RUGBY with MICHAEL SILKE
Mark McCrea celebrates his try with teammate Alex Hayman in Buccaneers win over Belfast Harlequins.
BUCCANEERS upset the formbook when they ambushed Belfast Harlequins 37-30 in an absolutely cracking Ulster Bank League Division 1B game played at sunny Dubarry Park, Athlone, on Saturday. Conditions were perfect for this 'Glasson Country House Hotel & Golf Club' sponsored fixture and a wonderfully exciting contest unfolded between two teams ever willing to move the ball.
Fortunes ebbed and flowed in a swash-buckling encounter with first one team and then the other taking the initiative. The Pirates will be thrilled to have overcome the leaders as the home squad was missing a huge chunk of first-teamers for a variety of reasons. Shane Layden, Daniel Qualter and Conor Finn are in the Ireland U-20 squad, Martin Staunton was ill, Padraig de Burca is injured while Michael Kearney, David Heffernan and Denis Buckley were in action for Connacht. Consequently, Buccs were well depleted and fielded a very young side bolstered by the returning Eoghan Grace who had played with Connacht on the previous night. Harlequins featured Neil McComb and Adam Macklin who also saw RaboDirect game time with Ulster on the Friday night but were without the injured Rory Scholes.
The more experienced and physically stronger Quins would have been expected to prevail especially as Buccs suffered three defeats in their last four matches, two of them at home, but the midlanders got off to a flying start with Mark McCrea setting Paul Harte away on the left but the centre held on to possession just that bit too long. Nevertheless, John O'Brien was soon haring down the opposite flank to squeeze in for a home try after just two minutes. Jack Carty's conversion was off-target but he added a 6th minute penalty to give Buccs a tonic 8-0 lead. The visitors showed what they were capable of two minutes later when McComb fastened on to a loose pass by Kolo Kiripati and it took stout home defending to keep Quins out but they forced a penalty which Ian Porter converted. The scrumhalf then broke from a scrum near halfway and found a gap through the Buccs cover for a try which he also converted to put the northerners ahead 10-8 at the end of a lively opening quarter.
Buccs responded with some good driving play and the visitors were fortunate to escape a yellow card when they brought down a fine maul by the Pirates while they held James Tormey up on their line in the following phase. Play moved from end to end before the powerful Michael Ferguson barged his way through for a 30th minute try which Porter converted and it looked like the Ulster side would use their greater bulk to good effect from thereon. However, they lost Mark McGrath to the sin-bin following an ill-judged tackle on 32 minutes and Buccs added to their punishment when McCrea surged through for a try at the posts one minute later. Garreth Halligan then turned over good ball to send Harte scampering away but Matt Holmes did very well to get back to avert the danger. However, Buccaneers got in for a superb try in the final move of a frenetic first half. A Quins clearance was blocked down in midfield and richly promising prop Diarmuid Higgins fastened on to the ball to transfer possession to Carty and the young standoff angled a precise diagonal crossfield kick to McCrea who drew the cover before sending Harte scurrying in for a stunning try at the posts. Carty converted both these tries to give spirited Buccs a 22-17 lead at the break.
Buccaneers came flying out of the blocks on the restart too and Grace and Mark Dolan both went close in the opening exchanges before Carty edged them further ahead with a 43rd minute penalty. Four minutes later, Luke Satchwell and Carty both made sniping breaks that stretched the Quins defence and Grace finished off the move for a well-taken try at the posts to guarantee Buccs a bonus point. Carty's conversion put the Athlone outfit in a very promising position 32-17 ahead. But a fast-flowing Harlequins attack was finished off for a 64th minute try by Myles O'Hagan while Porter's penalty five minutes later set up a grandstand finish with now just seven points between the teams.
However, Buccaneers refused to wilt and continued to work feverishly whilst also tackling like dervishes throughout. They still endeavoured to move the ball smartly and some wonderful sustained play was finished off by Conor Lavelle wide on the left for a terrific 77th minute try which Carty could not convert from the touchline. Quins battled desperately to retrieve the situation as Buccs defended heroically but, following Carty's late yellow card, the Ulstermen eventually forged a crucial try in virtually the last move of the game when substitute Macklin got in on the right corner for an unconverted try which secured two precious bonus points for the visitors that keeps them top of Division 1B.
