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Ulster flyer Baloucoune ready to seize his opportunity with Ireland

The former Sevens star is part of Andy Farrell’s squad for the first time.

Ulster's Robert Baloucoune.
Ulster's Robert Baloucoune.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

AS THE IRELAND Sevens ripped through France to secure qualification for the Tokyo Olympics while drenched in the Monaco sunshine last Sunday, Robert Baloucoune found himself sat inside a car taking shelter from the rain, glued to the action on his phone.

Watching his old friends achieve a dream, a few days out from taking a major step towards his own.

“It was unbelievable,” Baloucoune says.

“I was away for the weekend so I had it on my phone in the car sitting watching the games with my friends. It was pissing down with rain outside and we were all sat in the same car watching it all. It’s an unbelievable achievement. To go to the Olympics is a dream for them. For all the work they’ve put in, and to finish it off with France who are a great team, it’s unbelievable.”

Baloucoune has played a part in their journey, representing Ireland at Sevens level in 2018, where he lined out in six capped tournaments. Three years on, the 23-year-old’s attention is now fully on the 15s game, with Baloucoune’s impressive displays with Ulster earning him a first call-up to Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad for the upcoming Tests against Japan and the USA.

“It was great,” Baloucoune says of his time playing Sevens.

“I went into Sevens really before the Academy or the usual routes. I was playing junior rugby for Enniskillen. Obviously other players were playing a different standard of rugby and it allowed me to catch up and put my skills to the test.

If I’d been playing 15s I’d have been stuck on the wing and I wouldn’t have got the same ball or had to make as many tackles or been involved in the game as much. Sevens really drove that and playing with the likes of lads that are still there and now going to the Olympics, Jordan Conroy, Terry Kennedy and then others that are here (with Ireland) now like Hugo Keenan and Shane Daly and boys like that.

“For me, it’s quite a while back but I found myself realising that you have to work hard in Sevens and if you don’t work hard, you get caught out, and at the start of it I’d say I wasn’t really fit enough for the intensity of the game and I found myself caught out a few times.

“But I think once you get used to the training and the intensity of the game, I was able to settle in. You find yourself scurrying across half the pitch to make a tackle or running back 50 metres after a break and it really tests you.” 

robert-baloucoune-tackled-by-stephen-tomasin Robert Baloucoune during his time with the Ireland Sevens. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

The skills which served Baloucoune so well in Sevens have also marked him out in the 15s game, and while the Ulster flyer’s pace is his most obvious attribute, he also points to other areas where he feels he has something to offer.

“I think what I back myself on is my defensive plays. I feel I read the game well, I’ll try to force (the opposition) behind the gainline and I think just bringing that intensity in defence and I suppose in attack as well, catching kicks, are all things I think I can bring to the game.

“(I’ve been) trying to get more involved in the game. I used to sit quite a lot on the wing and let the ball come to me, whereas I’ve spent a lot of time with the coaches, just trying to get involved, get off my wing and get my hands on the ball as much as I can.

“That’s similar to all the back three in Ulster, we’re just trying to get our hands on the ball and obviously then whenever I was injured I was able to do a bit more static skills, obviously I couldn’t walk as much but I was able to train with my hands, I was able to catch everything and give the ball away, so I think in that way I’ve developed, on and off the pitch.”

Baloucoune’s breakthrough with Ulster came back in the 2018/19 season, where he scored six tries in 13 starts for the province. His strong form then saw him included in Andy Farrell’s pre-Six Nations training camp in Portugal last year, before his progress came to a screeching halt. 

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robert-baloucoune Baloucoune scored three tries in eight appearances for Ulster this season. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

First, the emergence of coronavirus put the rugby season on ice. Further disappointment followed in the summer as the rugby restart neared, with Baloucoune tearing his hamstring from the bone. He wouldn’t play for Ulster again until February of this year.

Since then, he’s picked up where he left off, scoring three tries in eight appearances across the tail-end of the season.

Now, he’s in line to win his first international cap.

“It’s been an aim, what I’ve been training for and pushing for,” he says.

“For all those games with Ulster, putting in performances, it leads to this. I’m really looking forward to trying to get that first cap and if that happens now in this series that would be great.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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