Buccaneers kept a solid grip on fourth place in Division 1B when they defeated Ballymena 9-6 in a much more closely-contested than anticipated encounter under the Dubarry Park floodlights.
Ballymena, who arrived propping up the league table, made a right battle of it but their losing bonus point was not enough to stave off relegation and they join Bruff in the drop to Division 2A.
The visitors featured just five of their squad who won in Athlone last season, while Buccaneers welcomed back Connacht Eagles trio Jack Carty, Conor Finn and David Heffernan to strengthen the midlanders’ side.
Ballymena had first use of the breeze and this helped them dominate territory in the opening half. But it was Buccs who opened the scoring when, after Heffernan had rumbled forward, Ballymena conceded a seventh minute penalty which Carty slotted over.
Earlier, hooker Garrett Halligan had made a terrific break but his offload was deemed forward as a home try loomed.
Callum Patterson opened Ballymena's account with a 17th minute penalty after Buccs were guilty of not rolling away. However, the northerners' inside centre missed two straight-forward place-kicks either side of this score.
The Braidmen encountered further difficulty when scrum half Ian Vance was yellow carded in the 27th minute. Nevertheless, they took the lead three minutes later when Patterson slotted over a penalty.
But the teams were level again within two minutes. Heffernan won possession from the restart and James Tormey surged forward leading to a Ballymena infringement.
Carty landed a fine penalty to tie things up at 6-6, and the northerners were a mite lucky when the home out-half appeared to be impeded as he chased his own kick ahead just before the interval.
Although the breeze was not quite as influential in the second half, it was still of benefit to the hosts and it seemed as if Buccs would now kick on.
But they lacked precision and enterprise while decision making was not always up to par. Ballymena too were not willing to go down tamely and, with Carty being narrowly off target with penalty kicks after 55 and 64 minutes, the game remained finely balanced.
There was effort and industry aplenty from both sides with Ballymena defiant and resolute. The Pirates supporters could not relax until the final whistle although Carty’s third successful penalty three minutes from time eased their nerves somewhat.
This followed Buccs' most free-flowing move of the game which was started by AUDI Athlone man-of-the-match Finn and carried on by Callum Boland, Martin Staunton and Conor Fitzgibbon.
At the end of it, Ballymena's John McMullan was pinged for not releasing in the tackle and the replacement finished the match in the sin-bin. Although Buccaneers were not at their fluent best, the tight 9-6 victory keeps them comfortably in fourth place.
Referee: Ken Imbusch (IRFU)