Nevertheless, Buccaneers will be well-pleased not only to have won and secure a bonus point in the process but, more importantly, the manner of their victory in flamboyant fashion by such a young, understrength side that refused to stop believing. McCrea was named 'AUDI ATHLONE Man of the Match' but ever busy scrumhalf Dolan would have been this observer's choice while Kiripati too was a force to be reckoned with from start to finish. Shane Reilly had his best outing to date while Grace and particularly Hayman made noticeable impacts following their introductions. Carty and Harte also enjoyed good outings in this performance that moves Buccs up to third and still very much in contention for the promotion battle with just four fixtures remaining.
Club President Ted Carty presents the AUDI ATHLONE Man of the Match award to Buccaneers' Mark McCrea after his side's win over Belfast Harlequins.
The one disappointing feature of this cracking contest was the paltry attendance. Those who were there won't see a more entertaining or exciting, fast-flowing club game this season.
BUCCANEERS:- J.O'Brien; C. Boland, P. Harte, A. Kennedy, M. McCrea; J. Carty, M. Dolan; S. Reilly, G. Halligan, D. Higgins; E. Rooney, J. Tormey; A. Connaughton, L. Satchwell and K. Kiripati (captain). Replacements:- A. Hayman (for Kennedy, 30 mins), E. Grace (for Connaughton, 34 mins), S. Stapleton (for Halligan, 38 mins), A. Kennedy (for Harte, 51 mins), C. Lavelle (for Boland, inj. 57 mins), G. Halligan (for Stapleton, 62 mins), A. Connaughton (for Satchwell, inj. 62 mins), L. Doran (for Reilly, 77 mins) and S. Stapleton (for Kennedy, 79 mins).
BELFAST HARLEQUINS:- M. O'Hagan; W. Stewart, M. Allen, M. Kettyle, M. Holmes; O. McMurray, I. Porter; R. Lutton, N. Annett, M. McGrath; G. Rourke (captain), M. Ferguson; S. Annett, L. Babe and N. McComb. Replacements:- P. Rea (for S. Annett, 20 mins), A. Heatlie (for McComb, h/t), A. Macklin (for McGrath, 45 mins), and A. Macklin (for Rea, temp. 35-45 mins).
REFEREE:- Dudley Phillips (IRFU).
BUCCANEERS THIRDS were comprehensively beaten by Our Ladys Boys Club Seconds 18-0 in their Connacht Junior J2 League game played on the back pitch at Galway Sportsground on Sunday. Conditions were good for this game but Buccs, disappointingly, never looked likely to cause an upset against the hosts who are still very much in the hunt for promotion.
OLBC are a well-drilled, efficient outfit who simply over-powered the midlanders on the day. Buccs got very little ball and rarely threatened despite the best efforts of Ger Walsh and Keith Grehan. This defeat was a big setback for the Pirates who simply must now win their back game at home to Galwegians this weekend if they are to maintain their bid of making the play-offs.
BUCCANEERS:- D. Costello; D. Smith, G. Walsh, S. Flynn, J. Bonnar; R. Flanagan, G. Fallon; Alan Hughes, K. Grehan, L. Doran; G. Kenny, D. Dunning; G. Glynn (captain), T. Couper and S. Byrne. Replacements used:- M. Turley, P. Hynes, P. Rikazde, C. McManus, A. Daly and P. McManus.
