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