Although not playing to their true potential for long periods, Buccaneers showed their mettle when eking out an 18-13 Ulster Bank League victory over Ballymena at Eaton Park on Saturday.
By Michael Silke
This key win, their eight successive victory, keeps Buccaneers on top of Division 1B as the league takes a seasonal break until action resumes at the end of January. Buccs lead the table on 37 points, four points ahead of second placed UL Bohemian. Old Wesley, in third place, have 29 points with Ballymena now a further four points adrift.
The midlanders made three changes for the long trip north. Callum Boland made his first AIL start of the season in place of Jordan Conroy, who was continuing his try-scoring exploits this time for Ireland in the Dubai Sevens. Danny Qualter and Rory Moloney were available to return to the Athlone side’s pack. Ballymena made seven changes from their win at Ballynahinch with Jonny Rosborough and John Creighton starting in the home backline. They made a handful of alterations to their pack with Bryan Young and James Taggart bolstering their front row while Willie McKay, Mark Foster and James Gallagher also started, the latter being named their man of the match.
On a dull, drizzly afternoon, heavy underfoot conditions were not conducive to Buccaneers style of play and it took the visitors a long time to get into their stride. They were not helped by a second minute yellow card to Kolo Kiripati following an incident with Mark Best that was flagged belatedly by a touch judge. Play was then held up for 35 minutes while the home centre was attended to followed by a lengthy wait for an ambulance.
Ballymena resumed in a change of jersey to red after the protracted break and they were quickly into their stride. A break by Callum Patterson stretched the depleted Shannonsiders and Luke Carty’s misdirected clearance was fastened on to by Ritchie McMaster who sent his side forward. When possession returned to the outhalf, his crossfield kick found James Beattie who made full use of his decided height advantage to win possession and crash over for a 7th minute unconverted try near the right corner.
The Braidmen had a clear edge at scrumtime throughout, winning a steady stream of penalties, and this led to a 20th minute penalty by McMaster to put them 8-0 ahead. However, the Pirates steadied their ship with a fine series of pick and goes in which Martin Staunton was to the fore. They came close to getting over the home line with a number of sallies but had to settle for Alan Gaughan’s 28th minute penalty to open their account.
Ballymena struck back within three minutes with prop Young surging over on the left for another unconverted try when Buccs tackling lacked its usual crispness and organisation. Just before the interval, a fine Gaughan penalty to the left corner brought the Athlone side within striking distance of the home line but the lineout went badly awry and so Ballymena were deserving of their halftime lead of 13-3.
Second half revival
Within moments of the restart, Cian Romaine was forced off through injury with U-20 player Simon Meagher replacing the Buccs lock. Meanwhile, Ballymena introduced David Shanahan at scrumhalf for the second period but Creighton was soon back on for Rodger McBurney when the northerners fullback was injured. This resulted in a major reshuffle in the home backline which probably helped the midlanders in the long term. Just before the hour mark, Ryan O’Meara replaced Rory Grenham and the young prop made an early impact when he stormed through the centre from midfield to set up a good spell of pressure by the visitors. This time the Pirates finished off the raid successfully when Shane Layden powered through for a 63rd minute try and Gaughan added an excellent conversion from close to the right touchline.
From the restart, Mata Fifita put in a thumping tackle to turn over possession and the ball was popped to Layden but the centre’s hack ahead was that bit too strong and a try opportunity evaporated. However, he was impeded by Patterson as he chased the kick ahead and the referee awarded a penalty which Gaughan duly converted to level the scores at 13-13 on 66 minutes.
Buccaneers were finally playing like we know they can and a second try looked on just moments later but Eoghan O’Reilly was denied by a foot in touch as he stretched for the home line. However, Pirates supporters in the modest but vocal attendance did not have long more to wait for what proved to be the decisive score. John Sutton zipped on to a loose pass close to the Ulster side’s line and Buccs went efficiently through a number of phases to suck in the cover before the ball was transferred smartly to the left where Boland capped his return with a well-taken touchdown. Although Gaughan was unable to add the conversion from close to the touchline, Buccaneers now finally had the bit between their teeth and, more importantly, an 18-13 advantage with eight minutes remaining.
Although playing below par for most of the opening hour, the Athlone side were finally galvanised and they displayed other vital ingredients as they battled fiercely in the closing stages to protect their lead. They survived a searching test of character in the final moments when substitute O’Meara was sin-binned as Buccs problems at scrum time continued but they held out for what could prove a pivotal win. Although not as fluent as in recent outings, the Pirates rode their luck somewhat but also showed tremendous character, desire and commitment when other facets were not going as smoothly as hoped for in a sometimes niggly affair.
There will be hard work on set pieces before the league resumes when Ballymena visit Dubarry Park for a Saturday night floodlit contest on January 28th that is already being anticipated. But this hard-earned 18-13 win sees them finish the first half of the league campaign with a four points advantage on the leaderboard so they can deservedly enjoy their festive break.
Ballymena: R.McBurney J.Beattie, C.Patterson, M.Best, J.Rosborough; R.McMaster, J.Creighton; B.Young, J.Taggart, C.Cundell; M.Foster, C.Smyth; S.Mulholland (captain), W.McKay and J.Gallagher. Replacements:- G.Baillie (for Best, inj. 2 mins), D.Shanahan (for Creighton, h/t), J.Creighton (for McBurney, inj. 50 mins), A.Ferguson (for Taggart, 64 mins), J.Taggart (for Ferguson, 76 mins) and H.Bonnar.
Buccaneers: L.Carty; E.O’Reilly, S.Layden, M.Fifita, C.Boland; A.Gaughan, C.McKeon; R.Grenham, J.Sutton, M.Staunton; C.Romaine, D.Qualter; E.Galvin, R.Moloney and K.Kiripati (Captain). Replacements:- S.Meagher (for Romaine, inj. 42 mins), R.O’Meara (for Grenham, 59 mins), A.Hayman (for Boland, 73 mins), E.Maher (for Galvin, 76 mins) and G.Lynch
Paul Haycock (IRFU).