BUCCANEERS face a long journey and acid test when they travel north on Saturday to take on Ballynahinch in the Ulster Bank League promotion/relegation play-off at Ballymacarn Park. Kick off for this repeat battle of 2013-14 season in the Mourne mountain foothills is 2.30 p.m.

Ballynahinch propped up Division 1A for virtually all the season and trailed Galwegians by five points going in to last weekend’s final round of matches. Even at halftime, it looked like a Connacht derby (and a much handier journey to Crowley Park) as Wegians lead Cork Con and Hinch were only narrowly ahead of Garryowen. But, as expected, Cork Con (in need of a win to ensure a home top four semi-final) eventually overcame the westerners. However, what was not anticipated with Hinch having an inferior scoring difference of about 40 points compared to Wegians was that the Ulster side would win by a whopping 54 points against Garryowen. This facile 59-5 victory over a team with nothing to play for confirms a weakness in the AIL structure as also evidenced by Highfield’s dramatic pipping of City of Derry to their division’s title when compiling a massive winning margin in their final match in similar circumstances.

Nevertheless, that was all out of Buccaneers control and they have qualified for a tilt at promotion, which was the objective this season. Now it is the hills of County Down that Buccs must set sail for come Saturday. The elevated ground in the shadow of Sliabh Croob is a testing venue, particularly if the elements are not kind. One can virtually be assured that it will be windy. Hinch will be greatly buoyed by last week’s relieving win, which they will hope to be part one of a great relegation escape. Like the Pirates, they have quite a number of young upcoming players in their squad including Ireland Sevens duo Aaron Cairns and David McGuigan, possibly on the wing and at No.8 respectively. Scrumhalf Paul Rowley is on Ulster’s books and wing Chris Quinn has been in excellent place-kicking form throughout the season and Sam Windsor is another back to be wary of. Busy flanker Paul Pritchard captains the side and prop Craig Trenier, lock John Donnan, hooker Zac McCall and upcoming No.8 Lorcan Dow have all worn the red hand jersey of Ulster teams as has back-rower Connor Joyce, formerly of Malone.

So it looks like a formidable and mobile side facing Buccs who have no less than twelve survivors from their side that lost 35-13 when the clubs met in a play-off that was tighter than the scoreline indicates in 2013-14. Callum Boland, Conor Finn, Alex Hayman, Eoghan O’Reilly and Ben Carty were backs who saw action on that occasion with Garreth Halligan, Martin Staunton, Kolo Kiripati, Ruairi Byrne, Jacob Walshe, Evan Galvin and Danny Qualter all contributing in the forwards battle. The latter was playing excellently in that game but an early injury was a big blow to the Athlone side.

The Pirates have the experience of what to expect and hopefully they will react positively to their below par performance away to Shannon. Buccs can and must play much better than at Thomond Park and, if the whole matchday squad play to their individual and combined potential, then a tremendously exciting and competitive joust is in prospect. Needless errors must be eliminated and decision-making improved with better discipline than last Saturday essential. It all looked in place in the opening quarter against Shannon (and indeed in most of the matches since the start of the year) and, if Buccs can put in one hell of a collective pragmatic and sustained effort, there is the talent and ability to overcome the home side.

Ballynahinch will undoubtedly have a substantial crowd at the game so here’s urging all Buccaneers supporters to make the hike north up the motorway to get behind the Pirates in what will surely be their toughest challenge of the season.


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