Buccaneers clinched the Ulster Bank League Division 1B play-off berth when they pipped fellow contenders UL Bohemians 24-23 in a thrilling contest at a sunny Dubarry Park on Saturday.
Not for the first time this season, the Pirates left it late to pillage the spoils with Jack Carty converting his own 73rd minute try to edge out UL Bohemians after a lively tussle.
With two youthful squads in opposition on a firm sod in dry conditions, the exchanges were always going to be lively despite the ubiquitous diagonal breeze from the west.
UL Bohs were quick to capitalise on this and after some early flurries, Shane Airey, who had scored a superb drop goal when the sides met earlier in the season, repeated the feat in the fourth minute.
But it took Buccaneers just a minute to strike back with Mark Dolan somehow conjuring up space to dink an inviting ball over the cover for Shane Layden to chase and dive over wide on the left for the opening try which Carty could not convert.
Six minutes later, Daniel Qualter won lineout possession to set Kolo Kiripati rumbling in unopposed for Buccs' second try on the left with Carty’s conversion not awarded after some consultation by the match officials.
10-3 behind, it was UL Bohs' turn for a prompt retort and Robbie Bourke surged in on the right to touchdown within three minutes. Again another conversion went abegging.
The Limerick side's scrum half Tim Rafferty was yellow carded four minutes later when he deliberately knocked on to spoil a Buccs overlap on the right.
Carty's resultant penalty was carried wide by the fresh breeze. But the midlanders made their temporary numerical advantage pay when, following a fine Conor Kindregan drive, Kiripati was in support to grab his second try.
Out-half Carty had the first successful place-kick of the afternoon when he converted this 24th minute touchdown.
The kicking woes of both sides continued when Bourke's 28th-minute penalty drifted wide of the near upright but from the restart, Ed Kelly made good ground for the visitors and current Ireland Under-20 international Jack O'Donoghue finished off the move for an unconverted try on the right.
Half-time arrived with Kiripati in the sin-bin – also for a knock-on deemed to be deliberate – and the Athlone side 17-13 to the good.
However, within two minutes of the restart, Darren Moloney sailed through a wide gap in the home defence and his try at the posts, converted by Airey, put UL Bohs back in the lead.
Six minutes later, the visitors' skipper Kelly was fortunate that his spear-like tackle on Garreth Halligan did not incur at least a yellow card. The wind was not as great a factor in the second half and Carty missed a subsequent penalty.
Despite being back to their full complement, Buccaneers were struggling to impose themselves on the proceedings. They looked in real trouble when Airey's 64th-minute penalty nosed the Munster outfit 23-17 ahead.
A quickly tapped penalty by Layden earned a bit of momentum and raised the encouragement from the crowd.
Finally, Buccs got some territory as they held onto possession in a more measured manner for a spell and the busy Conor Finn, who had spoiled some promising work by taking on a bit too much, began to make his presence felt.
Seven minutes from time, he was in the vanguard of a well-worked attack that stretched the visitors' defence and Carty, who had by his standards made a disappointing contribution, showed class and composure to wrong-foot the UL cover for a smartly taken bonus point try.
His conversion then secured the vital victory, although the Pirates had to survive a real scare in the dying moments when Airey knocked a penalty wide from a very kickable position.
In a game that was akin to a Sevens match at times, this was not one of Buccaneers' better performances as they too often lacked structure and precision.
Scores came too easily early on and, indeed, the winners had a blank scoring gap of almost 50 minutes.
Finn's industry and endeavour warranted his Audi Athlone man-of-the-match accolade. Layden was a threat in possession, Billy Henshaw was solid throughout and replacement Ger O'Connor also contributed well.
Up front, Kiripati and Qualter worked hard and replacement Evan Galvin will be happy with his contribution.
Young back rower O'Donoghue is a class act for UL Bohs and Kelly put himself about in the forwards exchanges, while Sam Sterling and Moroney were pick of the losers' back-line.
Neither Corinthians or UL can now catch Buccs whose play-off opponents will not be known until after next weekend's final round.
Currently, Ballynahinch lie second-from-bottom in Division 1A so it looks like a trip to the County Down foothills for the Athlone outfit on Saturday, May 3.
Referee: Mark Patton (IRFU)