21-year-old academy wing Baloucoune taking his chances with Ulster

The Enniskillen man has shone for Ulster in the Heineken Cup over the past fortnight.

THE FACT THAT Robert Baloucoune wasn’t even part of Ulster’s full academy at the start of last season makes the impact he has made in the current campaign all the more impressive.

The 21-year-old wing scored two tries in his province’s wins over Racing 92 and Leicester in the past fortnight, helping them to earn a Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Leinster.

“It’s been quite the experience, hasn’t it?” says Baloucoune, an Enniskillen RFC man.

Robert Baloucoune celebrates after the game with fans Baloucoune has quickly won over the Ulster fans. Gary Carr / INPHO Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

“I was quite surprised to be picked for the Racing game and I took it as it came. It’s been good to get the tries to settle in, especially against Racing getting it early, it’s helping me settle in quickly and I’ve just been building from there.”

An Ireland Sevens international, Baloucoune possesses lighting speed and sharp finishing skills, helping him to notch three tries in his six Ulster senior starts so far this season overall.

With his aerial ability still a work in progress, Baloucoune is understandably learning the intricacies of top-level wing play but there is great excitement within Ulster about his potential.

“The guy has done really good work in the academy and with the sevens as well,” says Ulster boss Dan McFarland. “He is spending some time learning 15s now.

“He is a top man and he has a way to go but, in terms of physical attributes, he has everything you would want to play regularly. That is a Champions Cup game there and he is a very inexperienced player and he has done really well.”

Baloucoune’s defensive prowess, something he feels sevens rugby was useful for developing, has stood out for Ulster, notably again last weekend when he made a superb covering tackle on Leicester Tigers prop Greg Bateman in the second half.

“He was flying there, no one expected it,” says Baloucoune. “I still got him, so I didn’t get burned by a prop, which is alright!”

Baloucoune’s rise with Ulster has been swift, particularly given that he spent much of last season playing sevens with Ireland, helping them to a strong campaign that also featured some heartbreak.

The impression Baloucoune made in the green jersey was one of the reasons Ulster brought him into their academy during the course of last season, meaning he’s now in second year of the programme.

Robert Baloucoune with Greg Bateman Baloucoune makes a superb covering tackle on Leicester's Greg Bateman. Gary Carr / INPHO Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

An alumnus of Enniskillen Royal Grammar School, Baloucoune is a proud Enniskillen RFC man and even played in a Towns Cup final for the club against Ballynahinch seconds in Kingspan Stadium as recently as 2017.

Fermanagh is not quite renowned as rugby country but Baloucoune always had the support of his club as he dreamed of breaking into the professional game.

“The closest is Will Addison’s mum being from there - I think that’s about it,” says Baloucoune. “You see a lot of Ulster fans wearing their Enniskillen gear just letting me know that they’re here supporting as well.

“I’d played a few underage games and a few people would have told me I should be playing [professionally] in a few years and I would have brushed it aside.

“Maybe that’s me being laidback, I probably should have been pushing myself a bit more.
It’s pretty good to have a few more people watching and the support from ones at home.”

Baloucoune’s Senegalese father played football, meaning his son did the same until the age of 15, when some friends convinced him to give rugby a go. Given his athleticism, Baloucoune took to it quickly and hasn’t looked back.

“Most coaches just tell me to run and back my pace! If I can burn someone then that’s a bonus!”

The sevens experience was an enjoyable one for Baloucoune, who was part of the Ireland squad that failed to qualify onto the World Sevens Series when they lost in the semi-finals of the Hong Kong qualifier last year.

Ireland will attempt to jump that hurdle again in April of this year, although it seems likely they will be missing Baloucoune this time around.

“That was my first trip away,” says Baloucoune of going to Hong Kong last year. “It was a bit of a shock to the system.

Robert Baloucoune tackled by Stephen Tomasin Baloucoune was part of the Ireland Sevens set-up last season. Andrew Fosker / INPHO Andrew Fosker / INPHO / INPHO

“If I’m playing for Ulster, I’m happy enough. I don’t even know if I’d be fit enough for sevens now! I’m enjoying playing 15s at the minute and enjoying my rugby.”

Baloucoune has appreciated the experience around him in Ulster’s backline this season as he has adapted full-time back into 15s and broken into McFarland’s senior team.

“Louis [Ludik] and even Jacob [Stockdale], the amount of times he’s played and how he’s performing at the minute, are just constantly talking to me.

“And Will [Addison], who also plays back three, chatting to me constantly throughout training and matches stuff like that. It really helps me in games.”

While several Ulster players have departed for Portugal this week to prepare for the Six Nations with Ireland, this is a vital time of the season for the rest of the province’s squad.

With four Pro14 games between now and the end of the Six Nations, further opportunity beckons for Baloucoune and some of Ulster’s other young guns.

“I just want to be playing as much as I can,” he says. “I’m trying to keep my spot on the wing.

“Hopefully, there’ll be a few more academy players getting their chances because there’s a lot of talent coming through. The Six Nations is a great chance to improve your position but there’s a lot of competition for places too.”

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