A sustained and disciplined defensive finish by Malone pipped Buccaneers 24-23 in a terrific All-Ireland League Division 1B duel at Dubarry Park on Saturday, writes Michael Silke.
In a game that ebbed and flowed, the lead changing hands seven times before this hard-earned victory nudged the northerners to top spot in the league table.
However, Buccs will be wondering how they had to settle for a losing bonus point as they pounded the visitors’ line for a prolonged spell with the clock in the red.
Why they did not attempt a drop goal, and goodness knows they had several chances to do so, in a thrilling climax is difficult to fathom.
Buccs made one change in personnel from the defeat at Ballynahinch with Rory Moloney starting in place of Simon Meagher who was on the bench while Callum Boland and Michael Hanley switched positions in the backline. The Ulster side had three changes with Daniel Kerr and Joshua Davidson replacing Adam McBurney and Michael Shiels in their pack while Stewart Moore came on at centre instead of David McMaster.
Luke Carty opened the scoring for the hosts with a second minute penalty, seven minutes later, Nathan Brown found a gap in the home cover to send Ben McCaughey scampering in for a try wide on the right.
Rory Campbell added the conversion. At the end of the opening quarter, Peter Claffey tapped down lineout ball on the left and Buccs moved it swiftly to the opposite flank where Rory O’Connor outstripped the cover for a try which Carty converted to regain the lead.
On 28 minutes, Carty landed a quite magnificent penalty from over 60 metres to extend Buccaneers advantage to 13-7. Four minutes later, the Pirates were guilty of bringing down a maul and Malone punted to touch near the left corner.
From the lineout, they got their maul moving over the home line where hooker Kerr applied the finishing touch, Campbell adding two points. Just before halftime, Malone conceded another penalty which Carty stroked over to give Buccaneers a 16-14 lead at the interval.
In a contest of swaying fortunes, Campbell drilled over a long 44th minute penalty to edge Malone ahead again.Buccs responded when the northerners failed to find touch and Boland attacked from deep.
The midlanders earned a penalty which they kicked to touch on the right and, following the lineout, the homesters made a number of sallies before the ball was recycled to the left where Darragh Corbett pirouetted smartly to notch a 53rd minute try.
Carty added the touchline conversion to regain the lead at 23-17. Two minutes later McCaughey and Rory Scholes collided in the air while challenging for a garryowen.
The Malone winger came off second best and referee Nigel Correll saw fit to harshly yellow card the Buccs substitute.
With their temporary numerical superiority the Ulster side chased a try but the Shannonsiders looked like denying them until Colm Reilly’s telegraphed pass in front of his own posts.
Callum Smith read the home scrumhalf’s intentions to intercept for a soft 62nd minute try which Campbell converted. The otherwise enterprising Reilly suffered another intercept shortly afterwards but Carty bravely did well to tidy up.
The exchanges remained nip and tuck right to the dying moments. Then Buccaneers put together a move of some 40 phases in which Claffey and Audi Athlone Man of the Match Conor Kenny were prominent to go from inside their own 22 all the way to the visitor’s line.
On a number of occasions a try seemed sure to be the outcome but Malone defended with resolve and discipline to somehow keep their line intact. In the end, Buccs took the wrong option when Carty tried to angle a kick pass to Scholes on the right but McMaster got there first to avert the danger when Buccs had an overlap on the opposite flank.
However it was their failure to set up a drop goal (and they had a number of good opportunities to do so) that beggars belief as they left a winning chance go abegging.
Buccaneers: C.Boland, R.O’Connor (R.Scholes HT), K.Joyce, M.Hanley, D.Corbett, L.Carty, C.Reilly, M.Staunton (N.Farrelly 74), J.Sutton, C.Kenny, R.Byrne, P.Claffey, O.Treacy (S.Meagher 60), R.Moloney (c), E.Galvin.
Malone: R.Campbell, N.Brown, J.Pentland, S.Moore, B.McCaughey (D.McMaster 70), C.Smith, S.Kelly (G.Curtis 45), P.Cooper (B.Halliday 60), D.Kerr, R.Kane, J.Davis, J.Davidson (M.Hadden HT), J.Dunleavy, R.Todd (c), R.Clarke.