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The team that came from nowhere to create a Midlands fairy tale

In the 1990s an unlikely union between two towns lifted Buccaneers from the third tier of Irish rugby to the top. Their story was a classic tale of success against the odds.

Buccs-4

YOU MAY HAVE come across this biblical story at some point in your life, a supposed mismatch between a Philistine bully who kind of fancied himself and an Israeli sheep farmer no one rated.

You’ve probably heard what happened, if not in the Book of Samuel then in just about a million sports previews.

For most people, losing your head doesn’t leave much room for a comeback, but despite the discomfort he experienced in the Valley of Elah, Goliath has managed to re-invent himself time after time. He was Mike Tyson against Frank Bruno; the All Blacks against Munster in ’78; Dublin’s Gaelic footballers against just about anyone in the last six years and that’s before we mention FA Cup third round day.

Way back in the 1990s, Goliath was residing in Dungannon. He was a big chap then too, moustached, fond of a pint of Harp and a bit of shoeing at the breakdown, unstoppable with his carries, way too strong for this little fella from the Midlands.

A week earlier Goliath had travelled to Athlone for the first leg of a promotion play-off and had won 17-7. Now he was back on home soil, confident of victory and a place in Division 1 of the AIL. Then he heard this noise.

In this version of the story, no one had been courteous enough to give David a sling, surrounding him instead with a trainload of supporters who sang a song about fields in Athenry. This was two years before Munster’s march to the Heineken Cup final, so David’s fans, ‘The Pirates’, reckon they were the first set of rugby fans to adopt The Fields as their anthem. Put it this way, they were definitely the first ones brave enough to sing it in a mid-Ulster rugby club.

brian-rigney-2541998 Brian Rigney leads the charge in Dungannon. Source: Keith Heneghan/INPHO

Goliath heard their chorus but didn’t care. Half his team played for Ulster; therefore half that team won the Heineken Cup a year later. But on this day, Goliath got floored by a flying stone. David won 27-10, progressing to Gath and the gates of Ekron, otherwise known as the top division of the AIL. There, they’d meet Goliath’s big brothers on a weekly basis and one by one, they’d fling stones at their heads, too. And one by one, they all fell over.

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***

If there is a reason why this particular story resonates with so many, it is because by nature, anyone who loves sport loves David, the underdog. Logic suggests you shouldn’t, that underdogs lose nine times out of ten. But supporting a team is based on emotion rather than mathematical percentages and when the team you end up following finds itself ranked as one of the country’s best just a few years after its formation, well, sometimes you can’t stop yourself falling in love.

That was the Buccaneers in the 1990s. Their story, an unlikely union between two smallish clubs, of people returning home, of pride in a place, well it’s the story of rural Ireland. “It put the town on the map,” says Gerry Kelly, joint-president of the Buccs in 1998/99, later Connacht’s CEO when they defied the IRFU’s wishes to shut the province down.

“Like, I remember in the ‘80s, trying to arrange a friendly with a team from Munster, their club secretary looking at me and saying, ‘Ballinasloe! I’ve never heard of you’.”

Those words stung.

A decade later, by the time Ballinasloe wedded Athlone to become the Buccaneers, times had changed. Friendlies didn’t dominate the rugby calendar, All-Ireland League matches did. “We beat that team by 30 points,” says Kelly. The secretary who had snubbed him all those years earlier shook his hand. “You’ve something special happening here,” he said.

Kelly didn’t need to be told. This fairy tale had a Midlands accent.

**

The original Shannon Buccaneers formed in the 1930s and even provided a temporary home for Sammy Walker, captain of the 1938 British and Irish Lions. They were going places until the outbreak of the Second World War put an end that particular story.

The sequel would be even better but before we get to that point, we need to go reeling through the years, through the ‘40s and ‘50s when Ballinalsoe won a couple of Connacht Senior Cups, through the ‘70s when Athlone had their golden period, Leo Galvin the first player from the town to play rugby for Ireland.

Then came the 1990s; a bit of a revival in Athlone; successive Connacht Senior Cups; entry to the All-Ireland League. The neighbours from up the road, Ballinasloe, also joined the party, albeit a couple of divisions lower. “Neither club was setting the AIL alight,” says Kelly.

That was when Galvin came up with his marriage proposal. Athlone and Ballinasloe became Athlone/Ballinasloe RFC. The name didn’t quite roll off the tongue and results didn’t quite roll their way either in that first year, relegation to Division 4 narrowly avoided. But something was stirring.

