BUCCANEERS and MU Barnhall served up highly entertaining Energia All-Ireland League Division 2A fare when these top four contenders went head-to-head at Parsonstown in Co. Kildare on Saturday when the spoils were shared after a cracking 20-20 draw. Both teams strove desperately for the vital victory but, after a fast-flowing and absorbing contest, they could not be separated on a cool, dull afternoon.

Buccs made four personnel changes, two each in the backs and forwards, as well as some positional switches for this tie. Tabo Maree made his first start in some time in place of Daniel Qualter (exams) and James Kelly returned in place of Sam Illo (on Connacht duty) in the front row. Both wings were changed with Josh O’Connor in for the injured Saul O’Carroll on the left and Shane Jennings for Thomas McGann on the opposite flank. Meanwhile, Michael Hanley and Ruaidhri Fallon swopped roles at flyhalf and fullback respectively. MU Barnhall also had four changes from the side that narrowly defeated the midlanders in Athlone last month. Like the visitors, they too had an even split with two backs, Niall Hilliard and Tim Lambe, and a pair of forwards, Darragh Bellanova and Ross McKean, starting on this occasion.

A cold crossfield breeze greeted the teams and spectators but otherwise conditions were good for rugby. Buccaneers hit the ground running with an impressive series of phases in the build-up to their opening score. Their neat handling and quick play led to a penalty which Fallon punted to the right corner where Ruairi Byrne won clean lineout possession. From there the forwards got to work and Oisin McCormack, who was involved a number of times, stretched over the home line for a 5th minute try which Hanley converted.

This was the perfect start for the Shannonsiders but they then conceded a number of needless penalties that gave the Blue Bulls a foothold in the opposition half where they mauled over for a 13th minute try by Conor Turley (who has Athlone connections) and two minutes later Adam Chester landed a penalty following a technical infringement to put the home team 10-7 ahead. They could have gone further ahead following a strong break by McKean but ignored an overlap and Buccs got back in numbers to earn a relieving 23rd minute penalty while Eoin O’Reilly and Jennings tidied up an awkward moment with Ciaran Booth’s assistance four minutes later.

Stephen Mannion and Fallon then combined to set up a chance for Shane Layden but the ball was knocked-on inside the home 22 where pressure by Buccaneers at the ensuing scrum yielded a penalty that Hanley slotted over to level the scores after half an hour. O’Reilly then dallied too long when dealing with a long kick ahead but Martin Staunton rescued the situation. Next Hanley was unlucky not to keep a long home penalty from finding touch and, from the resultant pressure, MU Barnhall earned a 36th minute penalty in front of the posts which Chester slotted over. Just before the interval, Buccs had a good opportunity to level the scores for the second time but Hanley pulled a relatively straight-forward penalty wide. This miss left the Shannonsiders trailing 13-10 ahead at the break and was also to prove costly for them overall.

Buccaneers were eager and industrious from start to finish and Graham Lynch’s introduction early in the second half caused new problems for the Blue Bulls. His will-of-the-wisp breaks were instrumental in earning the Pirates a 57th minute penalty in a quite similar position from which Hanley missed before halftime but this time the young fullback converted comfortably to leave the teams tied at 13-13. With the breeze now not as strong a factor, a Fallon blockdown on 65 minutes set Buccs on the attack but Jennings perhaps should have passed to the under-utilised O’Connor instead of chipping ahead. Four minutes later the flame-haired winger atoned when a teasing 69th minute diagonal kick by MU Barnhall took a wicked bounce but Jennings made a terrific recovery to keep his lines intact.

A brief flare-up ensued just after this and, on the intervention of a touch-judge, McCormack was yellow carded. The hosts punted the resultant penalty to the left corner and following the lineout and a number of phases the Blue Bulls drove over for a 72nd minute try at the posts by Cathal Duff with Chester’s conversion steering MU Barnhall 20-13 ahead. That looked like the decisive score but there was drama aplenty to follow as Buccaneers threw caution to the wind in search of a score. They piled on fierce pressure in the closing minutes when they were sustained, patient and cohesive, inching ever closer to the home line. Several times they were held out on both sides of the uprights before Hanley delivered a spot-on pass to Jennings wide on the right and the winger powered over for a 79th minute try. Hanley then coolly added the testing conversion to draw the teams level once again at 20-20.

The referee puzzlingly did not apply advantage when he blew for a penalty to Buccs shortly afterwards as O’Connor was haring away on a counter-attack. That seemed to be the last chance but, in a prolonged period of added time, Buccs remained camped in the home 22 where on a number of occasions they came tantalisingly close to snatching a match-winning try. That seemed to have arrived in the 84th minute when Sean O’Connell looked like he had managed to ground the ball but the referee, after initially looking like he was going to award a try changed his signal deeming that control of the ball had been lost in the effort to touchdown as bodies tore in from all angles! Here credit must go to MU Barnhall’s defence in this thrilling finale.

So both teams halted their recent run of defeats with the shared points meaning that Buccs retain fourth position, still seven points ahead of MU Barnhall. Buccaneers may have been disappointed not to edge the decision at the death but, having gone seven points down with a player in the sin bin and time running out, they can reflect on a courageous battle that earned the draw. Overall this was an excellent performance by the young Pirates that will boost morale with McCormack being their man-of-the-match for the second successive Saturday. Booth and Darren Browne also had fine performances for the Athlone side whose scrum was dominant while Hanley and Fallon performed well in their new roles and Lynch’s maverick style made a positive impact.

MU BARNHALL:- N.Hilliard; S.Sexton, S.Higgins, D.Dooley, C.Lacey; A.Chester, T.Lambe; C.Turley, G.Murray, D.Bellanova; C.O’Brien, R.McKean; P.Nalty, N.Veltom and T.McKeown (captain). Replacements:- S.Stokes (for Veltom, temp. 21 mins), C.Duff (for Murray, 59 mins), G.Brooks (for Bellanova, 59 mins), S.Stokes (for McKeown), R.Doyle and J.Hannon.

BUCCANEERS:- M.Hanley; S.Jennings, S.Layden, S.Mannion, J.O’Connor; R.Fallon, E.O’Reilly; J.Kelly, D.Browne, M.Staunton; R.Byrne, T.Maree; O.McCormack, E.Galvin (captain) and C.Booth. Replacements:- G.Lynch (for O’Reilly, 47 mins), R.Grenham (for Browne, inj. 50 mins), S.O’Connell (for Kelly, 59 mins), S.Kroupa (for Maree, 74 mins), H.Hughes (for Mannion, 74 mins) and J.Kelly (for Staunton, 74 mins).

Referee:- Andrew Mitchell. (IRFU).