Buccs bid to avenge 2014 reverse as they head north for Hinch play-off
Buccaneers face a long journey and acid test when they travel north tomorrow to take on Ballynahinch in the Ulster Bank League promotion/relegation play-off at Ballymacarn Park (2.30).
Ballynahinch propped up Division 1A for virtually all the season and trailed Galwegians by five points going in to last weekend's final round of matches.
Even at half-time, it looked set to be a Connacht derby in the play-off (and a much handier journey to Crowley Park for Buccs) as Wegians led Cork Con and Hinch were only narrowly ahead of Garryowen.
But, as expected, Cork Con (in need of a win to ensure a home top four semi-final) eventually overcame Wegians.
However, what was not anticipated - with Hinch having an inferior scoring difference of about 40 points compared to Wegians - was that the Ulster side would win by a whopping 54 points against Garryowen.
This 59-5 victory over a team with nothing to play for confirms a weakness in the AIL structure.
Nevertheless, that was all out of Buccaneers' control and they have qualified for a tilt at promotion, which was the objective this season, and now they head to the foothills of the Mournes. The elevated ground in the shadow of Sliabh Croob is a testing venue, particularly if the elements are not kind - which is almost always the case.
Hinch will be greatly buoyed by last week's win. Like the Pirates, they have quite a number of young upcoming players in their squad including Ireland Sevens duo Aaron Cairns and David McGuigan.
Scrum-half Paul Rowley is on Ulster's books and wing Chris Quinn has been in excellent place-kicking form throughout the season and Sam Windsor is another back to be wary of.
Busy flanker Paul Pritchard captains the side and prop Craig Trenier, lock John Donnan, hooker Zac McCall and up-and-coming No 8 Lorcan Dow have all worn the red hand jersey of Ulster teams, as has back-rower Connor Joyce, formerly of Malone.
So it looks like a formidable and mobile side facing Buccs, who have 12 survivors from the side that lost 35-13 when the clubs met in a play-off that was tighter than the scoreline indicates in 2013-14.
Callum Boland, Conor Finn, Alex Hayman, Eoghan O'Reilly and Ben Carty were backs who saw action on that occasion with Garreth Halligan, Martin Staunton, Kolo Kiripati, Ruairi Byrne, Jacob Walshe, Evan Galvin and Danny Qualter in the pack. The latter was playing excellently in that game but an early injury was a big blow to the Athlone side.
The Pirates have the experience of what to expect and will hope to react positively to their below-par performance away to Shannon.
Buccs can and must play much better than they did at Thomond Park and, if they play to their potential, then a tremendously exciting and competitive joust is in prospect.
Needless errors must be eliminated and decision-making improved with better discipline than last Saturday essential. It all looked in place in the opening quarter against Shannon (and indeed in most of the matches since the start of the year) and, if Buccs can put in one hell of a collective pragmatic and sustained effort, there is the talent and ability to overcome the home side.
Ballynahinch will undoubtedly have a substantial crowd at the game so here's urging all Buccaneers supporters to make the hike north up the motorway to get behind the Pirates in what will surely be their toughest challenge of the season.