BUCCANEERS retained the Bank of Ireland Connacht Senior Cup crown by virtue of a hard-earned 15-8 victory over Sligo in Galway on Easter Sunday, thus completing a provincial double. Rain arrived shortly before kick-off time to add to the ubiquitous Sportsground breeze, making it very difficult for both teams who, nevertheless, put in a compelling and sustained effort from start to finish.

Both sides enjoyed spells of dominance but Buccs, while they were never able to quite shake off the challenge of the north-westerners, were generally the better outfit despite their squad missing many regulars from their AIL campaign. Both clubs still have much to play for in their final AIL fixtures next Saturday and this decider was the perfect workout for both.

Buccs kicked off against the breeze and dominated the early exchanges, their territory being rewarded when Michael Hanley opened the scoring with a 9th minute penalty. However, Sligo nosed in front just three minutes later. A midlanders clearance straight to touch brought the challengers up to near the 22 from where they won a penalty that was punted to touch close to the right corner. From there, their beefier pack got to work and Daire Byrne finished off their drive with an unconverted try for an 8-3 lead.

From the restart, Sligo went offside but Hanley missed a very kickable penalty (the Sportsground is notorious for place-kickers!). Sligo edged further ahead after a high tackle, Jack Keegan finding the range after missing the earlier conversion. However, this was to be their final score.

The Pirates responded to apply fierce pressure inside the opposition 22. Sligo held firm until Hanley’s cute kick found Saul O’Carroll in space wide on the left. A try looked certain but Archie MacLean’s tackle forced the winger into touch as he stretched for the line. However, Buccaneers kept the hoops pinned back, inching ever closer to the line and Frankie Hopkins capitalised on the sustained hard work by his pack to somehow get in under the defence for 27th minute try which Hanley converted.

Four minutes later Hubert Gilvarry swooped on a loose clearance and the fullback sped forward on a weaving run that took a superb Stephen Mannion tackle to halt close to the Buccs line. Jason East unwisely dissented after being penalised for offside on 34 minutes and referee Andy Fogarty despatched the Sligo captain to the sin bin. A magnificent Hanley touch then brought Buccs into the opposition 22 as the Athlone side looked to add further punishment. But Sean O’Connell was caught in possession and a relieving penalty saw Sligo reach half-time narrowly adrift 10-8.

The north-westerners rode out their period of being a player short and took the game to the holders for a spell although they had a decided let off when the referee did not allow advantage on 53 minutes as Conor FitzGibbon looked sure to score had play been allowed to continue. The wind was much less of an advantage at this stage while the rain was now monsoon-like as Buccs regained their grip on the proceedings. But they coughed up a number of opportunities by holding on too long in the face of defiant defending by Sligo.

However, they eventually breached the cover and Mannion made a super break from the ten-metre line that left the north-westerners defence flailing in his wake as he surged up the left flank for a smashing 64th minute try that Hanley was unable to convert from near the touchline. Now 15-8 ahead, Buccaneers just could not add to their tally in the face of stout resistance by Sligo who then threatened with a couple of very late forays.

The Pirates forwards really fronted up in the most demanding conditions and against a much bulkier unit. Danny Qualter was the main man here and he dominated at lineout time where Oisin Dolan’s throws were on the money. O’Connell put in a trojan effort and Ryan O’Meara made an impact when introduced but it was a splendid allround effort by the pack. Hopkins was the standout back for the Shannonsiders with FitzGibbon, Mannion and Hanley also to the fore. Gilvarry was Sligo’s main threat and Brendan Cunningham toiled earnestly but their bulkier pack could not dominate the more cohesive Buccs unit.

Buccs now add the Cup (their eleventh success) to the League title that they won early in the season, again denying Sligo, for an excellent provincial double. The downside is qualification for next season’s Bateman Cup! Nevertheless, the victory and the manner of the overall performance will be a considerable boost ahead of the arrival of City of Armagh to Dubarry Park next Saturday.

BUCCANEERS:- S.Mannion; R.Murphy-Sweeney, C.FitzGibbon, R.Teape, S.O’Carroll; M.Hanley, F.Hopkins; J.Kelly, O.Dolan, M.Staunton (captain); R.Byrne, F.Galvin; S.O’Connell, C.McCann and D.Qualter. Replacements:- R.O’Meara (for McCann, 45 mins), T.Shine (for Teape, 59 mins), C.Walsh (for O’Connell, 70 mins), D.Bolger C.Byrne, F.McDonnell, H.Balsiger and E.O’Reilly.

SLIGO:- H.Gilvarry; F.Bamber, R.Feehily, J.Keegan, C.Finneran; E.Brown, B.Cunningham; B.Earley, S.O’Hehir, K.Wojtkowicz; A.MacLean, R.Holian; D.Byrne, J.O’Hehir and J.East (captain). Replacements:- T.Gormley (for Finneran, temp. twice during sin bin), T.Gormley (for Earley, 53 mins), M.McMorrow (for Bamber, 57 mins), K.Pearson (for Finneran, 57 mins), A.Cummins (for J.O’Hehir, 57 mins), J.O’Hehir (for MacLean, 65 mins), F.Bamber (for Cunningham, 69 mins), C.Trimble, P.Carter, D.Feehily and C.Goddard.

Referee:- Andrew Fogarty (Connacht).