Christmas came early for Ballymena at a murky Dubarry Park as Buccaneers were especially generous in allowing the visitors to score three tries in Saturday’s Division 1B clash.
This win strengthened the Braidmen's second place in the league table, while Buccaneers' miserable home form continues with just one win there to date.
Both teams were depleted due to Connacht Eagles and Ulster Ravens being in British & Irish Cup action. Buccs were hardest hit in this regard but the visitors had experienced pair Mike McComish and Stephen Mulholland in their back row.
The hosts, who had to make two late changes to their back-line just before the start, made life difficult for themselves, infringing right from the kick-off. Ritchie McMaster punted a first minute penalty to touch in the left corner and, following the lineout, skipper McComish finished off a maul for a try.
Just when Buccs were settling into the game, Alex Hayman's attempted clearance following an Eoghan O'Reilly mark was blocked down by flanker Mulholland who pounced on the ball for a 12th minute try.
Ross Keller opened the home account with a 19th minute penalty but McMaster found the range with two penalties in the closing stages of the half. The second of these followed a terrific break by Martin Irwin after which tackler O’Reilly was yellow carded for not releasing.
Ballymena were pinged for offside just before the interval but Keller's tricky penalty, with the final kick of the half, went wide. That left Buccaneers trailing 16-3 at half-time.
McComish was held up at the home line shortly after the change of ends and Buccs generally had the better of exchanges in the third quarter without improving their position on the scoreboard.
Then, further disaster befell the Pirates on 63 minutes and effectively killed the game off as a contest. Callum Boland could not hold onto a kick ahead as the greasy ball squirmed from his grasp, and his opposite number Sean Taylor could hardly believe his side's continuing good fortune as he galloped in for a converted try.
Buccaneers responded promptly with Kolo Kiripati surging through the centre to set up his side's best sequence of the game. The ball was moved right and then back to the centre with Ballymena proving unyielding, before possession was switched to the left where winger O'Reilly dodged in for a 65th minute try which Keller, hampered by a leg strain sustained in the warm-up, could not convert.
The Braidmen chased a try-scoring bonus point but it was the Athlone men who came closest to scoring on a number of occasions as Kiripati and debutant David Butler, who was named Audi Athlone man-of-the-match, were both stopped just short.
Typical of Buccs misfortunes, the attentions of two defenders caused luckless full-back Boland to knock on as he endeavoured to dive on a grubber kick for a consolation try in the dying moments.
Try scorers McComish and Mulholland were influential for the winners as was out-half McMaster's use of the ball from hand.
Buccs will point to a litany of missing personnel but they commenced the season of goodwill far too early in virtually gift-wrapping all three Ballymena tries. Their home form will simply have to improve for the second half of the league campaign.
Referee: Ken Imbusch (IRFU)