BUCCANEERS travel to Hamilton Park, Strandhill, on Saturday where they square up to Sligo in the semi-final of the Connacht Senior Cup. At time of writing, this game is scheduled to kick off at 2.30 p.m. but fixing this Cup tie on a RBS Six Nations matchday is hardly the cleverest move if one hopes to attract a worthwhile crowd for what could be a lively tussle. Buccs will again be without a trio of their Ireland U20s players while fully contracted Connacht players cannot feature, so it is likely that the Pirates will again be understrength. However, last Saturday's hugely encouraging victory over Belfast Harlequins will have helped further the selection claims of youngsters like Aidan Connaughton and Luke Satchwell while Alex Hayman showed that he warrants a starting berth. Sligo, after an uneasy start to life in the All-Ireland League, are now finding their feet and will prove formidable opponents on their own ground which has a heavier sod than Dubarry Park. If Buccs can field a reasonably strong side, they should have sufficient quality to prevail but they will pay dearly if they underestimate Sligo.
The battle for honours in the Connacht J1B League goes right down to the wire with Buccaneers, Ballinasloe and Loughrea in a three-way battle for promotion. Buccs Development Squad top the table on 51 points, three ahead of Ballinasloe with Loughrea, who have two games in hand, on 42 points. Any of the three contenders could top the table which makes Sunday's showdown between Buccs and neighbours Ballinasloe at Moher Road a “must win” game that should not to be missed. Kick off 3 p.m.
When the sides met earlier in the season, Buccs inflicted a first defeat on Ballinasloe but the Pirates were able to call on a strong squad that day. They may not have such strength in depth this weekend but, nevertheless, Buccs recovered from a dreadful start to the league to go on a wonderful winning sequence that has seen them accumulate a lot of vital bonus points in the process. Benny Gilligan can be counted to lead his side with pride while Adrian Hughes is another forward who won't be phased by the occasion. Rory Byrne, Darragh Lennon, Enda O'Brien and Rory Walshe can be counted on to battle for every ball in what will surely be a physical forwards battle but, if Buccs can get decent possession here, backs such as Declan Byrne, Kevin Naughton, Tim Clifford and Conor Molloy can profit.
Ballinasloe will look to John Hayes, J.J.Carey and Andy O'Hara to make the hard yards for Rob O'Beirne and Richie Sheppard to set the tempo. Moher Road will surely be a cauldron but, if Buccs maintain composure, discipline and workrate, they can come out on top in this enticing derby. Meanwhile, Loughrea have home and away games to Creggs and also a game against Ballinrobe. With both these teams snuggled safely in mid-table, Loughrea will be expected to prevail, possibly with a bonus point or two so it is simply win or bust for both Buccs and Ballinasloe on Sunday with the victor maybe needing a bonus point to stave off Loughrea's bid.
Buccaneers Thirds are home to their Galwegians counterparts in a Connacht J2 League game at Dubarry Park on Sunday, kick off 3 p.m. Following last week's defeat, it is critical that this Buccs squad knuckles down and ekes out a win over Wegians who are their rivals for the fourth play-off spot. On home soil, they may just about do that.
BUCCANEERS Mini's are one of the finalists short-listed for the EBS National Community Fund Award of €10,000. To win they need to get the most votes by March 6th. So, please, log on to the EBS website, go to their section relating to the Community Awards, click on www.surveymonkey.com and vote for Buccs Mini's. Then ask your family, friends and work colleagues to do the same. Every vote counts!
Well done to the Marist College team on their Connacht Schools Senior Cup semi-final win over Rice College, Westport. A splendid encounter between two talented teams went, deservedly, to the Athlone school after an exciting replay on a 32-12 scoreline. Good luck in the final against Sligo on March 14th.
BUCCANEERS LOTTO JACKPOT continues to climb and is now a well worth winning sum of €4,600. Last week's numbers drawn were 7, 11, 19 & 25 with no winners.
IRELAND complete their 'ELECTRIC IRELAND' home series of fixtures in this season's U-20 Six Nations Championship when they tackle Scotland at Dubarry Park, Athlone, on this Friday night, March 9th. Kick off 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased in advance at The Bounty. Ground and Family tickets are also on sale at Musicworld, Golden Island, Athlone. Phone bookings can be made to our Administrator Geraldine at 0861732711 or email email@example.com
The pre-match function is, at time of writing, fully booked. Ireland, with Shane Layden, Daniel Qualter and Conor Finn in their squad, has won their first three matches and a home win on Friday will set them up for a championship decider away to England next week.