A local businessman, Eamon Fagan, liked the look of an applicant’s CV. His name was Noel Mannion, a son of Ballinasloe, who ended up playing his rugby in Galway city, then Dublin, because that was where work took him. Mannion was a handy player, too, winning 16 caps for Ireland, scoring an iconic try in Cardiff.

noel-mannion-of-ireland-races-for-the-line-to-score-a-try-as-the-crowd-watch-in-anticipation Mannion races clear for his famous try. Source: ©INPHO

Now he was being ‘gently pushed’ to give up the high life with Lansdowne in Division 1 and slum it in Division 3. “Will you sign for the Buccaneers?” Mannion was asked. For a second, he was thinking Tampa Bay. But no, to move forward, the club’s committee realised they had to step back, and reclaim that half-forgotten name from the past. Athlone/Ballinsloe RFC had a new identity.

They also had a new fan base. A member of the Buccaneers committee had thrown a map of Ireland down on the boardroom table and drew a radius around their two towns. For miles and miles in every direction there wasn’t a senior club in sight. “Fellas had a vision of what we could do,” says Tommy Conlon, an Athlone man, a former captain of the club. “We tried to be a Midlands club.”

They succeeded. Michael Duignan, an All-Ireland winner with Offaly’s hurlers, had a stint in their midfield; Brian Rigney, an Irish international from Portlaoise, was signed. Another Rigney brother, Des, came with him, joining Donal, a third sibling who was already on the books. Athlone’s Davy Henshaw – you might have heard his nephew’s name bandied around in recent times – was a top-class tight-head. So was his successor, Martin Cahill. Jimmy Screene and Joe McVeigh completed a formidable front row.

Mike Devine, who also played for Offaly’s footballers, and later scored a hat-trick for Connacht against Munster, captained the team from the wing; half-backs, Simon Allnutt and Stephen McIvor, toed the tactical line. “We’d a big pack,” says Mannion. “It made sense to use it.”

simon-allnutt-buccaneers Simon Allnutt takes a kick. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

They started winning games and then they won something even more special, the hearts and minds of a community. Success had been a stranger in the two towns, a decade-and-a-half passing since Athlone Town were League of Ireland champions while Galway’s hurlers were also in a sporting recession. Buccs filled the vacuum.

A supporters club, The Pirates, was formed, marquees built for pre-match functions. “We’d 258 dining with us before one game in Ballinasloe,” says Kelly. A few years earlier, they couldn’t get that many paying to see them play. Suddenly, sold-out signs became a thing.

The committee men drank it all in but didn’t get giddy. There were new pitches to build, a stand to construct. Foundations were also put in place to allow the team flourish; and when they beat Portadown on a sunny day in 1997, the Division 3 title was theirs. “How do we get better?” Mannion was asked.

“You ring Eddie O’Sullivan,” he tells them.

**

There was a small problem. Eddie O’Sullivan was in Colorado, employed as the US Rugby’s technical director and the Eagles’ assistant coach.

He was 38-years-old at this stage of his life but his CV still had plenty of ink on it; a runners-up medal in the AIL as Blackrock coach; a stint in charge of Connacht, then international rugby with the US. He had also guided the Ireland Under-21 side to a Triple Crown. “You could sense the energy coming out of the place, feel the ambition,” O’Sullivan says. “For me, it was a straightforward decision. I knew back play inside out but this team was going to play a forward-based game so that was a chance for me to evolve. It made complete sense for me to say yes.”

Buccs made it easier for him, allowing O’Sullivan miss a week or two at the start of the season when it overlapped with his requirements in the US. After that, he was theirs. “We loved him,” says Mannion, “because he knew how to make us click.”

noel-mannion-2411998 O'Sullivan and Mannion in 1998. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

That showed on the park. Fresh from winning promotion from Division 3, Buccs lost only once in Division 2, earning that two-legged play-off tie against Dungannon. O’Sullivan, however, was in a dilemma. The date of the second leg, 25 April, coincided with his daughter’s communion.

“I told them a wee white lie,” O’Sullivan says now, “telling them I had to go back to the United States because had they been aware it was a communion, I’d have been under severe pressure to miss it.” But while their coach didn’t make it to Stevenson Park, nearly a thousand Buccs supporters did, a train booked to transport them north.

“When we walked out of the dressing room in Dungannon,” Mannion recalls, “we couldn’t move through the throngs. They all crowded around us, sang The Fields of Athenry; I remember one of the lads saying to me after, ‘McFly, we daren’t lose this now’.”

They didn’t. The winning margin was 17. Buccs were going up again.

**

“The game plan stayed the same in Division 1,” says O’Sullivan. “We had the best line-out in the league and a maul no one could stop. So the plan was simple: wear teams out, win penalties.”

