Buccaneers moved into the final play-off berth when proving too strong for fellow promotion rivals Old Wesley 25-9 in their Ulster Bank League Division 1B match played in front of the biggest crowd of the season at Dubarry Park on Saturday. With so much at stake for both sides, a nervy but compelling encounter unfolded before the Pirates proved their merit with an impressive final quarter flourish.
Buccs made three changes for this their final home fixture of the season. Danny Qualter and Shane Delahunt were available for duty in the home pack while Eoghan O’Reilly returned on the left wing for exam-tied Callum Boland with Alan Gaughan switching to full-back. Old Wesley continued to rotate their starting XV which included a trio of ex-Buccs in prop David Henshaw, his cousin Billy Henshaw on the right wing and Paul Harte on the other flank. Another Athlonian Adam Kennedy was introduced at fly-half in the second half by the visitors adding further spice to this crunch contest.
Considering this was the last match of a long season, the pitch was in excellent condition although the steady drizzle that started shortly before kick off made handling difficult at times. Mistakes began from the start with Rory Stynes rescuing the visitors within two minutes when an attempted clearance was blocked down but Old Wesley took the lead just two minutes later when Buccs were caught offside and Ian Cassidy kicked a fine penalty. Almost immediately, Harte won the chase to again spare the metropolitans blushes when a second kick was blocked down by the hosts who were soon to level. Delahunt’s surge forward from a close-in lineout yielded a tenth minute penalty which Conor McKeon slotted over. However, the midlanders were guilty of slowing the ball on 17 minutes and Cassidy made no mistake with a straight-forward penalty from the 22.
The stockier Old Wesley pack held the edge early on but Buccaneers were gradually getting to the tempo and imposing themselves on the exchanges and they looked like scoring the opening try after 26 minutes. Following a wayward clearance by the visitors, O’Reilly countered in exciting fashion before linking up with Gaughan who off-loaded in the tackle to Rory O’Connor and the winger seemed to be on his way to his 13th try of the season but referee Andy Brace spotted that the pass was fractionally forward. Buccs were relieved that McKeon was not involved with Connacht away to Ulster on the preceding evening but the richly promising outhalf was withdrawn after half an hour following an accidental clash of heads with Mark Rowley. Alex Hayman came on in the pivotal outhalf role and a minute later Ben Carty knocked on in the tackle when Buccs had an overlap in midfield.
But Buccaneers were now beginning to create opportunities and when they moved the ball swiftly from right to left just inside their own half, O’Reilly left Billy Henshaw trailing in his slipstream as he raced away for a try wide on the left to give Buccs the lead. Gaughan now assumed place-kicking duties but saw his conversion attempt fade to the left of the near upright. The Athlone side now piled forward for the remainder of the half but despite getting over the visitors’ line in one raid they could not add to their tally before a relieving penalty to the Leinster outfit left Buccaneers 8-6 to the good at halftime.
The Pirates were a more urgent and cohesive crew on the restart and a magnificent Gaughan penalty from halfway within two minutes of the change of ends signalled the home side’s intent. Ten minutes later, Old Wesley had a third attempted clearance blocked down but the referee ruled on this occasion that Cian Romaine’s block was a knock on. O’Connor should then have left a diagonal kick by the Dublin side go into touch but in attempting to catch the ball he stepped into touch deep in his own half. Following the lineout the visitors went through the phases until a home player infringed in front of the posts. Cassidy tapped over the resulting penalty to leave just two points between the teams, 11-9 as the game entered the final quarter.
However, this was to prove Old Wesley’s final score as Buccaneers now took a firm grip on the proceedings to dominate territory and possession. Billy Ngawini put in a try-saving tackle just five metres from his own line on O’Connor but, with only two points separating the sides, it was still a bit nervy for the big home following until the midlanders’ endeavours finally reaped reward when Rory Moloney, Qualter and Romaine all displayed handling that any back would have been proud of in a super flowing 68th minute move finished off by the latter. Indeed after the impressive lock powered over on the right corner, he had the presence of mind to continue and ground the ball much closer to the visitors’ uprights. This made Gaughan’s conversion much easier as he edged Buccs advantage to 18-9, now crucially at least two scores to the good.
Five minutes from time Kolo Kiripati thundered forward to force a penalty that was punted to the left corner but the lineout went awry while, almost immediately on the opposite flank, Harte was called on to put in tackle on his former teammate Gaughan that surely denied Buccs another try. However, the incessant pressure on Old Wesley was unrelenting and in the last move Conor Finn robbed Ngawini and evaded Cassidy’s tackle to stretch over the line between the posts for Buccaneers third try. Fittingly, the final act was left to AUDI ATHLONE Man of the Match Kiripati to display a previously unknown talent with a composed conversion to seal the thoroughly deserved 25-9 victory.
Buccaneers now move above Old Wesley into the play-off berths with just one round of matches remaining. Buccs final league outing is away to Shannon on Saturday week.
Buccaneers:- A.Gaughan; R.O’Connor, C.Finn, B.Carty, E.O’Reilly; C.McKeon, C.Lowndes; M.Staunton (captain), S.Delahunt, S.Meunargia; C.Romaine, D.Qualter; E.Galvin, R.Moloney and K.Kiripati. Replacements: A.Hayman (for McKeon, inj. 30 mins), R.Grenham (for Staunton, 70 mins), G.Halligan (for Delahunt, 74 mins), G.Lynch (for Lowndes, 77 mins) and M.Mannion (for Galvin, 77 mins).
OLD WESLEY:- R.Stynes; P.Harte, B.Ngawini, G.Finucane, B.Henshaw; A.Large, I.Cassidy (captain); D.Henshaw, D.Rowley, J.Burton; J.Hinde, I.McGann; D.Horan, S.Boyle and M.Rowley. Replacements:- A.Kennedy (for Large, 48 mins), R.Kerins (for Hinde, 51 mins), B.McLaughlin (for B.Henshaw, 54 mins), M.Gately (for Boyle, 54 mins), S.Boyle (for Horan, 75 mins) and C.Telford.
Referee:- Andy Brace (IRFU).