Belfast Telegraph

Robert Baloucoune thrilled to push his case for European start after try-scoring return

 

Bal winner: try scorer Robert Baloucoune powers through a Scarlets challenge
Bal winner: try scorer Robert Baloucoune powers through a Scarlets challenge
Robert Baloucoune accepting his man of the match award from Steven Hall of Guinness

By Michael Sadlier

It was a strange one alright, an avalanche of Ulster points early in the game and then nothing, from either side until right at the end.

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Maybe that was a reflection on what was essentially an orphan of a game. Yes, this abandoned-looking PRO14 game was always destined to be unloved and overshadowed by Europe's immediate past and its now very pressing present.

But Friday's 29-5 dismissal of a distinctly anaemic-looking Scarlets side, admittedly missing many Wales front-liners, finally gave us some sought-after visibility of what Ulster can unleash from structured attack plays where the purpose was to find space on the edges.

The five points - their fourth try bonus from seven league games, their third gathered up from winning games - was more than useful for the PRO14 but this was always a game which looked as if it was fundamentally about getting it done and out of the way with thoughts about facing Harlequins, home and away, in Europe already creeping into view last week.

And though Dan McFarland was clearly irritated in watching his side fail to score a point from just before the half hour - when they led 24-0 with the try bonus already wrapped up - until Matt Faddes book-ended the game with his second try in the 78th minute, it was probably no bad thing, in that running up a massive score might have taken some edge off what has to be done when hosting Harlequins on Saturday afternoon.

Much more hunger and ruthlessness will be demanded and, you would assume, delivered on the training paddock this week.

And while McFarland and his coaching team - backs coach Dwayne Peel will doubtless have been pleased with the attacking work as well as seeing off his former club with such ease - will laud the good stuff, and presumably be understanding over the difficulties in pushing on when being so far ahead, they will also have enough evidence to supply some strong criticism.

One player who came through Friday evening looking ready to claim his first Champions Cup start of the season was winger Robert Baloucoune.

It was only the second time the 22-year-old Enniskillen man has been seen in an Ulster shirt during this campaign after injury, over the summer, held him back but he reminded us of his power and pace on frequent occasions last Friday.

Baloucoune had highly visible involvement in both of Ulster's opening tries, from Faddes and John Cooney.

He even managed to score the bonus point try, though Stuart McCloskey's over-the-top pass should have been intercepted by Steff Evans, and had been causing the Scarlets problems from the get-go both in attack and defence.

With Will Addison suspended, and Rob Lyttle injured, Baloucoune has made a compelling case for inclusion against Quins.

"It was nice to get a bit of ball and the cross-fields (kicks) were working," he said.

"It was decent to be out there and actually getting my hands on the ball, I got a try as well, so I was happy enough. I'll just try and perform and if that pushes my way into playing in the Champions Cup then that's what I'll do.

If Ulster can bring more vim and vigour to their attacking plays then Baloucoune is bound to flourish especially so with his aerial ability, speed and physicality.

"We play at speed in training and we try to bring it out onto the pitch, we want to show how quickly we can play.

"We went into this game talking about the space they had out wide. We stuck to the game plan and it worked," added the winger.

His last home game was back in May in the PRO14 play-off win over Connacht so, understandably, Baloucoune had something to say about running out in front of a home crowd again.

"It's always great to play at the Kingspan.

"It's been a while, but the crowd are great, they really egg you on and that's what drives you through the game."

Baloucoune has good memories of last season's Champions Cup as his European debut, at home to Racing 92 back in January, resulted in a win and a try as, indeed, was the case with his second outing, seven days later at Leicester Tigers.

Recovering from his off-season injury has been mostly occupying Baloucoune's mind lately and he would relish another crack at a European game with his last taste of it coming at the Aviva Stadium in last March's quarter-final loss to Leinster.

"It (the injury) has been quite tough," he explains.

"It took a while getting back into training, even just running, but once I got back on the field doing what I do, I was enjoying it.

"It has been good to be back."

After a brief run-out in last month's PRO14 defeat at Munster, Baloucoune turned out in Ballynahinch's colours at Dublin University three weekends ago.

It was a productive occasion on what was his debut for the Co Down club as he claimed a hat-trick of tries in the narrow victory at Trinity.

"It was good just to get some game-time," he recalled.

"I was nervous even going and playing for Hinch, but I enjoyed the game and it was good to get my hands on the ball and get running with it."

He avoids mentioning the three tries until reminded and adds sheepishly, "It was also good to get the hat-trick."

As well as Baloucoune, McCloskey, Faddes, Cooney, Marty Moore, Alan O'Connor, Marcell Coetzee and Sean Reidy all had good games while Bill Johnston also showed up strongly.

In terms of the deck available for this weekend, Ulster appear to have got off reasonably lightly in terms of injuries after putting out quite a strong side against the Scarlets.

However, Moore left with an arm issue while Louis Ludik, on his 100th appearance, also departed after a knock.

Meanwhile, it appears that Ulster are unlikely to be appealing Addison's four-week ban for what what was deemed a dangerous tackle following last week's citing hearing in the wake of the home European clash with Clermont.

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