They did a little more than that. When the fixture list came out, O’Sullivan went to the committee. Home games were to be split between the two towns, so O’Sullivan asked for the more compact Ballinasloe venue to be used for the visits of the Dublin clubs and their cerebral backlines, Athlone to host the Limerick sides.

mike-devine-and-kevin-oriordan-2311999 Garryowen take on Buccs in Athlone. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

The weather Gods also played their part. The sun refused to shine on the days St Mary’s, Terenure or Lansdowne visited. “They’d walk the pitch beforehand, look at me and ask, ‘did you hose this’?” remembers Kelly.

They didn’t need to. The surface, let’s say, was naturally moist.

“Our little ground wasn’t a lap of luxury,” says Mannion.

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It didn’t have to be. People went to those games because this was a team they could connect with, a side populated with locals, winning against the odds.

“What I loved about those matches,” says O’Sullivan, “is the role the crowd played in it. We kept coming out the right side in one-score games. That’s why those years are so memorable. It was a real rugby story, the little guys going up against the establishment and winning.

“In Athlone, they had this shed where the crowd congregated, it amplified the noise. They were raucous supporters but in a good way. They just got behind the team. Like, I made mistakes but it was a forgiving environment. It was a special time in my life.”

It was the same for Mannion. He too had come home, albeit from a shorter distance than O’Sullivan. He needed those Buccs years – if only to stave off the envy he felt when he saw younger men jump on the professional bandwagon which had arrived too late for him.

More than anything, though, the towns of Athlone and Ballinasloe needed it. It’s easy to look back now at those years, ‘96 through to ’99, and remember them as the start of the Celtic Tiger but unless you are from a provincial town, you’ll never quite understand why a local sports team represents so much more than a badge.

The Buccs swiftly found out that the people of Athlone and Ballinasloe had been waiting for them. This was escapism for those worn out by the drudgery of the nine-to-five; it was affirmation for those who’d never left their home towns, justification for those who’d come back to them. The pre-match banquets were fun, the matches intense and the craic in the clubhouse afterwards, with the Henshaws playing their music, unforgettable.

So were the results. Despite being tipped for relegation, the Buccs were practically unbeatable at home, finishing fourth, earning a play-off against Cork Con.

brian-walsh-2541999 Buccs took on Cork Con's Brian Walsh in a play-off. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

A couple of fans took a helicopter down to that game, landing on a training pitch at Temple Hill, immediately told by the man on the public address system to ‘make their way to the front gate and pay in like everyone else’.

Cork Con was where the dream died. Still, for O’Sullivan, it was only starting. Buccs had raised his profile in Ireland, the AIL being a testing ground then for coaches as well as players, O’Sullivan following on from Murray Kidd (Garryowen) and Warren Gatland (Galwegians) to get work with Ireland.

Initially it was as Gatland’s assistant before he succeeded him, becoming the first Ireland coach to win a Triple Crown in 19 years, the first to beat Australia in 23, first to put one over the Springboks since 1965. The crowds and the prizes became a whole lot bigger but was it more fun?

Asking a coach a question like that is the equivalent of demanding a parent tell you the identity of their favourite child. Still, you know by listening to him what those Buccs years meant and you saw it for yourself a couple of years back.

After interviewing him for a World Cup preview, we walked back to our cars, crossing the Shannon bridge by Athlone’s left bank. “Eddie!” a voice boomed out. You half-expected a conversation about Ireland, either the current side, or the one he coached.

Instead the chat was filled with remember-whens. “What about the time we beat Garryowen?” he was asked.

“Great days,” O’Sullivan said to the man.

Tougher ones followed. “The year after Eddie left for Ireland, teams copped onto us a bit,” says Mannion. Crowd numbers decreased. Munster became a thing, the four provinces claiming the allegiance of players. “A big part of the attraction for people was seeing Mick Galwey, Denis Hickie, Irish internationals, in your own town,” says Kelly.

When the internationals left club rugby to focus predominantly for their provinces, the crowds went with them.

And by 2005/06, the union was broken, Ballinasloe going their own way. “It was amicable,” says Mannion. “Both clubs still have plenty of time for one another.”

“That’s true,” says Conlon. “If you are a club person, those Buccs years in the ‘90s gave us memories we can never forget.” His words are bittersweet because he knows those days are gone forever. “No one seems to care about club rugby anymore,” he says. That annoys him. “Who’ll develop the next generation?”

Mannion concurs. His great fear now is that a Super League will appear in rugby similar in concept to the one that failed to get off the ground in soccer. “Don’t rule it out,” he said. “Money talks, private equity companies are coming into the game. They’ll want a financial return.”

For him, Kelly, Conlon, O’Sullivan, those Buccs years offered something much richer and more personal than that. “A community galvanised behind a small, local team, you can’t beat a story like that,” says Mannion. “But the sad thing is, the way rugby is going, you’ll never hear one like it again.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Garry Doyle

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