Toulouse 20 Ulster 26
Not too many players in rugby have their own song bestowed upon them. Then again, not too many players in rugby go to the home of the European champions and score a hat-trick.
During the second-half, after Robert Baloucoune had crossed the whitewash for a third time the pocket of travelling Ulster fans in Toulouse could be heard over the din of the locals singing the winger’s name.
In a raucous atmosphere stoked by the sending off of the hosts’ winger Juan Cruz Mallia after just ten minutes, Baloucoune admitted he found it hard to even hear himself think, but the serenade was hard to miss.
There was certainly no better time for a first professional hat-trick – his first, he reckoned, since scoring four against Connacht for the Ulster under-19s.
Still early in his career, the 24-year-old is making a habit of such fine timing. His scores against Racing 92 and most especially Leicester in the 2018/19 season were pivotal in securing safe progression to that season’s quarter-finals and he repeated the trick in the round six game against Bath a year later.
Having already scored twice in the wins over Northampton and Clermont this year, at a time when he was only just returning from a shoulder injury sustained in the reverse fixture against the latter, not to mention marked his Irish debut with a try against the USA last summer and a player so relaxed he has been dubbed ‘The Cat’ by team-mates certainly looks right at home on the biggest stages.
Indeed, he perhaps could even have had four scores on the day and was denied what would have been the best of the lot only by a last ditch tackle from Antoine Dupont.Indeed, he perhaps could even have had four scores on the day and was denied what would have been the best of the lot only by a last ditch tackle from Antoine Dupont.
Indeed, he perhaps could even have had four scores on the day and was denied what would have been the best of the lot only by a last ditch tackle from Antoine Dupont.
One day after the 10-year anniversary of Craig Gilroy’s unforgettable score against Munster in the quarter-finals ten years ago, it was hard not to be reminded of that try as he weaved his way through the Toulouse defensive line from one half to the other.
As it was he had to make do with just the three, his final score when he intercepted Dupont’s floated pass and went the length ultimately proving to be the difference in a game decided by just six points.
Speaking afterwards, the star of the game was keen to shift the praise towards team-mates that had helped created his first two scores.
“I really can’t take credit for all the tries,” he said. “It was good work from the whole team and that is something that we had worked on all week, trying to move the ball to the width.
“It was nice to get a few run-ins.
“There was space for me and I had a few runs, but to be fair to Toulouse they played well and still put the pressure on us.
"It was still a really tough game (despite the early red card) and that showed at the end where there were a lot of boys cramping and as the game ended a lot of boys just falling down.
"That showed the intensity of the game.”
It was during that frantic end-game when it looked as if Toulouse might just sneak a win despite having trailed by 13 points in the final moments.
While Romain Ntamack’s late score could yet prove telling in the second leg this weekend, this, like the Leinster and Clermont victories earlier in the season, this felt like a game that perhaps Ulster would have lost as recently as last season.
John Cooney spoke last week about how the side had learned lessons in how to close out games from last season’s failed Challenge Cup campaign and certainly Baloucoune spoke of a side seemingly with a new found confidence against even the best teams in the world.
“We talked about Dupont and Ntamack and their world class players but we always said we had the same ability and we knew what we could do on our side of the game and that showed in the match.”
“They had their stints and so did we.”
When Toulouse did have those purple patches, Baloucoune was front in centre in the Ulster effort to stop such an array of attacking talents.
It is no given that young backs especially come onto the scene with such a fully formed skillset but Baloucoune is in minority where his skills without the ball are just as impressive as his work with it.
While he made a series of fine interventions on Saturday, none were better than his early read to come up and in on Thomas Ramos, shutting down an attack that looked sure to produce the opening try with the game only minutes old.
His head coach Dan McFarland could only marvel at some of the efforts.
"How good was his defence? How good was that? Some of the plays there I'm watching him and his timing, his understanding of when he has to go, his double efforts, he's literally covering everything. I thought he was excellent.
“In terms of finishing, he's got what every winger wants which is top end speed. That's different from other people.
“When set free you've seen it repeatedly how he does.
“But he's a superb player, tremendous athlete and a really good rugby professional.”
After the weekend that was, the rest of Europe is surely starting to notice too.
MAN OF MATCH
For all the talk in the build-up regarding the reigning World Player of the Year Antoine Dupont, the undisputed star of the game was Ulster’s hat-trick hero Robert Baloucoune. He could perhaps have even had four trys had the aforementioned Dupont not harried back to halt his first-half burst. He shone in defence too where his reading of the game was super throughout.
While the early red card did not ruin the game it certainly altered it. Toulouse could have no complaints about the decision from Wayne Barnes to send off winger Juan Cruz Mallia for his collision with Ben Moxham after only 10 minutes of the contest, but there is no denying that it was a different game, and indeed a different tie, thereafter.
What a game we have in store now at Ravenhill on Saturday night. The European champions in Belfast needing to win by more than six points to keep their title defence alive. It figures to be a cracker with the winner advancing to face Munster or Exeter in the last eight next month.