The twice-capped Robert Baloucoune and Ciaran Frawley, who impressed against the Māori All Blacks in July, are two of the most experienced members of the newly-announced Emerging Ireland squad.
The 35-man panel was announced yesterday for their upcoming trip to South Africa, which will see them play the Griquas, Pumas and Cheetahs as part of the Toyota Challenge, beginning on Friday, September 30.
Baloucoune was set to tour New Zealand with Ireland last summer, but a hip injury sidelined him at the end of last season. Now, a year out from the Rugby World Cup, he is determined to get back in the Test match fold.
Emerging Ireland head coach Simon Easterby sees the Bloemfontein series as a timely opportunity for the Ulster winger, who was capped against the USA and Argentina last year, to showcase his talent again in a green jersey.
“Rob was due to come to New Zealand with us and didn’t because of injury. He is certainly one that has been around the environment for a while, but he’s only got a couple of caps,” said Easterby.
“I guess him and a few others in there, we feel like there’s still a need for us to build time and exposure in what we’re trying to do.
“We’re really lucky at the moment that all the players are getting a high level of coaching and expertise in the provinces, but we do things slightly differently as the provinces will do.
“So, we need to make sure that we keep them aligned to what we’re doing in the national set-up. It’s not a million miles apart from each other, but there’s always going to be little nuances and differences that we have, that each province will do slightly differently.”
The Enniskillen man was in electric form at times during the 2021/22 campaign, his Heineken Champions Cup hat-trick away to Toulouse and a couple of dazzling scores in the URC standing out.
As one of only four Test-capped players in the Emerging Ireland selection, Baloucoune could have more of a leadership role to play in Bloemfontein where Easterby anticipates ‘a good standard of rugby’ and ‘a fast-flowing game, on potentially a dry track’.
His speed, athleticism and defensive and attacking skills look ideally suited for the three-match run, given the Ireland youngsters will be coming up against ‘some serious athletes in the three teams we will be playing against’.
Easterby continued: “For someone like Rob, who has spent time in the environment, he came in as a development player a couple of years ago and then won a couple of caps and did really well.
“Then he’s had to spend a bit of time out with injury. We would have loved to have seen him in New Zealand, getting opportunities out there, but we didn’t get that chance.
“So, he’s one that we feel will benefit from spending more time in our environment. Hopefully he goes back to Ulster after the experience and he kicks on again.
There’s this massive opportunity over the next couple of months, through the (Ireland) ‘A’ game and the autumn internationals and beyond that into the Six Nations and beyond, for players like Rob and others.
“The time spent with us, in the bigger picture, is hopefully going to expose them and give them a real good foundation for the season ahead because it is such a massive season for all of us.”
Versatile Leinster back Frawley, who turns 25 in December, is shaping up to be a contender for the Ireland number 10 jersey after his exploits in New Zealand.
During that second Test victory over Māori All Blacks, he stood tall in managing the game in wet and windy conditions in Wellington and contributed 10 points from the tee.
While Frawley has played most of his provincial rugby at inside centre, the Ireland management want to see more of him at out-half and this upcoming tour could see him really come to the fore.
“We feel ‘Frawls’ has the potential to lead in a number of different positions,” noted Easterby. “Obviously he’s played 12 a fair bit for Leinster, but we see him – which he did in the Māori weeks – as being a guy that can lead from the front at 10. You know, lead a week.
“He’ll be asked in the next few weeks to do a slightly different role to what he was doing in New Zealand because he had a lot of senior players around him.
“We feel like he has the ability to step up and lead the week as someone like, the extreme, that Johnny Sexton does week in and week out and has done for a number of years.
“Giving those players like ‘Frawls’ the chance to put himself at the forefront of a week, lead it and take the team to a performance on a weekend in that position of 10 is crucial for us.”
Frawley will certainly face some stiff competition for the starting berth from Munster’s Jack Crowley and Ulster newcomer Jake Flannery, who made the switch from his native Munster and has similarly lofty ambitions.
Getting these players up to speed with the rigours of an international set-up and playing in a challenging touring environment is of huge value to the national coaches, but also potentially for their provinces on their return.
“We’re still finding a little bit about Frawls and the way he can play. You can see that when they’re playing in the URC and they’re playing for their provinces, but it is slightly different,” said the Emerging Ireland head coach.
“It’s not hugely different but it is different when you have them in your environment across a period of a couple of weeks.
“Hopefully we can benefit from that time and Frawls and the other players can benefit from that time with us when they go back to their provinces after this trip.”