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How Robert Baloucoune's taste of Ireland action has made winger stronger for Ulster


In form: Robert Baloucoune has been a positive for Ulster this season

In form: Robert Baloucoune has been a positive for Ulster this season

In form: Robert Baloucoune has been a positive for Ulster this season

There were few positives to be drawn from Ulster's defeat last weekend at the hands of Ospreys but once again one could be found in the performance of Robert Baloucoune who is relishing taking on Ruan Peinaar's Cheetahs at Kingspan on Saturday (7.35pm).

Crossing the whitewash early in the piece, his attacking variety - four defenders beaten, two clean breaks, one offload - rendered him Ulster's most dangerous player on a forgettable day.

Indeed, his score was his fifth in only six starts this year, only Matt Faddes and John Cooney have bagged more.

Having missed the first two months of the season, and then another month in the middle, the 22-year-old has been the province's in-form back-three player of 2020 and it was no surprise to see him catch the eye of new Ireland coach Andy Farrell.

Included as one of four 'development' players in the Englishman's first Six Nations squad, he spent a week with the squad in their Portugal camp before being a part of the preparations for the opening round win over Scotland.

For a player plucked from the relative obscurity of junior rugby only three seasons ago, joining first the Ireland Sevens squad and then the Ulster set-up, the involvement came as the latest step in a rapid rise.

Linking up with the likes of 2018 World Player of the Year Johnny Sexton, Baloucoune joked that it wasn't so long ago he was watching feats like his last-gasp drop goal over France as a supporter.

"I don't think anyone would have believed it," says the laid-back youngster.

"It was really good, it was a bit surreal. I've been watching the guys on TV and then you're in training with them. I always think about watching them that (Grand Slam) year, I'd have been watching them in the pub with my friends. To be here training now and just chatting to him, it's weird but I love it.

"Everyone was great. They try to get you involved and get you up to say a bit about yourself and stuff like that. Everyone was really welcoming and helped me out when I needed it.

It's through such conversations that Baloucoune believes he was able to come back a more knowledgeable player than the one who first linked up with the squad.

"Even just chatting in training on the pitch. Like, Garry Ringrose would have been in the centre beside me so I'd be talking to him, seeing what he wants and what he does.

"Obviously he'll defend differently to Lukey (Luke Marshall) so it's just chatting to him and seeing the differences, asking him why he did what he did and what I should be doing, gathering that knowledge and trying to learn.

"There's so much detail to learn and get right. I really enjoyed it and it was a great opportunity. And being away in camp, I think I've taken a bit of confidence from that training.

"I really enjoyed it and think I showed what I could do. There were a few boys injured during the training so I got a chance to get a good run and hopefully I showed enough to get another call one day."

And while Joe Schmidt may be gone, his famed 'work-ons' remain under the new regime with Farrell telling Baloucoune what he wants to see from him moving forward.

"We all had individual chats. He talked about what more he thought I could bring. Obviously I've got speed but just anticipating when there'd be a linebreak and making sure I'm there on the shoulder."

Baloucoune's immediate concern will be getting Ulster back on track after that shock loss in Swansea when the Cheetahs come to Kingspan on Saturday. After playing in Storm Dennis last week, the forecast is at least looking up.

"It was one of those days you don't really expect much ball," Baloucoune said. "It was good to get another try onto the scoresheet, but it's hard to get into a game like that where it's constant kicking. The conditions weren't great. Before the game, when the storm kicked in you were wondering if it was going to ease at all, but not to be. It was certainly up there in terms of the (worst) conditions but you get some bad pitches in the Junior League to be fair. You couldn't complain about the surface over there.

It was tough to play in but we knew it was happening. We had a game-plan for it, we just didn't set it into motion. There are bits there that we've practised already in training that we could have dealt with better and it's a learning for future games."

With the Cheetahs only six points behind Dan McFarland's men, the need for improvement is clear.

"I think whenever we went ahead with a few minutes to go, we were in control and it's on us to see it out from there. We didn't do that, unfortunately.

"We'll have to take the losing bonus point and put in a performance this weekend against the Cheetahs. This is a big game and we need the win. We know what we left behind in the Ospreys game and what we need to show this weekend."

Belfast Telegraph