Head coach Andy Farrell feels that Robert Baloucoune is ready and can offer ‘something different’ when Ireland begin the Bank of Ireland Nations Series against South Africa on Saturday.
Baloucoune is one of three changes to the back-line from July’s series-clinching win over New Zealand. He replaces the injured James Lowe (calf) in the back-three.
The Ulster speedster, nicknamed ‘the Cat’ because of his relaxed demeanour, won his first two Ireland caps last year against the USA and Argentina, running in a terrific individual try against the Eagles.
Having missed out on the summer tour through injury, he has been back in very good form for Ulster and got a further opportunity to work with the national coaches, including attack specialist Mike Catt, during the recent Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa.
Farrell knows the Enniskillen man has the ability to flourish on the international stage, and there is no better way to find out than against a pace-laden Springbok back-three.
“He offers something that’s a bit different and we all can see that,” he said of the 25-year-old winger. “Rob’s been in camp on four or five occasions, and some of them have been stop-start through injury, etc., and then he’s got back and learned his trade.
“Obviously, we’d have loved for him to come to New Zealand. A trip like that would have been priceless for him, and one of the reasons why we put him on the Emerging Ireland tour was to give him that little bit more experience with how we want to play the game.
“When you have an opportunity like this to see how Rob handles the big occasion, to be able to do that in a good side is pretty important as well. We feel that he’s ready, we feel that he can offer something different.
“It’s up to Rob, and his team-mates to help him as well, to grab the opportunity and show what he’s about at the top, top level.”
Ulster have become accustomed to ‘the Cat doing Cat things’, from some of his silkily-finished tries in the BKT United Rugby Championship to his aerial skills, offloads and defensive reads, and that memorable hat-trick in Europe against Toulouse.
Now it is hoped that he can transfer all that to the Test arena and become a fixture in Ireland squads going forward. For the player himself, this week is all about the key fundamentals of his game and pushing on from there.
Asked about what the coaches want from him against South Africa, Baloucoune replied: “Again, it’s all the fundamentals. It’s going to be an aerial game. We know that the Springboks love to kick and obviously they’ve got pace on the wing.
“Just trying to back myself with my pace and getting as many involvements as I can throughout the game. Getting off my wing and just trying to be involved.
“Obviously South Africa are a great side. They’re physical and it’s going to be a huge test for us. I think we’ve said it in camp, we back our skills, we back our intent.
“It’s what we bring to the table rather than fearing them. It’s our ability to take it to them. It’s a great opportunity, and no better to do it than against the back-three we’re playing against.”
Baloucoune was beaming as he recalled the moment earlier this week when he found out he would be starting against the reigning World champions. His hometown support will be out in force should the ticket fairy deliver.
“It was just before the team meeting on Monday. ‘Faz’ (Andy Farrell) just pulled me aside before it started and said I’ll be training this week and starting on Saturday. So, yeah, it was a great feeling and I’m really looking forward to it now.
I phoned my Mum, she was the first person I called. It was a bit of a shock, but I did also tell her not to be saying it to anyone because she likes spreading news quickly!
“I’ve got friends and family coming down for the game. For my Ulster game, half of Enniskillen came down, but it’s harder to get tickets for these games!”
The former Ireland Sevens international was understandably ‘pretty gutted’ to be watching on from afar when Ireland made history against New Zealand in the summer, although he ‘felt great for the lads involved’.
It was a case of bad timing after tearing a tendon in his hip during Ulster’s URC semi-final defeat to the DHL Stormers. However, the Emerging Ireland tour got him back in the national environment and was a good springboard into the November Tests.
During their stint in Bloemfontein, he was a try scorer against the Windhoek Draught Griquas and it was his brilliant break from his own half that led to the match-winning try for Jamie Osborne against the Toyota Cheetahs.
All in all, it was a positive experience for the Arsenal fan who cites Thierry Henry as a childhood hero. His natural athleticism drew him to football and sprinting before he took to rugby at Enniskillen Royal Grammar School at the age of 15.
“Obviously I went on the Emerging Ireland tour just to get back into the swing of things,” explained Baloucoune. “Now I’m back playing and I feel good. It’s been a bit of a journey, but I’m back and I’m fit now.
It was more to get into the flow of how Irish Rugby plays, because it’s different to Ulster and what I do with Ulster. Just some one-on-one time with Catty (Mike Catt) and just getting into the flow of things, of what they want me to do.
“It was definitely a good opportunity for me to be in that environment again. I really enjoyed the tour, got to meet a lot of young boys who are passionate, coming through and really wanting to learn.”
The competition for places has certainly ratcheted up, with upwards of 50 players involved in Ireland camp this week between the ‘A’ squad, who face the All Blacks XV on Friday, and the senior side preparing for their own seasonal bow.
The pressure to deliver in training and on match days is intense and Baloucoune, who has shown resilience through those injury setbacks, knows he has to take his chance with both hands.
“It’s great to see (the extended squad in together). There’s always boys on people’s heels. It definitely drives standards in camp and I suppose I know a lot of the boys now because I was in the Emerging Ireland squad.
“I know that everyone is passionate to play, and everyone is biting at heels to try and get that opportunity,” he added.