Despite a highly promising opening quarter, Buccaneers went down to a disappointing 23-12 defeat to Shannon in their final fixture of the Ulster Bank League Division 1B played on the back pitch at Thomond Park on Saturday.
Nevertheless, the midlanders just edged out Old Wesley to retain the final promotion/relegation play-off berth in which they are now away to Ballynahinch on Saturday next.
Buccs made one enforced change to their starting XV for this vital encounter, Callum Boland returning at full-back in place of Alan Gaughan who sustained a shoulder injury in the recent win over Old Wesley. Meanwhile, Shannon bidding to retain their Division 1B status, named David O’Donovan (who has played over 200 AIL matches for the club since 1999) out of position at scrum-half. A dry day and firm surface on the tight confines of the back pitch meant conditions were near perfect for this hugely anticipated contest played in front of a vociferous attendance with a swirling breeze not really giving advantage to either side.
Buccs were swiftly into their stride, helped by an over hit clearance from the hosts that went over the dead ball line. This gave the Pirates a good early platform in home territory and they quickly capitalised on it, earning a penalty that was punted to the right corner. An impressive maul followed the line out and the ball was popped to Conor Lowndes to notch a 4th minute try which Conor McKeown was unable to convert from the right touchline. There was a zip and panache in Buccs play that stretched Shannon but, crucially, the Athlone side failed to add to their tally in this dominant period.
The Limerick outfit gradually settled and enjoyed a decent spell of pressure entering the second quarter before a mighty carry by Kolo Kiripati saw Buccs clear their lines. The penalty count against the Midlanders now began to grow although it was puzzling why some of them were awarded against the Pirates. Shannon eventually opened their account when Tadhg Bennett slotted over a 34th minute penalty from the 22. Clear scoring opportunities were limited but, following a maul after a line out on halfway coming up to half-time, Buccs made good progress only to be penalised yet again. It looked as if the referee indicated that time was up and Bennett opted to kick at the posts from long range. His effort fell short but play was restarted and Bennett won possession inside his own half from where he drilled a magnificent drop goal to put Shannon ahead. Even allowing for the several stoppages in the opening half, seven minutes added time seemed generous, at the end of which Buccs forced a penalty when Greg O’Shea’s blockdown was deemed deliberate. However, with the final act of the half, McKeown’s penalty from 25 metres out on the right drifted wide of the far upright to leave Shannon 6-5 ahead at the interval.
Shannon were clearly the more fired up side on the restart and, following a fine break by Brian Downey, they forced two penalties in swift succession. The first effort was kicked to touch while the second was quickly tapped, both to no avail. However, after the latter, Shane Mullally fastened on to Buccs clearance to angle in much too easily for a 48th minute try which Bennett converted. Buccs retorted, going through the phases with Martin Staunton involved in a number of carries to get close to the home line where Lowndes was harshly adjudged to have knocked the ball on. Then Rory O’Connor made a terrific break on 56 minutes that was carried on by Danny Qualter who got the ball to Rory Moloney via Evan Galvin but an awkward offload to Lowndes was knocked on as the scrum-half endeavoured to keep the ball moving. A little better composure and precision in this move would surely have yielded a Buccs try while other errors did not help the visitors’ cause.
Buccaneers had justifiable grievance with Shannon’s second try, despite O’Shea’s wonderful execution of the 68th minute score, for there was a clear high tackle on Conor Finn as he off-loaded. But the match officials allowed play continue even though Buccs clearance up field failed to make touch and Stephen Fitzgerald sent O’Shea scampering away and the winger embarrassed a couple of would-be tacklers as he arced in for an excellent unconverted try. Substitute Jacob Walshe was yellow carded following this move and the numbers finally told against Buccs when the Munster side moved the ball right to left where beanpole lock Frank Bradshaw-Ryan had time and space to rumble over for an unconverted 74th minute try.
Now trailing 23-5, Buccs threw caution to the wind and were rewarded when Kiripati finished off good play by grounding the ball on the left. McKeown added the conversion but, although the Pirates finished the match on the attack, they could not breach a committed home rearguard any more. It was the only away game in which Buccaneers travelled home empty-handed this season and their first time to lose to Shannon in six fixtures. The homesters were more committed and harder working after their nervy opening and they finished the better side as they retained their Division 1B status. Like Buccaneers, they have a youthful side who will only improve. O’Shea, Fitzgerald and Bennett were pick of the home back line while Lee Nicholas, Downey and Simon Malone worked feverishly in their pack.
This was a patchy display by Buccs, mixing good and bad. They got on the wrong side of too many refereeing decisions and also made too many unforced errors whilst decision making was not always of the required standard. Romaine and Moloney were their best forwards but the back line did not produce the expected potency. Nevertheless, Buccaneers achieved their goal in progressing to the promotion/relegation play-offs in which they travel north to Ballynahinch next Saturday.
Buccaneers:– C.Boland; R.O’Connor, C.Finn, B.Carty, E.O’Reilly; C.McKeown, C.Lowndes; M.Staunton (captain), S.Delahunt, S.Meunargia; C.Romaine, D.Qualter; E.Galvin, R.Moloney and K.Kiripati. Replacements:- R.Byrne (for Romaine, inj. 37 mins), C.Romaine (for Byrne, 54 mins), G.Lynch (for Lowndes, 56 mins), J.Walshe (for Staunton, 57 mins), C.Lowndes (for Lynch, inj. 61 mins), A.Hayman (for Carty, 68 mins), M.Staunton (for Moloney, inj. 73 mins), R.Byrne (for Galvin, 76 mins) and G.Halligan.
Shannon:– S.Fitzgerald; R.Mullane, S.Mullally, R.Deegan, G.O’Shea; T.Bennett, D.O’Donovan; C.Glynn, S.Malone, T.Cusack; L.Nicholas (captain), F.Bradshaw-Ryan; O.Lyons, J.Vaughan and B.Downey. Replacements:- W.Leonard (for Deegan, 57 mins), J.O’Halloran (for Glynn, 64 mins), R.Deegan (for Leonard, inj. 73 mins), C.Glynn (for Cusack, 76 mins), J.Prenderville (for Malone, 76 mins), R.McKenna (for O’Donovan, 76 mins) and K.Brown (for Vaughan).
Referee:- Kieran Barry (IRFU)