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How sevens had a crucial role in Robert Baloucoune's rapid rise through ranks

 

By Jonathan Bradley

On the face of it, when the team-sheets were submitted for Ulster's clash against Racing 92 at Kingspan Stadium some two and a half weeks ago, there was little similarity between the opposing wings.

Ulster's Robert Baloucoune was making his Champions Cup debut, a 21-year-old who had first taken up rugby only six years ago at the urging of some friends at what was then Portora College.

He would be going head-to-head with Juan Imhoff, a flying Argentine who does not look out of place among the Parisians' array of stars and who will forever be remembered by Irish fans for his starring role as the Pumas dumped Ireland out of the 2015 World Cup.

Two players with wholly different profiles, but the disparate figures do have one thing in common. Sevens.

While Imhoff's experience of the under-manned code came with a handful of caps before his 15s Test bow, and then a spot as an Olympian in Rio, it provides a central part of Baloucoune's story.

When Baloucoune, who has scored tries against Racing, Munster and Leicester already this season, first emerged to make a surprise Ulster debut against Dragons in October, it piqued curiosity from fans. How had a youngster playing junior rugby for Enniskillen RFC only two seasons ago come to be on the Ulster wing?

Sevens was a large part of the answer. Baloucoune was still in school when in April 2016 he was first brought down to a camp by former Ulster and Ireland winger James Topping, an Elite Development Officer in the province, serving as a coach in the sevens programme since its relaunch in early 2015.

It was there Baloucoune first met Stan McDowell, the former Ulster centre who 20 years ago today lifted the European Cup after coming on as a second-half substitute for Harry Williams in the win over Colomiers.

McDowell's coaching career began with Blackrock Under-20s, for whom he was still playing All-Ireland League rugby until after his 40th birthday, and the Leinster women.

But it was the burgeoning sevens programme that saw him make the jump to the pro ranks, where a place on the World Series Sevens circuit is now a realistic aim after a near miss last spring. Baloucoune was part of the squad that lost in the semi-final of the Hong Kong qualifier nine months ago but figures to be on Ulster duty when the next chance comes around again in April.

"You look at players who have the right sort of characteristics, players who have that X-factor and who are going to develop into professional 15s players," explained McDowell of how Baloucoune came onto the radar.

"His improvement over the last 12 months has him now as a real asset to Ulster and we're delighted for him.

"Nick Timoney at Ulster is another fine example, he was tremendous last year, a season after his time for us.

"Then at the other provinces you've got Alex Wooton, Barry Daly, Dan Goggin, Adam Byrne, they've all come through us and have gone on to be successful with the provinces."

Combining such talent development with the building of a side who are on the cusp of competing on the world stage is quite the feat, especially considering that the men's programme had lapsed into disuse prior to its resurrection by the IRFU's David Nucifora and Anthony Eddy.

"There's high value in the programme," said McDowell. "We've a high number of the current academy set-up and the hope is always that they go on and, like Robert, appear in the PRO14 and the Heineken (Champions) Cup.

"We've been delighted to see him getting those opportunities and taking it. It's part and parcel of our job, getting them to the point where they get full-time contracts and getting them to the point where they're full-time players."

One area of Baloucoune's game that has certainly seemed to benefit from his history in sevens is defence. While young players usually struggle to adapt to playing without the ball, Baloucoune has been solid, even making a crucial tackle on Greg Bateman against Leicester when he came from distance to make the last-ditch intervention.

"Make no bones about it, Robert was always a good tackler," added McDowell. "But where sevens can help a player like that is giving experience of tracking and tackling in space. What we can do is make an individual feel comfortable in space and with the pace of the game and then going into 15s, space is limited.

"It gives you that feeling of security."

Baloucoune's try that day against Racing was even more special for McDowell (left, against Colomiers) given he was there to witness it first-hand as Ulster feted their 1999 heroes before kick-off.

"It was an amazing day," he said. "I've been in Dublin for 10 years and hadn't seen a lot of those guys since before then. But we had a fabulous day, a lot of reminiscing and a performance to give hope that in 10 years' time we won't be wheeled out again to mark the 30th anniversary. We need another Ulster win before then."

Who knows? Should an Ulster team manage to repeat the feat over the next 10 years, his sevens protégé may just be among those involved.

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