BALLYMENA 25 BUCCANEERS 30
BUCCANEERS continued their impressive resurgence in 2016 with a terrific 30-25 victory over second placed Ballymena in a thrilling Ulster Bank League Division 1B game at Eaton Park, Ballymena, on Saturday. Buccs displayed tremendous teamwork, commitment and enterprise in securing this exhilarating bonus point win that dents Ballymena’s hopes of automatic promotion as the Braidmen lost at home for the first time this season.
Buccs made four changes, all enforced, from their previous win away to Dublin University. Callum Boland returned at fullback for Fionn Carr who was not released by Connacht as was Danny Qualter who was replaced at lock by Cian Romaine. Both props from the victory over the Students were also not available, Jacob Walshe was ill and Conor Kenny is in the Ireland U-20 squad. Rory Grenham and Martin Staunton were their respective replacements.
Despite snow en-route and on the surrounding Antrim hills, weather conditions were much better than anticipated. Bright sunshine made it seem warmer than it was despite the end to end breeze while the pitch was understandably heavy. In front of a decent attendance, the hosts got off to a perfect start, going on the short side following a scrum in midfield and finding Buccs not quite switched on as Rodger McBurney romped over for a second minute try on the right converted by Richie McMaster. The Pirates responded and forced a number of penalties that they punted for territory, finding success at the third time of asking with possession from a lineout being moved to Ben Carty whose smooth off-load sent Rory Moloney scampering over for an unconverted 11th minute try in the right corner.
Ballymena then went through the phases seven minutes later and their good work yielded a James Gallagher try which was converted by McMaster who added a 25th minute penalty to extend the hosts lead to 17-5. Buccs, although playing against the breeze, had chances too but they were not as clinical or precise as they needed to be. On the half hour, Rory O’Connor made an electric diagonal break to the left before the ball was moved back crossfield where the final pass to an overlapping Pirate went into touch, ruling out a clearcut try opportunity. Two minutes later, a strong surge by Alex Hayman was carried on by Conor McKeon but the outhalf was isolated due to lack of swift support on this occasion.
Then a smart diagonal kick by McKeon just eluded the grasp of O’Connor on 36 minutes. However, Buccs were forcing the northerners to infringe under pressure and, three minutes before the interval, referee Nigel Correll yellow-carded home fullback Martin Irwin for an accumulation of penalties by Ballymena. McKeon duly slotted the placekick to narrow Buccaneers half-time arrears to 17-8.
The midlanders promptly made the most of their temporary numerical superiority following the change of ends and they got good territory on the right through an intelligent kick by Hayman. Ballymena’s lineout throw was not in straight and the midlanders opted for a lineout at which Romaine arced superbly to claim possession and then Buccs went close near the posts before the ball was flashed to the opposite flank where Boland surged over for an unconverted 43rd minute try. McKeon was now spraying kicks to both flanks keeping Ballymena pinned back and his smart change of direction saw Eoghan O’Reilly grubber kick ahead of Jonny Creighton before burly centre McBurney slid in to prevent a seeming certain try.
With Ballymena continuing to concede penalties, the referee spoke to the home captain before McKeon reduced the arrears to the minimum with a 50th minute penalty as Buccs tacked on eleven points during Irwin’s period in the sin bin. James Tormey made his first senior appearance of the season at this stage for the injured Romaine before another McKeon crossfield kick just eluded the grasp of Delahunt with the home side stretched. Alan Gaughan made a welcome return from injury at this juncture with Conor Lowndes also joining the fray.
Just before the hour mark, Buccs scored their third try in very similar fashion to its predecessor, being patient and controlled in their phases, before Boland again applied the finishing touch in the left corner. This time McKeon added an excellent conversion to give the Athlone side the lead for the first time. Substitute Andrew McGrath landed a penalty for Ballymena after the Pirates were guilty of not releasing to leave the match delicately balanced with the visitors 23-20 ahead with fifteen minutes to go. Young Cilliene Walsh replaced Grenham, who had put in a Trojan effort, at this stage and the evergreen Garreth Halligan also got a taste of the action for the closing stages.
But Buccs were now in the ascendancy, still continuing to work feverishly, with O’Connor making an inspiring catch and Carty too did likewise to tidy up after a McKeon chip was half blocked before a cute dink by the fly-half was chased willingly by Mannion to gain huge yardage. O’Connor scored a sublime 75th minute bonus point try, his ninth of the campaign, when he curled the ball around a couple of Ballymena defenders and then raced through to touchdown in the right corner. McKeon thumped over a splendid conversion to put ten points between the teams.
The Ulstermen rallied in the closing stages and salvaged what could yet prove a crucial losing bonus point when Connor Smyth was driven over in the final move of a very exciting contest. However, Buccs obliterated their embarrassing 45-0 defeat at the same venue last season with this their third win on the trot since the New Year. They put in a magnificent all-round team performance that was sustained from start to finish. McKeon was named man of the match, a richly merited accolade for the fly-half, who directed matters adroitly and with invention particularly in the second half. Carty had a very commendable outing too in a lively backline. Delahunt was outstanding in the pack where Mannion also made a massive contribution. Grenham was an unlikely hero with his effort at loosehead prop and Kolo Kiripati continues to roll back the years in what was a marvellous team display by the Pirates. McBurney and James Beattie caused most problems by Ballymena with Smyth and David Whann also contributing notably to their cause.
BUCCANEERS:- C.Boland; R.O’Connor, A.Hayman, B.Carty, E.O’Reilly; C.McKeon, G.Lynch; R.Grenham, S.Delahunt, M.Staunton (captain); M.Mannion, C.Romaine; E.Galvin, R.Moloney and K.Kiripati. Replacements:- J.Tormey (for Romaine, inj. 50 mins), C.Lowndes (for Lynch, 56 mins), A.Gaughan (for Hayman, 56 mins), C.Walsh (for Grenham, 66 mins) and G.Halligan (for Delahunt).
BALLYMENA:- M.Irwin; J.Beattie, C.Patterson, R.McBurney, J.Rosborough; R.McMaster, J.Creighton; M.Lagan, J.Taggart, C.Cundell; D.Whann, C.Smyth; S.Mulholland, W.McKay and J.Gallagher. Replacements:- A.McGrath (for McMaster, 54 mins), D.Gallagher (for Mulholland, 54 mins), B.Young (for Cundell, 66 mins), G.Baillie (for Creighton, inj. 67 mins), R.McMaster (for McGrath, 73 mins) and A.Ferguson.
Referee:- Nigel Correll (IRFU).