and were missing some of their more experienced personnel on Saturday. Ireland U-20 hooker James McCormick and 18-year-old flanker Adam Lamont put it fine shifts while Crowe and Glenn Baillie were best of their backs.

So mission accomplished for Buccaneers albeit not firing totally on all cylinders despite their forwards’ superiority at setpieces. There was much promise in their build-up play to enthuse about and, if they can match their approach work with clinical finishing, Buccs should not be discounted in the play-offs.

BUCCANEERS:- R.Fallon; R.O’Connor, S.Layden, S.Mannion, G.Lynch; M.Hanley, W.Reilly; C.Ward, D.Adamson, M.Staunton; D.Murray, D.Qualter; T.Maree, E.Galvin (captain) and C.Booth. Replacements:- S.O’Carroll (for Lynch), G.Lynch (for Layden), F.Hopkins (for Reilly), D.Browne (for Adamson), J.Kelly (for Ward), R.Byrne (for Murray), W.Reilly (for Fallon), C.Ward (for Staunton) and D.Murray (for Qualter).

BALLYMENA:- M.Corr; R.Ervine, P.Crowe, S.Millar, E.Ritson; R.McKay, G.Baillie (captain); J.Mark, J.McCormick, J.Mawhinney; J.Browne, P.Campbell; A.Lamont, J.Milton and J.J.McKee. Replacements:- A.Ferguson, J.Taggart, P.Hargy, J.Howe and D.Millar (all used).

Referee:- Jason Cairns (IRFU).