by Michael Silke
BUCCANEERS finished up their Ulster Bank League Division 1B title-winning season with yet another bonus point victory at Dubarry Park, Athlone, on Saturday but their 40-10 win over Ballynahinch was not as clearcut as the scoreline suggests. Depleted Hinch had proved awkward visitors and stubbornly held on to a 10-7 lead as the game entered the final quarter. Then the Pirates finally unleashed their scoring potential as the depleted northerners ran out of steam and Buccs added five tries in that late scoring salvo in this Ganly’s of Athlone sponsored match.
The champions had two personnel changes for this game, U20 players Frankie Hopkins and Luke Carty coming in to form a new half-back partnership. Shane O’Leary switched to centre in place of the injured Mata Fifita while Conor McKeon was not available. Meanwhile, the number of players used by Ballynahinch in this campaign rose to 57 as they made four changes with Andy Simpson and Garreth Gill starting in their pack and Jordan Grattan and Ryan Wilson coming into their backline.
On a sunny afternoon, the Ulster side had first benefit of the breeze and dictated the early exchanges on the firm surface. However, in their first attack of any real menace, Buccs struck for the opening score after 17 minutes. Following an off the ball tackle on O’Leary, Buccs punted a penalty from the visitors’ ten metre line to touch on the right. There Danny Qualter won smart lineout possession and the Pirates pack drove over the Hinch line where Jamie Dever grounded the ball for his first try for the hosts. O’Leary added a fine conversion and Buccs looked on their way.
Ballynahinch had other ideas and a swift retort yielded a brace of quick-fire tries. Aaron Cairns weaved his way through before the end of the opening quarter and, just three minutes later, a quick throw in to Peter Nelson enabled the out-half to send David Nicholson scampering away from his own half to touch down. Neither try was converted but the Mourne men had their noses 10-7 in front. They retained this lead at the end of a less than vintage and generally uneventful first half.
Buccs introduced Alan Gaughan and Shane Layden for the second period and the hosts were more forceful following the change of ends. However, prop Dever was yellow carded five minutes into this half for not rolling away and Hinch doggedly defended their slim advantage. But Buccs pressure, with Audi Athlone Man of the Match Rory Moloney to the fore, was slowly building and Rory O’Connor made a lightening break down the left flank where his link with Hopkins drew a high tackle by Blane McIlroy before the home scrumhalf could off-load to the supporting Jordan Conroy. McIlroy was duly sin-binned and Buccs added further punishment when, following the penalty to touch in the left corner, the Athlone pack mauled their way over the Hinch line to regain the lead with a 63rd minute John Sutton try.
Three minutes later Gaughan made a terrific break from midfield but Nicholson put in a try-saving tackle just five metres out. However, the ball was quickly transferred via Layden to O’Leary who touched down to the right of the uprights. This Buccs scoring blitz continued when, after a Hinch lineout throw close to their line was crooked, the Midlanders profited when Kolo Kiripati broke away with the ball and possession was promptly skipped across field where Conroy dotted down for a bonus point 70th minute try…..his 18th touchdown of the season! Gaughan’s impressive place-kicking continued as he converted these three tries, all scored during McIlroy’s absence.
Buccaneers now led 28-10 and, as brave Ballynahinch wilted, the Pirates grabbed another brace in the final moments. Rory Grenham powered over for a 78th minute try on the right with Kiripati’s conversion attempt going narrowly wide. However, there was still time for one more home try, Layden surging through to score enabling the talismanic Buccs skipper (with the final kick of the game and his last act before retiring) to bring the curtain down on his wonderful service to the Athlone club by landing an impressive conversion to complete the 40-10 scoreline.
It looked for a long spell that Ballynahinch would again prove Buccs bogey team but the 21 points conceded while temporarily depleted proved their downfall. Thus Buccaneers atoned for their opening day loss at Ballymacarn Park, one of only two defeats in a superb league campaign. This was a rare sloppy and scrappy performance by the midlanders but, once they got their momentum going, they were not going to be denied. Kiripati again led by example and he surely still has much to offer on-field should he reconsider his retirement plans!
Ever consistent prop Martin Staunton made a massive contribution all season, being the only player to start every game. His front row colleague Sutton started every match bar one, the opening day fixture when he came on as a second half substitute and the hooker has achieved promotion for the second successive season having been part of Naas’ success last year. Qualter is another forward who made a magnificent contribution all season and his imperious lineout work will be a major loss in 1A. Conroy was the find of the season in the backline where Gaughan improved immeasurably at out-half whilst also becoming a really fine place-kicker as his contribution of 142 points testifies. Overall, it was a terrific crusade and there is much to reminisce on whilst many promising players have emerged from the 37 players used throughout the successful league campaign.
Life in the top flight will, undoubtedly, be massively challenging. However, Buccs are nothing if not resourceful and with Brett Wilkinson hopefully still helming the Pirates, the club can look forward with anticipation to next season. But, for the moment, the players and mentors can relax and reflect on a job very well done before the hard work restarts shortly all over. They topped Division 1B on 72 points, a massive 18 points ahead of second placed Naas. Congratulations to all involved and thanks to all our loyal supporters and sponsors.
The Ulster Bank League Division 1B trophy was presented to Buccaneers after the game by Adrian Leddy (IRFU) and Brian Lawlor (Ulster Bank) before the promotion celebrations got under way in earnest with a rendering of “The Brothers Malone” before a pig on the spit was swiftly consumed! “Come on, the Buccs!”
Buccaneers: C.Boland; R.O’Connor, S.O’Leary, A.Hayman, J.Conroy; L.Carty, F.Hopkins; M.Staunton, J.Sutton, J.Dever; S.Meagher, D.Qualter; S.McVeigh, R.Moloney and K.Kiripati (captain).
Replacements:- S.Layden (for Boland, h/t), A.Gaughan (for Carty, h/t), E.Galvin (for McVeigh, 50 mins), R.O’Meara (for Dever, 59 mins), R.Grenham (for Sutton, 68 mins), S.McVeigh (for Moloney, 68 mins), C.Boland (for Hayman, 78 mins), L.Carty (for O’Connor, 78 mins) and R.O’Meara (for Galvin, temp. 56/59 mins).
Ballynahinch: R.Wilson; D.Busby, D.Nicholson (captain), J.Grattan, A.Cairns; P.Nelson, B.McIlroy; A.Weir, A.Harper, C.Trenier; A.Simpson, J.Donnan; B.Howard, S.Evans and G.Gill. Replacements used:- B.Cullen, B.Pentland, P.Wright and C.Quinn.
Buccaneers captain Kolo Kiripati and Head Coach Brett Wilkinson.