Buccaneers face Old Wesley in a showdown for the final promotion play-off berth in a hugely anticipated Ulster Bank League Division 1B match at Dubarry Park on Saturday.
Kick off for this game, which is Buccaneers final home fixture of the season, is at 2.30 p.m. The biggest crowd of the season is expected at the Athlone venue with further spice being added to the occasion by the possibility of no less than six former Pirates being involved with the visitors!
Three teams from Division 1B go in to the promotion play-offs. Currently St. Mary’s College top the league table and they host their nearest challengers Dublin University in their penultimate fixture on Friday night. A win there for “Trinity” would ensure that the title and automatic promotion spot is not filled until the final round of matches. Meanwhile, Ballymena lie in third place, too far behind to catch the leading pair but already assured of a place in the play-offs. Thus the final spot is up for grabs between Old Wesley and Buccaneers, who lie just a point apart in fourth and fifth positions, so victory is vital for both clubs ambitions.
The Pirates know that if they win their final two matches, then they will secure the final play-off berth so it is crucial that they overcome the Metropolitans on Saturday. With such an incentive, Buccs can be counted on to be fired up and totally committed for this challenge. Of course, they will also be keenly focussed to avenge their early season defeat away to Old Wesley when they let a 35-17 half-time lead be overhauled in an 80 points thriller. They played sparkling rugby in that opening half but perhaps complacency set in among their youthful squad for the second period and the midlanders let control of the outcome slip from their grasp. They incurred a number of serious injuries in that encounter that upset their rhythm. David Butler and Jacob Walshe were both forced off inside the opening half-hour with Shane Layden also having to be withdrawn in the second half. Butler and Layden’s injuries on the 4G surface ruled both exciting backs out for the remainder of the season; massive losses to the Athlone side as both were in excellent form.
Buccaneers will have learned from that setback. They know that they cannot ease off in any match and must have guile and leadership from start to finish. The four weeks break from their win at Blackrock College will have given their walking wounded time to recuperate although Buccs may have preferred to keep the fixtures coming as they were in a rich vein of form. They had enjoyed the best run of fielding a relatively settled squad since Christmas and it showed in the cohesion of the side. Conor McKeon was the key figure at fly-half and Conor Lowndes, in the absence of injured Graham Lynch, settled into the scrumhalf role although the latter is fit again and in contention to regain the No.9 jersey. Conor Finn returned in the centre after a lengthy injury lay-off and has linked up very effectively with the consistently improving Ben Carty in the centre with the talented and versatile Alan Gaughan switching to the left flank. On the opposite wing Rory O’Connor is the leading try scorer in this division with a dozen touchdowns and his defensive qualities have improved noticeably while Callum Boland is a very underrated operator in the back three. Speedster Eoghan O’Reilly, wily Alex Hayman and the lively Fionn Carr are other capable options in the Pirates backline for this must win encounter.
Buccs pack has had a fairly settled selection in recent outings with Martin Staunton leading his team by example in the front row where Rory Grenham has stepped up to the mark as he rotates the hooker duties with the evergreen Garreth Halligan. Saba Meunargia is capable of dominating matters in the tight with another youngster Cilliene Walsh also acquitting himself in this sector where Jacob Walshe’s availability would be a decided asset. Cian Romaine has been outstanding this year at lock where Danny Qualter’s experience and power should give Buccs an advantage. Mick Mannion has shown massive commitment in the second row too while the hardness of James Tormey could be unleashed here against the visitors. Meanwhile, Kolo Kiripati continues to roll back the clock and be hugely influential at No.8 while Rory Moloney is a teak tough and mobile openside flanker. Competition for places in the Buccs backrow is keen, despite the absence through injury of Stephen McVeigh, with Evan Galvin and Paul Gallogly making strong bids for starting places while Ruairi Byrne is another contender in the home pack.
Meanwhile, the Old Wesley pack does not have the same settled look about it. However, Martin Gately is a vastly experienced loosehead prop and Dave Rowley is a very competitive hooker in a solid front row unit where David Henshaw Junior could feature for the visitors. Darren Horan, if fit, is likely to start at No.8. The Dubliners main threat comes from their backline with place-kicking winger Barry McLaughlin sure to punish any indiscretions by the homesters. Scrumhalf Ian Cassidy has a penchant to snaffle a try and forms an adroit half-back pairing with Alan Large while Billy Ngawini is a potent threat on the left wing. A quintet of ex-Buccs backs are bidding for inclusion in the Old Wesley matchday squad – – Adam Kennedy, Billy Henshaw and Conor FitzGibbon being the strongest contenders although Niall O’Brien and Paul Harte too would love to feature to add spice to this crunch contest.
It promises to be a game played with Cup tie fervour and passion, and should attract a bumper attendance. Buccs form has been much improved since the turn of the year and they have played with greater consistency and application in that spell. Their ‘for and against’ scoring ratio are both slightly better than Old Wesley’s too and If they perform from start to finish with the flair, discipline and workrate that they are well capable of – – and head coach Brett Wilkinson will surely have them tuned in and focussed – then Buccaneers can forge a crucial win as they chase that coveted play-off berth.