Buccaneers 19 Ballynahinch 41
Despite a splendid hat-trick of tries by Eoghan O’Reilly, Ballynahinch again proved Buccaneers nemesis when they defeated the midlanders 41-19 in their Ulster Bank League promotion play-off at sunny Ballymacarn Park on Saturday.
On a fine dry afternoon, conditions were near ideal for open expansive rugby as a high-scoring encounter unfolded in front of a big attendance.
O’Reilly was a late call up to the Buccs starting XV when, in the pre-match warm-up, Callum Boland had a recurrence of a hamstring injury sustained in training on Thursday while fit again Alan Gaughan returned at full-back. Darin Classen was included in an extended bench due to Alex Hayman’s unavailability. Hinch made three personnel changes from their demolition of Garryowen with Mike Graham moving to lock in place of James Simpson and Lorcan Dow coming in at No.8. Stuart Morrow and David Nicholson replaced Chris Quinn and Robin Harte respectively in the home three-quarters line.
The late change did not disrupt Buccs as they attacked from the off and a Conor McKeon up-and-under was allowed hop by Justin Rea with the home full-back then left in no-man’s-land by the bounce of the ball on the rock hard surface. O’Reilly promptly made his presence felt when surging on to the ball to scoot in for a try just left of the posts inside 40 seconds and McKeon’s conversion gave the Athlone side a perfect start and a 7-0 lead. Buccs were fizzing in the opening exchanges and Gaughan looked like he had quickly added a second try wide on the left on seven minutes. He was tackled by Sam Windsor as he grounded the ball close to the corner flag and the match officials deemed he was in touch. However, it was the tackler who was in touch underneath the Pirates full-back and really this score should have been allowed. Two minutes later, the visitors’ pressure forced Dow to hold on to possession in front of the home posts but McKeon untypically missed the most straight-forward penalty.
The majority of the crowd were already anxious as Buccs could easily have been 17-0 to the good at this stage, but the hosts got a lucky break on 12 minutes when Ben Carty telegraphed his intentions near his own ten metre line and Nicholson intercepted his pass to send Aaron Cairns scampering in for a try at the posts. Rea’s conversion levelled the scores totally against the run of play and, for a period, Buccs now played a bit too much rugby in their own half. However, they settled again and Conor Finn made a strong break from halfway and, as the defence converged on him, he punted an astutely angled grubber kick that was fastened on to by O’Reilly to notch a 19th minute try wide on the left, McKeon getting his place-kicking back on radar with the conversion.
The game evened out in the second quarter with the diagonal breeze benefiting the Ulster side while Buccs suffered a setback when Carty, who had sustained a knock early on, was replaced by Classen after 28 minutes. Rea landed a 36th minute penalty from the right for Hinch after Gaughan was incredibly penalised for offside although he was some 30 metres away on the opposite flank and nowhere near the play! Then, in the final move of the half, Buccs suffered a self-inflicted double disaster when McKeon and Classen were both blocked down inside their own 22 in swift succession and Ballynahinch gratefully gobbled up a gift-wrapped score. Windsor dinked the ball over the cover and won the race to touch down for a try which Rea converted to put the home side into a fortuitous 17-14 lead at the break.
Rea added a penalty within two minutes of the restart and now Ballynahinch had their self-belief, urgency and organisation restored. Following a brief flare up on 50 minutes, Kolo Kiripati was the only offender singled out for ten minutes in the bin and the northerners promptly added to Buccaneers’ discomfort. They kicked the resultant penalty to touch on the right and, following the lineout, drove over the Pirates’ line in impressive fashion for Connor Joyce’s try which was converted by Rea. Six minutes later, a snappy Windsor break led to David Busby grounding the ball between the posts for Hinch’s fourth try with Rea again on target with the conversion to stretch the home side’s advantage to 34-14.
Buccaneers rallied and fine interplay by McKeon and substitute Shane Layden got the ball wide to O’Reilly on the hour mark but the winger was tackled into touch just short of the home line. However, he completed his hat-trick four minutes later after Buccaneers opted for a scrum (which were uncontested for much of the second half as the home side had only one replacement prop!). The midlanders attacked on the right initially before the ball was switched to the opposite flank where O’Reilly again demonstrated his finishing ability for an unconverted try close to the touchline. This reduced the arrears to 34-19 and ushered in hopes of a dramatic finale.
Rea had his only miss of the afternoon with an ambitious long penalty on 72 minutes but, from the restart, Windsor found a terrific touch to the right deep in Buccs territory. The Pirates lineout went awry and stocky hooker Jonny Murphy could hardly believe his good fortune to win possession from the throw before powering over the line for an opportunist try with Rea’s conversion completing the 41-19 scoreline.
The final margin flattered the winners as their ‘great escape’ continues with Dublin University travelling north next Saturday. Ballynahinch were that bit better, particularly after they got their noses in front on the scoreboard and built momentum thereafter. Busy scrumhalf Cairns was a key operator in their back line where Rea’s place-kicking contributed a crucial 16 points while Joyce, John Donnan and Ireland U-20 Dow made vital contributions in their pack.
So deja-vu for Buccaneers who need to be more measured and patient at times, and be prepared to go through more phases. Their swash-buckling play, while highly entertaining, is not always pragmatic. They paid dearly for two bad errors in the opening half that yielded 14 points to ‘Hinch who added the same amount of points whilst Buccaneers had a player yellow carded. Fine margins but harsh reality. Yet there are positives to be gleaned from a long season in which a mainly youthful Pirates crew battled willingly and with no little skill in the vast majority of fixtures. There were only a few occasions when the team played below par or without sustained commitment and passion. Saturday was certainly not one of them for they gave their utmost until the bitter end, with Cian Romaine the outstanding performer. Saba Meunargia and Evan Galvin also put in huge efforts in the forwards exchanges while Gaughan and O’Reilly (surely man of the match despite being on the losing side) putting in terrific shifts in the back-line where Layden made an impressive and welcome return after a six months injury lay-off.
Footnote:- One minute’s silence was observed before kick-off as a mark of respect for Ballynahinch stalwart Peter Magowan who passed away during the week.
BALLYNAHINCH:- J.Rea; S.Morrow, D.Nicholson, J.Grattan, D.Busby; S.Windsor, A.Cairns; C.Trenier, J.Murphy, Jonny Simpson; M.Graham, J.Donnan; C.Joyce, P.Pritchard (captain) and L.Dow. Replacements:- J.Blair (for Jonny Simpson, h/t), James Simpson (for Dow, h/t), L.Dow (for Graham, 56 mins), B.Pentland (for Trenier, 74 mins), A.Ferris (for Busby, 74 mins), J.McBriar (for Cairns, 74 mins), Z.McCall and C.Gibson.
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:- D.Classen (for Carty, inj. 28 mins), S.Layden (for Classen, 57 mins), J.Walshe (for Staunton, 57 mins), R.Dixon (for Lowndes, 57 mins), R.Byrne (for Romaine, 74 mins), R.Grenham (for Delahunt, 74 mins) and P.Gallogly (for Galvin, 74 mins).
Referee:- Leo Colgan (IRFU)