Friday 15 February 2019

Laid-back Baloucoune relishing his shot at the big time with Ulster

Baloucoune: Former sevens star. Photo: Sportsfile
Baloucoune: Former sevens star. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

For a man in such a hurry on the pitch, Robert Baloucoune is pretty relaxed about his new-found status as the breakout star of Ulster's season.

The Enniskillen native has gone from operating on the sevens circuit with Ireland to contributing to big European games for his home province, and he has relished the opportunity.

His tries against Racing 92 and Leicester in recent weeks have grabbed the limelight, but it was perhaps his covering tackle on Tigers prop Greg Bateman that cemented the impression that the 21-year-old, who was playing Towns Cup rugby as recently as April 2017, could become a fixture in the Ulster back-three.

"I didn't get burnt by a prop which is all right!" he said of the crucial tackle with more than a little modesty.

"It's been quite the experience, hasn't it? I was quite surprised to be picked for the Racing game and I took it as it came.

"It's been good to get the tries to settle in, especially against Racing getting it early, it's helping me in quickly and I've just been building from there.

"I do feel a bit of pressure before the game but I probably don't show it as much. I wouldn't get myself too nervous or worried before a game but I suppose it helps as well. It helps me in games to settle in quickly."

Baloucoune's father hails from Senegal, while his mother is Irish and while Fermanagh isn't known as a rugby hot-bed, the locals recognised his potential when he started playing with friends.

"To be honest, I'd played a few underage games and a few people would have told me I should be playing in a few years and I would have brushed it aside," he said.

"Maybe that's me being laid-back, I probably should have been pushing myself a bit more.

"It's pretty good to have a few more people watching and the support from ones at home.

"The closest is Will Addison's mum being from there (Fermanagh). I think that's about it.

"You see a lot of Ulster fans wearing their Enniskillen gear just letting me know that they are here supporting as well."

His work with the Ireland sevens side helped with his confidence and when he came into pre-season, the new coach at Ulster recognised his talent - even if the player himself didn't see the promotion coming.

Dan McFarland reckons Baloucoune can develop physically but his faith has been rewarded by three tries in his last three appearances - against Munster, Racing and Leicester.

It is not a bad return considering his expectations for the season.

"If someone said I was playing this year, I would have been surprised by that," Baloucoune said. "I'm just looking forward to the quarter-finals now and hopefully I'm playing.

"It's flown by. The sevens, I wasn't playing too much XVs when I was playing, and then just a few games for the 'A's, and then a few senior games under the belt.

"I'm just taking each game as I play them and I'm getting more confident each game I play in.

"Leicester was my first trip away...it was a bit of a shock to the system but if I'm playing for Ulster I'm happy enough.

"I don't even know if I'd be fit enough for sevens (any more). I'm enjoying playing 15s at the minute and enjoying my rugby."

Irish Independent

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