Report by Niall Quinn

Barnhall RFC was the exquisite location in Parsonstown on the edge of the Pale where Buccaneers U-20’s won the Harry Gale Cup final by defeating Lansdowne 18-12 to achieve a historic Leinster League and Cup double.

Dorothy Collins from the Leinster branch presented the Harry Gale cup and cup winner medals to the history makers from Connacht and the famous 48-year-old trophy spent its first night ever west of the Shannon mostly in the trusty hands of Mikey Byrne the Buccaneers out half. Lansdowne smarting from an unexpected defeat the previous day to city rivals Terenure in the AIL 1A semi-final had rallied their supporters and players to finish their season on a high by bringing this cup home. Harry Gale himself was a rugby visionary and legendary member of Railway Union RFC and Leinster Branch. He initiated Leinster U-19 rugby in 1974, the forerunner of the now world-renowned Leinster Academy, and took his teams overseas to play top opposition and develop their skills. Is this cup triumph and association with the Harry Gale spirit of rugby a sign of future success for Buccaneers U-20’s, they being the first ever Connacht team capture the trophy? Has the spirit and legacy of Harry Gale and this amazing achievement awoken a sleeping giant of Irish club rugby? Will Buccaneers RFC ambitiously build on this achievement? Most likely. The fact is every Buccaneers team from U-13s to U-20s bar one is in a cup final with the Womens, Juniors and Seniors also contesting Connacht cup finals while the AIL team are playing Queen’s University in a league final on Saturday striving to win promotion to AIL 1B.

Lansdowne came fully loaded and expecting to bring home the cup, racing into a 5-0 lead with a series of slick Leinster schoolboys training ground moves just 5 minutes into the game. The message from the Buccs huddle under the posts was hit your tackles harder. From the resulting restart the Lansdowne ball carriers were hit harder than they were ever hit before. Man of the Match Kieran Egan was ferocious both sides of the ball all day, helping his fellow prop Lasha Laoshvilli to score the first Buccs try from an unstoppable pick and go 10 minutes in. Egan and Laoshvilli interchanged all day at scrum time from tight head to lose head to the dread of all in the opposing front row.

For all the flamboyancy and footwork of the Lansdowne runners and their clinical passing they had no answer for the blunt weapon of the Buccs scrum. The pack played like men possessed with a never say die sense of togetherness; the entire 22 squad played for each other like brothers on a mission. After a further 10 minutes Connacht U-19s fullback Adam O’Carroll got his hands on the ball and, with the elegance and skill of an international player, began to run at Lansdowne from inside his own 22, like the Jacob Stockdale try against the All Blacks! The Garbally College back gathered his own chip ahead akin to Moses leading his flock to the promised land, the field opened up as if it was the Red Sea, and he sprinted to touchdown between the posts. Lansdowne were rocked and stunned by the individual skills and athleticism on show by the lad from Shannonbridge. The back three partnership of O’Carroll, Ben Daly and David Colgan worked seamlessly, interchanging positions to ensure Buccs 20s had an attacking threat whenever the ball was moved. The hard-hitting brave tackling of Colgan and Daly meant Lansdowne’s flashy backs never scored out wide while the counter attacking running skills on display by this trio once the ball was cleared to them reduced the Lansdowne options to exit their danger areas. This partnership was the rock of the Buccs defensive strategy along with the fast line speed tackling from Curraghboy’s Fionn McDonnell and Kolo Kiripati.

Byrne converted one try and a penalty to leave the Pirates 15-5 ahead at half time and the heroes from the Midlands were in cruise control into the third quarter but failed to transfer their dominance onto the scoreboard. It was expected that this star filled Lansdowne team would regroup as they were full of big names from Dublin rugby schools and that they would have a purple patch and score. But when it came with the sheer style and the explosiveness it was delivered through the middle of the field by smart teamwork and game changing power and pace. The fluency of their handling skills was so impressive it created a form of shock and awe amongst the Buccs players and supporters from the Athlone club.

