Report Courtesy of IRFU website
Buccaneers and Ballymena shared the spoils after a competitive floodlit encounter at Dubarry Park that was well attended despite the bitterly cold conditions.
Both teams were much changed from their niggly early December clash with Buccs fielding five changes. The visitors went one better including an Ulster-experienced quartet to bolster their pack.
Wearing their alternative canary yellow strip, Buccs quickly illuminated the proceedings under the impressive revamped floodlights at the Athlone venue. Eoghan O’Reilly created space for Connacht’s Shane O’Leary to mark his home debut with a fifth minute try converted by Alan Gaughan.
The Buccs out-half was prominent from the start and, after he was narrowly off target with a long-range place-kick, he duly slotted over a 14th minute penalty for a 10-0 lead.
The Pirates continued to force the pace and Gaughan extended their advantage when drilling over a splendid 30th minute drop goal. Ballymena did not get into the home 22 until the closing stages of the half and then an impressive maul came threateningly close to getting over Buccs line. But the midlanders held out despite O’Reilly incurred a sin-binning and they led 13-0 at halft-time.
Both teams made alterations in their front rows at the break and the changes had a significant influence on the outcome. Debutant Jamie Dever replaced Martin Staunton for the midlanders, while the Braidmen brought on Chris Cundell for Bryan Young with Ricky Lutton switching to loosehead.
Ballymena then got a grip on the set piece to get into the contest and open their account with a 52nd minute Richie McMaster penalty. Two minutes later, Graham Lynch’s clearance was blocked down by Marty Irwin and the visitors forced another penalty deftly dispatched between the posts by out-half Ritchie McMaster.
Buccs were now making errors and, three minutes later, a Gaughan kick was charged down by Callum Patterson. Mark Best and Lynch tangled for the loose ball and referee Gary Conway elected to award a penalty try – much to Buccaneers’ annoyance.
Best was ahead of Lynch and still had lots to do wide on the left, 20 metres out from the try-line and with defenders swiftly converging in his direction. However, Conway decided that Lynch’s infringement was enough to warrant a yellow card and penalty try which McMaster converted to make it 13-all.
Shortly afterwards, Gaughan saw his drop goal attempt – as advantage was played – dip under the crossbar before his penalty from the left tailed just wide. The referee again drew the ire of the home support when he did not penalise Best for a late 74th minute tackle on Mata Fifita.
With the legacy of the recent meeting between the teams now simmering, the contest threatened to boil over but did not get out of hand in a rousing finale when both McMaster and Rodger McBurney kicked poor drop goal efforts for the Ulster side.
A draw was perhaps a fair outcome as both teams enjoyed dominance for a half in a passionate affair but it was of less value to Ballymena, who scored all their points in a five-minute spell, as they drop two places in the league standings as a result.