Buccaneers have slipped out of the automatic promotion spot on the league table following their 17-14 home defeat by Dungannon in their Ulster Bank League Division 1B game at Dubarry Park, Athlone.
Apart from a light crossfield breeze, playing conditions were perfect and both teams, although missing many regulars, gave the vocal crowd plenty to shout about in this Glasson Golf Hotel & Country Club sponsored encounter.
Buccs were forced to line-out minus injured duo Daniel Qualter and Adam Kennedy, work commitments ruled out Clifford Richardson while Shane Monahan was in Italy with Connacht, but Colin Watters made a belated appearance as he took a break from his 'best man' duties! This meant considerable rejigging of their forces with U-21 captain John Hayes making a first Senior start in the back row. Patrick Jackson and Craig Gilroy have been added to Ulster's Heineken Cup squad and, along with Conor Gaston, were not released to Dungannon.
A very lively and generally entertaining contest began brightly for Buccs who started strongly and John O'Brien finished off good attacking play for a 7th minute try, his ninth in this season's All-Ireland League. Shortly afterwards two visiting defenders got in a tangle under pressure from Conor Lavelle who chased a sublime Jack Carty diagonal kick and Stephen Burke took full advantage to score a second home try. With Carty converting both, the understrength Pirates led promisingly 14-0 after 16 minutes.
But five minutes later, a home throw-in went awry and Buccs conceded a penalty which Michael Kirkwood's quickly tapped in midfield, catching the midlanders off-guard and Stuart Lester got in for a Dungannon try in the right corner.
Huge energy was displayed by both sides with Buccs commitment being exemplary, boosted by the introduction of Watters after 31 minutes. As half-time approached, Kolo Kiripati looked like making a scoring break only to be whistled back for a ruck infringement and so the midlanders led 14-5 at the break.
The tempo remained fast after the break and Buccs piled on the pressure for the third quarter but simply could not add to their tally. Thrice Callum Boland came close in the second half, being whistled back twice for tight forward pass calls. David Connellan's attempt to kick a loose ball at the back of a scrum on 52 minutes resulted in a trip on his opposite number Kirkwood and Dungannon gained some respite with a relieving penalty. Shortly afterwards, Paul Harte got up smartly to block down an attempted clearance by the northerners and Buccs forced a penalty but Carty was off-target on the hour mark.
Dungannon now made a trio of substitutions to stem the tide but Boland and Kiripati combined to again come tantalisingly close to the visitors' line after 67 minutes. But with Buccs not translating possession and territory into scores, they were exposed for a sucker punch which duly arrived one minute later when Michael Lawton scurried away for a try totally against the run of play. Although the referee overruled his touch-judges regarding the conversion and Buccs still led 14-10, this score deflated the hosts who had spent huge amounts of energy and endeavour without outwitting or unlocking a valiant Dungannon defensive effort.
Then, just as they had done three weeks earlier, the Ulstermen rubbed salt in Buccs' wounds when Rowan Halsall stretched over the home line for a try four minutes from time with Lawton adding the conversion as Dungannon repeated their three points winning margin earlier in the month. They battled hard all afternoon, recovering from a bad start, and left themselves in a position for a smash and grab when it presented itself. Halsall, who moved from the back row to right wing at half-time, made a notable contribution to this win as did scrum-half Kirkwood with Thomas J. Anderson the pick of their forwards.
Buccs were desperately disappointed afterwards but for an over an hour they were the dominant force but, with no scores coming in the third quarter despite intense pressure, the industry took its toll on the collective input, whilst substitutions were made too late to make an impact or change the dynamics. Carty's line-kicking was top-class, O'Brien and 'Athlone Springs Hotel man of the match' Boland always threatened in possession, Padraig de Burca dominated the line-outs and Dylan Rogers was in the vanguard as Buccaneers constantly strove to make inroads.
Despite a fifth successive losing bonus point, Buccaneers have now been overtaken by Lansdowne by virtue of the metropolitans' superior scoring difference, so it is winner take all in the promotion race when the clubs clash in the final series at the Aviva next Saturday.
One minute's silence was observed before the game in memory of the late Michael Byrne, former President of Athlone RFC and also of the Connacht Branch IRFU.
J.O'Brien; C.Lavelle, P.Harte, A.Wynne, C.Boland; J.Carty, D.Connellan; C.Higgins, G.Halligan (captain), C.Higgins; P. de Burca, S.Burke; J.Hayes, E.Rooney, K.Kiripati. Replacements: C.Watters (for Rooney, 31 mins), M.Madden (for Hayes, 72), A.Hayman (for Harte, 78), M.Staunton (for Rogers, 78). Blood substitution: Staunton (for Rogers 38/44 mins).
C.Cochrane; S.Lester, P.Magee (captain), G.Telford, D.Simpson; M.Lawton, M.Kirkwood; P.Whyte, A.Duhig, G.Sinnamon; A.Fry, M.Rainey; T.J.Anderson, R.Halsallm A.Birch. Replacements: C.Threlfall (for Lester, h/t), T.Smith (for Fry, 63 mins), M.Farquhar (for Sinnamon, 63), Sinnamon (for Whyte, 77).