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'We need to back up our Leinster performance and push forward' - Baloucoune's battle cry
Ulster will be hoping to maintain their winning form when they take on Ospreys later today.

CHRISTENED ‘THE CAT’ by none other than Willie Anderson for his laid-back and easy-going personality, Robert Baloucoune found himself in the rare position of being somewhat shocked when he was called up to the Ireland squad for the Autumn Internationals.

robert-baloucoune-during-the-warm-up James Crombie / INPHO Ulster's Robert Baloucoune [file photo]. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

After a stuttering start to the season with Ulster due to a nagging groin injury which cost him three of their opening five games – and one of the two he did play was the horror show against Connacht at the Aviva – the 24-year-old confesses he wasn’t expecting the call from Andy Farrell at the end of October.

But it came regardless, Baloucoune evidently having earned enough credit in the bank after a stellar debut against the USA over the summer to be brought back into the squad despite his lack of game-time since, initially beating out the hugely impressive Mack Hansen to be brought down to Carton House.

“Being in camp, I really enjoyed it, my second time in it and being able to be involved a bit more,” says the Ulster winger.

“The USA game was a bit different, it just seemed a bit more intense this time, for me anyway, and there was a bit more pressure. I settled into camp and we gelled really well and that showed on the pitch.”

That was evident in the first two games against Japan and New Zealand as Ireland brandished a new attacking style of play that tore the Brave Blossoms to shreds and then also accounted for the All Blacks, with Hugo Keenan, James Lowe and Andrew Conway – and Keith Earls off the bench – all outstanding.

Baloucoune was left watching from the stands, delighted for his team-mates but admittedly envious he wasn’t involved. After being restricted on provincial duty, the hope was it wouldn’t be the same at international level too.

But with Farrell already sure in his mind he’d go with his tried and trusted for the Argentina game, the former Sevens star thought he might end his time in camp without a minute for his efforts. Then again, given he didn’t think he’d be called up in the first place, he wasn’t too surprised.

But, to his astonishment, he was one of just two unenforced changes made by Farrell for the game, coming in to replace Conway on the wing for the Los Pumas clash.

“I was quite surprised just because it looked pretty set what the team was going to be going in. It was a bit of a shock whenever I saw I was involved,” continues Baloucoune, who played the full game against Argentina.

“I was pretty nervous, not going to lie. I’d played (for Ireland) before but just because the stadium was full I was a bit nervous coming into the game, but once I got involved and once I was on the pitch it was like any other game and I settled into it.”

It shows the faith that Farrell has in the Enniskillen man that, despite his slow start to the campaign, he drafted him in when he resisted making wholesale changes to his team. First on the radar as a development call-up for the 2020 Six Nations, now he is a fully fledged international and intent on growing.

He knows he is in a battle to earn a starting jersey, with Conway and Lowe the incumbents on the wing, while he has the likes of Earls, Hansen, Jordan Larmour and Simon Zebo, as well as returning provincial team-mate Jacob Stockdale, to factor in too.

But ‘The Cat’ isn’t willing to surrender his place and, while he’s not the kind to talk himself up to the detriment of others, he is determined to do the work behind the scenes required to keep himself progressing on the right track.

“You always need a goal in sight. I have goals and I do look at them and chat to the coaches about them. I spoke to Faz and Mike Catt just on what I need to focus on as a player. It’s good to have a goal so you can push forward as much as possible,” maintains Baloucoune.

“I am relaxed and do kinda stroll about the place, but I still need that determination to get through doing small extras and bits and pieces. They all add up and I don’t think you get to where you are without doing that.

“People can have their say on whether you do extras or not, but ultimately it’s down to me and how I control that.”

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james-hume-celebrates-scoring-a-try-with-teammates Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

One downside to being called upon against Argentina was that, under the IRFU’s player management programme, he was left out of the Ulster squad that headed down to the RDS Arena and stole a rare win against Leinster, instead watching on from home with envy.

“I’ve played Leinster a few times and I still haven’t beaten them, so that was hard to take!” he laughs. “Nah, credit to the boys, can’t take anything away from the performance that they put in down there.”

Of course, that win means nothing if the team can’t maintain that momentum into today’s trip to The Swansea.com Stadium to face the Ospreys [kick-off, 3pm], with Baloucoune among seven alterations to Dan McFarland’s side heading to south Wales.

With this the second game in a big 10-game stretch for Ulster both in the United Rugby Championship and the Heineken Champions Cup, on paper it perhaps looks to be the easiest of the lot. But complacency can lead to slip-ups at costly moments, something Baloucoune wants to avoid.

“I think it would be easy to switch off, which is why we’ve spoken about it in this week’s meetings. I don’t think anyone’s looking past this game, we need to back up our performance against Leinster and really push forward and put out another big performance against the Ospreys,” adds the winger.

“Yeah, there’s big games in Europe coming up, but it’s in the future, there’s no point in focusing on them yet. Our mindset is clear and only on playing the Ospreys. We’ll be trying to push on every game and get the results we’re looking for.”

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