Naas held on in a thrilling finish to defeat Buccaneers 35-29 in their Energia All-Ireland League Division 1B match that was moved at late notice on Saturday to Tullow’s 4G pitch. With Naas’ Forenoughts ground frozen in patches the game was switched to the Co. Carlow venue with a 4.30 p.m. kick-off where Buccs gathered two priceless bonus points.

Buccs made three personnel changes for this tilt with the Cobras with Josh O’Connor preferred to Conor O’Shaughnessy in the backline, James Kelly got the nod ahead of Sean O’Connell in the front row and Gavin Daly came in for the unavailable Paul Boyle in the back row where Cian McCann was switched to No.8. For their part Naas were bolstered by the returns of Craig Ronaldson and Fionn Higgins in their backline with Conor Doyle and Cillian Dempsey starting in their pack.

With virtually no breeze conditions were near ideal, being dry and not that cold at the neatly appointed venue. The visitors got off to a tonic start with Orrin Burgess making serious ground in two stages before off-loading to the supporting Stephen Mannion who sent Daly in for a 2nd minute try converted by Michael Hanley. But Naas replied almost immediately with fullback Higgins diving over the midlanders line for a try after a Buccs knock-on gave them territory and Ronaldson added the conversion. Buccs then suffered an early major setback when Danny Qualter suffered a recurrence of a calf injury and was replaced by Dylan Bolger.

Matthew Victory did well to get a grip on Charlie Sheridan as he bore towards the Buccs line but Ronaldson landed the resultant 14th minute penalty to put Naas ahead. Four minutes later they notched their second try, Tadhg Brophy linking up with Charlie Sheridan whose deft offload sent Donal Conroy in for a try on the right. Ronaldson’s conversion gave the Co. Kildare side a 17-7 lead.

Buccs responded with a Hanley penalty but a mix-up following the restart granted Naas a foothold in opposition territory and they were soon mauling over for a 25th minute Doyle try on the right, Ronaldson again adding the extras. On the half hour, Charlie Sheridan sliced through the centre again, this time sending twin brother Jack in for a bonus point try and a 29-10 advantage.

It looked really ominous for the Athlone outfit at that stage but they finished the half strongly, going through a fine series of phases to make ground after Fergus Galvin swooped on a loose Naas ball with Liam McNamara eventually bobbing and weaving to unlock the home defence for a 35th minute try at the posts. Hanley duly added the conversion.

Matthew Burke was especially prominent at this stage and Mannion made significant ground in a break that led to a penalty kicked to touch on the left. Cathal Walsh won lineout possession and Frank Hopkins spun the ball to O’Connor who burst through four tacklers for a smashing 38th minute try just left of the uprights. Hanley surprisingly missed the straight-forward conversion but Buccaneers were back in the contest, having narrowed their arrears to 29-22 at half-time.

Naas regained control following the change of ends and added a 42nd minute Ronaldson penalty but they were then held up over the opposition line on three occasions through stout defending by the Pirates before Ronaldson’s 56th minute penalty stretched their advantage to 35-22.
However, Buccs responded by introducing Shane Layden in the centre with Mannion switching to fly-half and the Shannonsiders dictated the remainder of a fast-flowing encounter. A tight call deemed a try-scoring pass to McNamara was forward while Dempsey was yellow-carded for tackling Daniel Hawkshaw as the Pirates centre took a swift tap penalty. A penalty try should surely have been further punishment to the hosts in this 62nd minute incident.

Seven minutes later Naas were temporarily reduced to 13 players when Higgins was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on. Buccs promptly profited with Matthew Victory storming over for a 70th minute bonus point try converted by Mannion to set up a gripping finale. Buccs now piled forward and McNamara was tackled into touch on the left almost within touching distance of the home line. But Naas defended ferociously and two further knock-ons by them were not ruled as deliberate and Buccaneers, despite prolonged pressure at the 22, just could not breach the defiant Cobras who probably deserved their victory.

Buccs gave themselves too much to do, not helped by some errors while the very early loss of a physical leader Qualter did not help their cause. Burke and Victory put in trojan efforts in the forwards battle where Cian McCann was prominent throughout and Bolger acquitted himself well despite playing out of position. Wings Burgess and O’Connor posed a threat but needed a greater supply of possession. The home pack battled from start to finish but the swift movement of their backs especially the Sheridans and Higgins caused regular problems for the midlanders while wily Ronaldson played an influential role also.

NAAS:- F.Higgins; D.Conroy, C.Sheridan, C.Ronaldson, J.Sheridan; B.Croke (captain), T.Brophy; C.Doyle, A.O’Kane, S.Lackey; P.Monahan, C.McVerry; C.Dempsey, M.Cleary and E.Walsh. Replacements:- P.Osborne (for Brophy), J.Rodgers (for Monahan), J.Coyle, D.Benn and D.Lenehan.

BUCCANEERS:- L.McNamara; J.O’Connor, D.Hawkshaw, S.Mannion, O.Burgess; M.Hanley, F.Hopkins (captain); J.Kelly, M.Victory, M.Burke; F.Galvin, D.Qualter; C.Walsh, G.Daly and C.McCann. Replacements:- D.Bolger (for Qualter, inj. 6 mins), S.Layden (for Hanley, 51 mins), C.O’Shaughnessy (for McNamara, inj. 70 mins), L.Balsiger (for Daly, 73 mins), L.MacFarlane (for Burgess) and C.Daly.

Referee:- G.Ormiston.