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Wednesday 1 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Laszlo Geczo/INPHO Ulster's Robert Baloucoune scores a try.
# Hat-trick Hero
'We always back ourselves at home and I'm sure it'll be the same intensity at the Kingspan'
Ulster lead defending champions Toulouse ahead of next week’s second leg.

YOUR EYE IS naturally drawn to the three tries, but Robert Baloucoune’s impact at the Stadium de Toulouse went far further than just what he produced on the scoresheet.

Even before he’d dotted down for his first try of the afternoon the Ireland winger had produced a superb try-saving tackle in his own 22 on Thomas Ramos, and he would make two more throughout the course of the game in a supreme all-round performance.

He’s long been good at that side of the game, largely thanks to his Sevens background, and his overall performance was one that was badly needed on his return to the Ulster line-up after missing their South African mini-tour.

Of course, the tries weren’t half bad either, Baloucoune running in off passes from James Hume and then Stuart McCloskey before the piece de resistance, an intercept off an Antoine Dupont pass that saw him run it from his own 22 over the line for the third.

A 26-20 lead to take back to Kingspan Stadium for next week’s second leg is nothing to be sniffed at and Baloucoune is confident they can get the job done.

“The boys stuck in well. It’s only half the battle, so same again next week. At least it’s a step forward in the right direction,” said the 24-year-old.

“We always back ourselves at home and I’m sure it’ll be the same intensity at the Kingspan. We’re happy enough to do the same again in front of our home fans and hopefully get the win back there.

cyril-baille-is-tackled-by-duane-vermeulen-and-iain-henderson Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Cyril Baille is tackled by Duane Vermeulen. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“I can’t take credit for all the tries, it was great work as a team and that’s something we had worked on during training for the whole week, moving the ball to the width. It was nice to get a couple of run-ins.

“And then working with JP (defence coach Jared Payne) on our defensive reads, we talked about trying to put them under pressure and that’s what I did for the intercept, just tried to get into the space and it fell into my hands.”

It’s hard to come away disappointed from a six-point win at the defending European champions but Ulster will know that, to a degree, there was a bit of good fortune in their victory at the Stadium de Toulouse.

While there is no questioning that Juan Cruz Mallia’s tackle in the air on Ben Moxham deserved a red card, it did even things up a lot after a rather worrying start as Emmanuel Meafou powered his way over after just seven minutes, and Ulster were far from perfect beyond that.

Their line-out was woefully inaccurate and their work at the breakdown left plenty to be desired as well, two areas that Toulouse will be more than happy to target again in a week’s time if they are not addressed, while their decision to keep kicking for the corner in a two-legged tie – particularly with a malfunctioning set-piece – was questionable.

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So, while he may have taken a six-point lead if it had been offered before the game, head coach Dan McFarland was a tad less enthused by the outcome at full-time.

“I think we could have taken a larger points difference back. If you’d offered it to me before the game, winning in Toulouse by six points, yeah, of course. Not sure anybody wouldn’t take it,” he said.

“Our line-out, which is usually extremely good, didn’t function as well as it can do, they were excellent in lineout defence. That was a pretty critical part. Our breakdown, we were counter-rucked on a number of occasions. I know they’re enormous men but we can’t afford to do that at home.

“I genuinely believe this will have to be a lot better next week if we want to prevail over the two legs.”

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