At 15-12 those of us with Mayo GAA friends and family could finally relate to that lonely fearful feeling of failure in a final in Dublin after being the best unbeaten team all year. Just as it was nearing the time to lift the cup, some mystical voodoo force of supernatural happenings were aligning against our heroes. Was it all going to fall apart in front of our very eyes; were Buccs U-20s going to be another nearly team that travelled from the west only to return home with a tale of should have, could have got their hands on the cup, and who was going to be the villain of the hour? Between the posts Clan Na Gael man and team captain Tom Shine eyeballed his team mates and they all agreed “We are not losing this cup final here today”.

The Martin Staunton playbook and rugby philosophy of how to win a league and cup final double remained the same all season, emptying the bench as early as possible to give the finishers every chance to impose themselves on the game; this being an integral part of having and creating a culture in a successful driven and determined dressing room. Take note aspiring coaches rugby has become a 23 player game. The bomb squad with true grit and determination were sprung from the bench to defuse this Lansdowne fight back. Immediately Connacht U-19s and Buccs lock forward Lorcan Fallon from Taughmaconnell, our hero of the league final, won a penalty from a turnover and the unflappable Byrne nailed it between the posts to put 6 points between the teams. Now the nerve-racking grandstand finish was on.

All the players and supporters feared a converted try for Lansdowne in the last quarter of the game would decide in which direction the prestigious Harry Gale Cup would be travelling. Lansdowne looked like they had at least 6 game changers queuing up to break the hearts of everyone involved with the Shannonsiders. A relieving 50:22 kick from Athlone GAA’s Byrne gave Buccs lineout specialists McDonnell, Joe Henson, Dara Fitzgerald, Fallon, Kiripati, Luke Balsinger, Cameron Brill and Evan Gallagher the opportunity to maintain their 100% record for retaining possession and territory. But just as ‘The Brothers Malone’ were getting to grips with the Lansdowne strike moves and looked like scoring their own try with a 4 on 1 overlap deep inside the Lansdowne 22, an interception by Senan O’Shea made a 70 yard high speed break despite Orrin Burgess’ attempted ankle tap while running at what seemed like Olympic sprinter pace. A try by the metropolitans seemed inevitable and mothers of Buccs players were burying their heads in their hands in sheer despair but winger Mark Glynn came from nowhere and gained on his target like the coyote and road runner cartoon characters! The Loughrea speedster kept accelerating until he had his hands wrapped around his hunted prey and tackled him to the ground 10 metres from disaster. The rest of the Buccs brothers arrived like the cavalry lead by Colgan and Daly and rescued the situation with a Gavin Daly box kick. Buccs were out on their feet at this stage, tackle after tackle was going in as Lansdowne kept recycling the ball. The referee yellow carded two Buccs players for clumsy tackles resulting in the Pirates being depleted for the last 15 minutes of the game. Another last gasp ankle tap from Marist College’s Ethan Friel saved the day again after he had just replaced Connemara man Luke Duane at 9.

The pressure Lansdowne were putting on the Pirates defensive lines was immense at this stage, with last man try-denying tackles coming from whichever player had the legs to chase back. The last Lansdowne attack and final chance to steal the cup at the death was stopped by a two-man tackle from Kilconnell’s Cian Malone and Cameron Brill allowing Cian McCann from Portarlington in for the turnover and poach. Friel fed Byrne who kicked the ball dead thus getting Buccaneers RFC name on the Harry Gale cup for the first time ever, becoming the 17th club to lift the Harry Gale Cup. Then the pitch invasion started from all the jubilant travelling supporters of this Shannonshide history making side. The live streaming service provided by Tom O’Neill had linked the celebrations and cup presentation with family and friends from all over the world. Gratefully Christy Dunne on behalf of wonderful hosts Barnhall RFC was very supportive and understanding as the celebrations continued for hours after the final whistle, until the victorious team finally finished the day off singing “We are the Champions” in Daly’s in Kiltoom.

With 80% of this Buccs 20s squad available for selection next season, the feeling on Sunday evening was this is just the beginning of what they can achieve.

BUCCANEERS:- A.O’Carroll; D.Colgan, T.Shine (captain), O.Burgess, B.Daly; M.Byrne, L.Duane; L.Laoshvilli, E.Gallagher, K.Egan; C.McCann, F.McDonnell; K.Kiripati, G.Daly and L.Balsiger. Replacements used:- C.Brill, C.Malone, J.Henson, L.Fallon, D.Fitzgerald, E.Friel and M.Glynn.