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How Enniskillen RFC pushed 'special' Robert Baloucoune on to Ulster stardom


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Rising star: Robert Baloucoune in action for Ulster against Bath last Saturday when he grabbed a try

Rising star: Robert Baloucoune in action for Ulster against Bath last Saturday when he grabbed a try

�INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Rising star: Robert Baloucoune in action for Ulster against Bath last Saturday when he grabbed a try

Enniskillen head coach Stephen Welsh still remembers the first time he found out he'd be coaching Robert Baloucoune.

It was three-and-half years ago, when Welsh was then assistant coach to Willie Gibson at Mullaghmeen. The coach was driving home early from pre-season training one night when his phone started to ring.

"Stephen? Bob came to training, I'm thinking of putting him in for the first game of the season," came Gibson's voice down the other end of the line.

That was a big deal. Enniskillen's first game of the season was against local rivals Clogher Valley, a derby not exactly known for its small collisions and weak tackles. It was all out war when the two Fermanagh clubs met.

Welsh, understandably, had reservations. After all, 'Bob' was a winger mere weeks out of Portora Royal School and had only taken up the game after switching from football at Medallion level. The coaching duo had only actually seen him play in person a small handful of times.

They hadn't even been sure he was going to show up for a pre-season session in the first place. Baloucoune had an offer to go to university in Nottingham that he was seriously considering, and they thought his decision not to take up their invite immediately was a sign he'd go there instead.

Then you add in the concern over the game at the weekend. Was he even ready to go straight in against their local rivals in the first game of the season?

But, with persuasion from Gibson, it was agreed that Baloucoune would start against Clogher. Driving the rest of the way home, Welsh hoped that the risk was worth it.

What he couldn't have known was how big that gamble would be in shaping Robert Baloucoune's path as a rugby player.

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Robert scoring against Scarlets

Robert scoring against Scarlets

�INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Welsh knew what Baloucoune was capable of. Even in his schools career the rangy winger had an eye for the line, and he had a small smattering of Ulster Schools caps to reflect his potential. It was his all-roundedness that had Welsh concerned.

He needn't have been. Against Clogher, Baloucoune ticked every box, and then some.

"What impressed me most was his defence. His tackles were so aggressive, always on the front foot, closing down the space to 13 and his man on the wing before they even got the ball," recalls Welsh.

"You could tell straight away this kid was special."

Over the next few games, Baloucoune impressed enough to become a regular fixture on the teamsheet every week, and he flourished, clearly too good for the junior level he found himself at and getting the deserved call to join the Ulster Academy.

At club level, week after week he found himself on the scoresheet, leaving defenders in his wake and dancing over the tryline with ease.

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Robert with Enniskillen coach Stephen Welsh

Robert with Enniskillen coach Stephen Welsh

The Enniskillen man was loving his rugby, getting to play alongside his friends and able to develop his game in an environment he felt comfortable in.

Unfortunately, his love of playing for his club went too far on one occasion, even though it was after another sensational performance.

"I remember getting a call from a very angry Kieran Campbell (head of Ulster's Academy) asking why we played his injured player in a game," grins Welsh.

"Robert had come down to training and told us he was injured for Ulster, but he came back and declared himself fit for us, so we played him against Ballymena 2s and he was absolutely phenomenal. Scored two tries, one was an unbelievable chip and chase from our own 22.

"Unfortunately (the try) was covered on the news and then I got the call from Kieran! I'm blaming that one on Bob!"

But that, unsurprisingly, was an isolated incident.

Ulster were delighted with the progress Baloucoune was making with his home town club and they were happy to let him keep playing for them, even though they could have sent him to an All-Ireland League side instead.

The recognition that he was better suited to developing in an environment he was comfortable in worked for both parties, and it's safe to say both are reaping the rewards now.

"I think if he'd gone to a bigger club, he wouldn't have struggled playing-wise but it mightn't have brought him out of his shell as much. He's comfortable around us and that helped him come out of his shell," agrees Welsh.

"He still comes to most Enniskillen games. You'll rarely see him in Ulster gear as well, he'd be half embarrassed to come to the club and see that attention. It doesn't come naturally to him.

"It's good for all the young boys coming through to see him and realise they can play for Portora and the local club and then still maybe play for Ulster.

"Obviously you still need that skill-set and you still need to work hard, but they can do it. It's a real boost for our kids seeing him on the touchline."

Having matured by sticking with Enniskillen, everything seemed to be looking up for the winger.

He had an offer to play with the Ireland Sevens to develop his individual game even further, while his testing numbers were a further boost for the Ulster coaches, putting him right up there as one of the fastest players in the squad.

The only thing standing in his way was, remarkably, himself. Fortunately, that Enniskillen link was never too far away to keep him motivated.

"At the start, when he was in the Academy and doing trials, he didn't really want to go up to them. He just wanted to play with his mates and didn't want to push himself," says Welsh.

"As much as we wanted to hold onto him, we knew he was special and we tried to convince him every time he went up to Belfast to try and improve himself, make a positive impact on whatever session he was at.

"A development manager at Ulster, Matty Maguire, he's an Enniskillen man and it was his job to get him spotted. There was also a physio, Richard Johnston, who was an Enniskillen man too.

"It was great to have both of them on the inside to drive him on. Those two played a massive role."

Indeed, they kept him so focused that things just began to go the right way for Baloucoune.

Having served his time in the Academy, he made his senior debut against the Dragons in October 2018. He scored his first try against Munster that December, and then scored against both Racing 92 and the Leicester Tigers as Ulster qualified for the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup, and then proceeded to start the game at the Aviva Stadium against Leinster in April.

Now, after scoring in four of his six games this season following a nasty hand injury sustained in pre-season, Baloucoune has earned his first Ireland call-up at the age of just 22 as one of four development players in Andy Farrell's first squad for next Saturday's Six Nations opener against Scotland at the Aviva, and is soaking up as much as he can in Portugal on their warm weather training camp.

"Maybe not as quick as this!" admits Welsh when asked if he expected Baloucoune to be called up to the Ireland squad.

"If you said that to me three years ago, no. It's massive. And if he hadn't gotten injured in pre-season then I'd love to see how much he'd have developed."

On the morning of that game against Racing, Welsh sent Baloucoune a text. The coach had realised it was exactly one year to the day that the winger scored those tries against Ballymena 2s.

The text was nothing over the top, just a simple reminder to his former player of how far he had come in 12 months and how proud Welsh was.

"Rob being Rob, he didn't reply, he was too awkward to say thanks!" laughs Welsh. "But that's just him, to be honest."

And what Welsh said back when Baloucoune made his Enniskillen debut against Clogher in September 2017, still rings true less than three years later.

This kid's something special.

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