Buccaneers suffered their first home defeat of the season when going down 24-20 to St. Mary’s College in a competitive Ulster Bank League Division 1B encounter at Dubarry Park.
Brett Wilkinson's men went down battling in the face of adversity. Starting without play-maker and leading scorer Conor McKeon and injured flanker Rory Moloney, Buccaneers then lost Alex Hayman, Kolo Kiripati and Conor Finn through injury in the opening half. And, on top of that, they were down to 14 players following David Heffernan's sending-off after a mere 13 minutes.
St. Mary's fielded a strong selection with a Leinster-Munster pairing of Darragh Fanning and Ivan Dineen in the centre and former skipper Kevin Sheahan at number 8.
Favoured by the light breeze in dull but otherwise ideal conditions, Buccs made a blistering start with winger Rory O'Connor (pictured below) continuing his try-scoring exploits after just four minutes when he finished up some excellent build-up play for a try wide on the right. Alan Gaughan, taking over place-kicking duties in the absence of McKeon, slotted over a fine conversion.
However, matters soon went awry for the hosts when Graham Lynch was sin-binned for a shirt tug seven minutes later. But worse was to swiftly follow when referee Stuart Gaffikin deemed a spear-like tackle by young hooker Heffernan to be worthy of a red card.
Sean Kearns duly slotted the resulting penalty but the Pirates held their line intact thereafter while numerically depleted. Indeed, they added to their tally in that period when Gaughan landed a 19th minute penalty to put the midlanders 10-3 to the good.
They had a real let-off when Fanning's break carved the home defence wide open but Dave Fanagan knocked on following the offload. St. Mary's now applied growing pressure and forced a close-in penalty which Robbie Glynn swiftly tapped to catch the home defence napping and the scrum half got in for a try close to the posts. Kearns' successful conversion tied things up at 10-all.
Buccs went close to a second try when speedster O'Connor seemed to have won the race to a teasing grubber kick ahead but referee Gaffikin viewed otherwise. Nevertheless, after the Dubliners hastily restarted, winger Eoghan O'Reilly scythed through at pace for a smashing touchdown between the posts, making Gaughan's conversion elementary.
But, just before half-time, St. Mary's enjoyed another slice of good fortune when a Glynn knock-on was missed by the match officials. He started the move that yielded Sheahan's 38th-minute try by the posts. Kearns added the conversion to leave the teams level at half-time (17-17).
Buccs regrouped effectively following the change of ends but Gaughan pulled a 45th minute penalty wide, and six minutes later, Kearns was also off target. The Pirates regained the lead on the hour mark Gaughan drilling over a fine penalty after the visitors did not release in the tackle.
But a solid drive by St. Mary's was rewarded when prop Brian McGovern touched down for a 65th minute try which gave them the lead for the first time. Crucially, Kearns thumped over an excellent conversion from wide on the left for a 24-20 advantage.
This meant that depleted Buccs now had to gamble for a try to win and they duly piled on growing pressure in the closing stages, edging ever closer to the visitors' line. St. Mary's were now defending desperately and McGovern was yellow-carded seven minutes from time after some persistent infringing.
But, try as they might, Buccs, for whom lock Michael Mannion was named the Audi Athlone man-of-the-match, just could not fashion the necessary match-winning score as Peter Smyth's charges held on for a hard-earned four-point triumph.
Referee: Stuart Gaffikin (IRFU)