Sean Kearns’ last-gasp try preserved St. Mary’s unblemished home record at Templeville Road as they pipped a gallant Buccaneers 19-16 in a very competitive and absorbing Ulster Bank League Division 1B encounter.
Buccaneers came tantalisingly close to defeating the league leaders but out-half Sean Kearns, the leading scorer in the top two divisions, showed how and why he tops that chart with his eye for an opening in the final minute of a highly exciting contest.
Margins were tight from start to finish of this game played in testing windy and drizzly conditions in front of a decent turnout at the Templeogue venue. St. Mary's had first benefit of the blustery, diagonal breeze and consequently enjoyed significant amounts of territory in the visitors' half.
Buccaneers were jittery in the early exchanges with a Darragh Fanning snipe and a Ciaran Ruddock drive stretching the Pirates, but the midlanders settled to the task on hand.
However, the home side took the lead at the end of the opening quarter, good handling in tight confines giving Marcus O'Driscoll the opportunity to strike wide on the right and he held off Conor Lowndes' tackle for a try in the right corner. Kearns added an excellent conversion but Buccs replied within three minutes, Conor McKeon drilling over a penalty for hands in a ruck just inside the home 22.
The St. Mary's pack had a slight edge in the tight but found it hard to make significant inroads, although a long range penalty when Buccs brought down a maul after 31 minutes failed to find touch.
The Athlone side were resilient and well organised, apart from misjudging a kick ahead in the closing moments of the half. Nonetheless, they managed to drive the hosts off their own ball with Kolo Kiripati powering away from the scrum and McKeon clearing the danger, leaving it 7-3 to the hosts at the interval.
The Pirates looked like making an immediate impact on the restart but Rory O'Connor was whistled back for a forward pass. A tight call; another fine margin. Buccs were now posing a real threat and McKeon narrowed the margin to the minimum with a 51st minute penalty after St. Mary's were caught offside.
But the table toppers responded and this time capitalised on a penalty to touch on the left. From the lineout they mauled impressively and Richie Sweeney grounded the ball between the Buccs uprights for a 58th minute try which Kearns converted for a 14-6 advantage.
However, Buccs continued to take the battle to the Dubliners but squandered two penalty opportunities, their lineout going awry in the first instance and McKeon then shaving the wrong side of the uprights with a kickable 63rd minute place-kick.
In a ding dong battle, St. Mary's surged forward ten minutes from time but Buccs turned the ball over inside their own 22 where, instead of utilising the elements to relieve the pressure, they ran at the hosts. Eoghan O'Reilly darted out of the danger zone and linked with Fionn Carr who made further good yardage before passing to Lowndes. The scrum half also made decent ground on the left before kicking a sublime diagonal ball to O'Connor and Buccs' in-form try poacher had the strength and footwork to hand off Fanning and complete an end-to-end 70th minute score in the right corner.
Connacht prospect McKeon kicked a smashing conversion from the touchline to reduce the arrears to a single point – 14-13.
The hosts were rattled at this stage and Brian McGovern, who was sin-binned when the sides met at Dubarry Park, was fortunate that he escaped another yellow card for a shoeing offence. An extra player could well have made the crucial difference in the closing stages.
Buccs were now in the ascendancy and their pressure yielded a 74th minute penalty after Ian Cullinane was guilty of not releasing. McKeon thumped over the place-kick from 40 metres out to put the midlanders 16-14 ahead with time running out.
But they were unlocked and outwitted in the dying moments from a home lineout close to the Buccs 22. Throw-ins had been difficult all afternoon in the prevailing conditions but, on this occasion, Sweeney's throw was ruled not crooked and St. Mary's made the most of the possession when Kearns exploited a gap between tiring Buccs players to surge away for a 79th minute try.
It mattered not a whit to the home supporters that the richly promising out-half, whose duel with McKeon had been one of the key features of the match, was wayward with his conversion attempt as St. Mary's struck late to win 19-16 and maintain pole position for a prompt return to the top flight.
Referee: Barrie O'Connell (IRFU)