Buccaneers are on the cusp of promotion following this bonus point 39-27 Ulster Bank League Division 1B victory over nearest challengers UL Bohemian on the 4G pitch in the University of Limerick campus on Saturday.
By Michael Silke
On a bright afternoon, conditions were near ideal for the fast-moving styles favoured by both teams and a highly entertaining contest unfolded in which Buccs also took the lion’s share of tries as they stretched their magnificent unbeaten sequence to 12 matches.
With Shane Layden and Jordan Conroy both in Portugal with the Ireland Sevens squad, the Pirates’ growing strength in depth was signalled by their replacements in fit again Shane O’Leary and the availability of Luke Carty. Meanwhile Saba Meunargia also returned to front row duty (probably for the last time as he has joined Doncaster Knights in the English Championship for the remainder of the season) with Rory Grenham on the bench. UL Bohs had a quartet of changes from their defeat at Shannon with Darragh Frawley coming in for Ed Kelly in the second row. In the hosts’ backline, Joe Murray, Jamie McNamara and James Lennon were replaced by Rory White, Robbie Bourke and Angus Lloyd. The latter pair linked up at halfback with Rick McKenna switching to fullback.
The Red Robins, aided by the breeze, were swiftly on the offensive and Kiwi McKenna’s fifth minute penalty opened the scoring. However, Buccs quickly struck back and punished a McKenna clearance that curled back into play when smart interplay got the ball to Alex Hayman and strong-running by the centre earned him a 12th minute try near the posts with Alan Gaughan adding the conversion. Seven minutes later Gaughan landed a penalty to which McKenna replied with a 24th minute placekick. UL Bohs regained the lead on the half hour mark with Harry Fleming getting through a Carty tackle that lacked conviction.
Buccs retorted with a tremendous rampage by Meunargia in which he could have scored had he backed himself but the move was carried on by Kolo Kiripati before Frankie Hopkins was held up just short. However, the Pirates arrived in numbers and the powerful Kiripati was not to be stopped, burrowing in between the posts for a 35th minute try converted by Gaughan to give Buccaneers a 17-13 half-time lead.
Buccaneers made two changes at the interval with Shane Delahunt making a rare appearance in place of John Sutton and Evan Galvin coming on for Stephen McVeigh. Just three minutes into the second half, UL Bohs again retook the lead when Hopkins juggled to try to control a high pass but McKenna swooped to steal possession on his own ten metre line. With the visitors all pressing forward, the New Zealander had a clear run for an opportunist try which he converted. Buccs then made a further three changes in quick succession, all enforced, with Dan Keane coming in on the left wing for Callum Boland, McVeigh retuning to the back row for Rory Moloney and Dean McMahon slotting in for Hopkins at scrumhalf. Nevertheless, they continued to dominate territory and possession without breaching the Limerick side’s defence. Gaughan gained some reward for this pressure with a 58th minute penalty to tie the scores 20-20.
The final quarter provided thrills and scores aplenty. McVeigh did well to break a promising UL Bohs attack and Galvin’s chase earned the midlanders valuable yards before a terrific Carty clearance then pegged the Munster side back. With both sides gambling on long passes, it was inevitable that further intercept scores would occur and the alert Keane was next to profit as the Red Robins chased the game when he fastened on to a skipped pass to race in from the 22 for a 69th minute try converted by Gaughan. Sutton now rejoined the fray in place of McVeigh.
Four minutes later, the Athlone side forced a scrum near halfway and the ball was flashed left to right to Rory O’Connor who hared down the flank to secure the bonus point try. Gaughan’s conversion was his only miss of the game, rebounding off the near upright but Buccs now looked home and dry, 32-20 to the good. But the homesters continued to battle and Rory White finished off decent play for a 77th minute try which McKenna converted to set up a dramatic finish. With just five points separating the scores, UL Bohs chased a converted try needed to win but again the swift harrying and eagle-eyed covering by Buccaneers was rewarded when O’Leary smartly read an intended pass near halfway and he surged forward to touchdown between the posts for the midlanders fifth try. Gaughan’s conversion to make it 39-27 was the final action of a lively and effervescent affair.
This was a zestful and invigorating display by Buccaneers who now enjoy a 16 points lead at the top of the league table with just 5 matches remaining. Brett Wilkinson’s charges (which included three U-20 players in the starting XV and another duo off-loaded from the bench) displayed tremendous energy and flair as they put a mortal dent in the home side’s ambitions. The departing Meunargia excelled and could have signed off with a try. Danny Qualter and Simon Meagher dominated in the engine room and the Pirates back row is surely the best in this division. Gaughan is enjoying an excellent campaign and Hopkins is proving a quick learner while Hayman proved once again what a wonderful servant he has been to Buccs. McKenna, Fleming and Lloyd did well in the home backline. Ian Condell led his pack with typical fire until injured at the three-quarters stage and James Ryan also put in a tireless shift for UL Bohs.
Footnote:- One interested spectator at the match (and proudly wearing an original Athlone RFC tie) was JIM DOYLE. He played at lock on Athlone’s first Connacht Senior Cup winning side in 1955, but he had divided loyalties on Saturday as his grandson James Ryan was playing at blindside flanker for UL Bohemian.
UL BOHEMIAN:- R.McKenna; F.Ahern, H.Fleming, R.White, C.Ahern; R.Bourke, A.Lloyd; P.Nesbitt, P.Dowling, M.Lynch; D.Frawley, N.Kinane; J.Ryan, I.Condell (captain) and B.Walsh. Replacements:- C.Trimble (for Condell, inj. 58 mins), P.Kelleher (for Nesbitt, 50 mins), J.Murray (for Ryan, inj. 61 mins), J.Lennon (for Lloyd, 73 mins) and J.Moloney.
BUCCANEERS:- L.Carty; R.O’Connor, S.O’Leary, A.Hayman, C.Boland; A.Gaughan, F.Hopkins; M.Staunton, J.Sutton, S.Meunargia; S.Meagher, D.Qualter; S.McVeigh, R.Moloney and K.Kiripati (captain). Replacements:- S.Delahunt (for Sutton, h/t), E.Galvin (for McVeigh, h/t), D.Keane (for Boland, inj. 46 mins), S.McVeigh (for Moloney, inj. 48 mins), D.McMahon (for Hopkins, inj. 53 mins), J.Sutton (for McVeigh, 70 mins) and R.Grenham (for Staunton, 73 mins).
Referee:- George Clancy (IRFU).