For the second successive match, Buccaneers lost by a solitary point as Ballymena held on in an exciting finish to win Saturday night’s Ulster Bank League Division 1B encounter in Athlone.
Buccaneers had six changes from last weekend's loss at Dolphin, with only one of their six players involved with Connacht Eagles in midweek starting. The most notable absentee was talented out-half Conor McKeon who kicked 23 points for the Eagles in their Donnybrook win.
Nevertheless, the Pirates battled to the very end in this Hodson Bay Hotel Group-sponsored fixture played in good conditions in front of a Dubarry Park crowd that included Ireland international Robbie Henshaw.
Stalwarts Alex Hayman and Garreth Halligan started for the hosts at out-half and hooker respectively, with Ruairi Byrne coming in at lock and Paul Gallogly at number 8. Conor Lowndes made his first start at scrum half as did Evan Galvin at openside flanker.
Ballymena had three changes, all in the pack where they could call on Ulster duo John Andrew and Alan O'Connor. The more settled Braidmen dominated the territorial battle in the first half during which they had the benefit of the slight breeze.
A couple of grubber kicks in the opening quarter caused unease in the home ranks but Lowndes and Galvin retrieved both situations for Buccs, the latter outpacing Matthew Harkness following a mazy Martin Irwin run.
O'Connor then did well to deal with a teasing Alan Gaughan kick when Lowndes was unlucky not to snaffle possession, before the first real opportunity of the game came to the visitors in the 28th minute
However, Ritchie McMaster drilled a straightforward penalty from in front of the posts on the 22 wide of the target. Within three minutes, the out-half redeemed himself with a successful penalty strike after Buccs had strayed offside.
After a lacklustre opening half hour, the exchanges livened up considerably and Buccs replied almost instantly to the opening score. Quick hands got possession to Gaughan and his clever dink over the cover was fastened onto by winger Rory O'Connor for his sixth try of the campaign after 33 minutes.
Gaughan's conversion from wide on the right faded past the far upright, and two minutes before half-time, a great drive by the Ballymena pack was finished off for a try wide on the left by scrum half Glenn Baillie. Although McMaster failed to convert, Andy Graham's side led 8-5 at the interval.
Despite losing both winger O'Connor and lock Michael Mannion to injury late in the first period, Buccaneers took the game to Ballymena on the change of ends.
Rory Moloney came on in the back row where Stephen McVeigh moved to number 8 and Gallogly switched to the second row. The scores were level on 44 minutes with Gaughan landing a fine penalty and he was unlucky seven minutes later when his drop goal attempt went narrowly wide.
Just before the hour mark Ballymena punted a penalty to the left corner and, after winning good possession from the lineout, the Ulster outfit drove over the home line where David Whann knocked on as he attempted to ground the ball.
But Buccs' respite was brief as from the resulting five-metre scrum, they were driven off the ball and this time the visitors made no mistake with number 8 Matthew Rea touching down for a 59th minute try. Young replacement Andrew Magrath added a fine conversion for a 15-8 advantage.
Yet, Buccs were now taking the game to their opponents and six minutes later, Gaughan slotted over a penalty after the Braidmen went offside. A further six minutes on and Gaughan notched another penalty to leave just the minimum between the teams.
Buccs battled on commendably but Ballymena had the best two chances late on. However, Ulster Under-20 out-half Magrath was wayward with a 76th minute drop goal effort and was then short with a kickable penalty in the final minute.
The result sees Graham's charges stay second in the table, while Buccs, for whom Galvin was named Audi Athlone man-of-the-match, have retained fifth position.
Referee: Andy Brace (IRFU)