Club focus: Top tier the target for hardy Buccs'
Rapid expansion of interest from boys and girls in underage teams has Athlone club in fine fettle, writes Daragh Small
Buccaneers retained the Connacht Senior League title when they defeated Division 1B rivals Galwegians 34-10 in the decisive final round of fixtures last Saturday after the closest contest for the title in years.
It was their ninth time that the club from the heart of Ireland's rugby circles lifted the Connacht Senior League trophy, since their inception in 1951.
The home of Buccaneers is located in Leinster but they play their rugby in Connacht, and they formed an amalgamation with Ballinasloe in 1993-'94 which lasted for 12 years until the Galway club returned to the Connacht junior rugby ranks.
Buccaneers is best known for international centre Robbie Henshaw but Leo Galvin also wore the Irish jersey at senior level, as did Tiernan O'Halloran during the summer tour to South Africa.
In 2016-'17 last year's 'Club Person of the Year' Kolo Kiripati captains the Pirates for the second time. Shane Layden is vice-captain for the squad which is again coached by Brett Wilkinson.
"We were disappointed to be knocked out in the play-offs last season. That was disappointing but we did make big strides.
"It's just the little things let us down. We lost a few games by a point here and a point there. So you turn those around and it's a different-looking season," says Wilkinson.
"We know there is a lot of work to do and we've a long way to go. The league is going to get more competitive every year. People say Division 1A is so competitive but so is 1B.
"You look at the teams that have come down and it's a tough league to play in and every game does count. And the standard is definitely getting better.
"We have kept the bulk of the squad throughout pre-season with a few younger guys coming in to freshen things up. The guys did a lot of good last year, so we trust that and we go with them again.
"Promotion is the end outcome that we aim for but you have to break that down. We must focus on small interim goals and every match as it comes. The outcomes take care of themselves if we do our jobs in every game."
Renowned referee Eddie Walsh is Club President this season and Buccaneers have, for the first time in their illustrious history, appointed a club chairman this year - recent president Diarmuid Morrissey has taken on this role.
Meanwhile, Audi Athlone are the club's title sponsors with Dubarry of Ireland being grounds sponsors once more.
"Our aim is to progress from Division 1B to 1A, and develop players at U-20s level and at Minis level.
"We have a great Minis set-up, with over 140 kids every Saturday and that would not be possible without the brilliant work of our volunteers," says Walsh.
"At senior level we are very lucky to have Brett Wilkinson and Darren Classens as our coaches.
"We hope to make progress there again this year, and it was great to begin by winning another Connacht Senior League.
"We are trying to develop young local players and we are looking for the next Robbie Henshaw all the time."
Buccaneers' opening UBL fixture is away to Ballynahinch on September 17 where they were defeated in last season's promotion/relegation match.
The Athlone side will be striving to make a positive start to this campaign there, before they welcome Shannon to Dubarry Park for their first home fixture seven days later, which is also the club's registration and family day with face-painting and games laid on for children.
Buccaneers Seconds have their opening outing of the season at home to Dundalk tonight in the first ever meeting between the two clubs.
Whilst fielding adult teams, including U-20s in Leinster and a Women's squad, is a challenge, growth at underage (Youths and Minis) is mushrooming with huge numbers in attendance.
Buccaneers will field Girls U-15 and U-18 sides this year for the first time and, in total, the Athlone outfit will have 20 teams regularly in action.
Off the field, there is a buzz around the club with recent events such as 'Strictly Scrum Dancing - the Buccs way!' and a 'Mock Wedding' putting the fun back into fundraising. Here Buccaneers owe a huge debt of gratitude to administrator Geraldine Kenny.
And coming up shortly is an evening with Robbie Henshaw, with music by the Henshaw Family rounding off this much anticipated event.
"There is a great atmosphere around the club at the moment, because we all know that we need to raise funds and cut costs," says Walsh.
"Like every club we need to fund-raise, and we have got together as a club and we are dealing with things. We have organised all of these social events and it's working for us.
"It helps when you see the Robbie Henshaws doing so well. And Robbie is great around the place, he calls and he's always asking about the club. We wish him well on his move to Leinster and his future career with Ireland - we are very proud of him.
"Our aim is to make sure everyone enjoys their rugby at our club. But we want to be competitive also.
"When Henshaw is doing it on the international stage, and players like Jack Carty and Danny Qualter are stepping up at provincial level, it can only mean good things for the future of this club and Connacht Rugby."
Address: Dubarry Park, the Two Mile, Coosan Road, Athlone, Co Westmeath.
Famous players: Leo Galvin, Noel Mannion, Tiernan O'Halloran, Robbie Henshaw.
Honours: Nine Connacht Senior Leagues, Seven Connacht Senior Cups, including four doubles. AIL Division 3 in 1997.
Head Coach: Brett Wilkinson
Captain: Kolo Kiripati
Club president: Eddie Walsh
Club chairman: Diarmuid Morrissey
Club Website: www.buccaneersrfc.ie