Rainbow Cup gives likes of Robert Baloucoune a chance to shine
Prospect of summer tour to Fiji is looking more promising than perhaps a month ago
Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune is a rare ‘commodity’ in Irish rugby a bona fide wing with the skill sets to match his top end pace. File photograph: Inpho
The Rainbow Cup exudes a more monochrome hue with the confirmation that the South African franchises won’t be travelling to the northern hemisphere; it’s essentially a rebranded Pro12 to fill a gap in the schedule and elongate a competitive season so that players are kept ticking over until Lions or national summer tours are ready to depart.
There’ll be a fair degree of wailing about the insignificance of a tournament devoid of the South African influence that was set to be its most appealing ingredient, while even those with the appetite of Monty Python character “Mr Creosote” might find the prospect of yet more interprovincial derbies the wafer thin mint that forces their interest to temporarily implode.
Whatever about the tolerance levels of supporters, there is likely to be plenty at stake for Irish players over the reshaped six rounds of competition and a final when introducing the broader context of Ireland’s summer tour to Fiji.
As things stand the prospect of head coach Andy Farrell taking a squad to the Pacific Island nation for three Test matches is looking more promising than perhaps a month ago, although nothing is confirmed. Assuming that it does go ahead then the three rounds of interprovincial matches in the Rainbow Cup will carry a greater import, effectively serving as a series of trial matches.
Ireland’s representation on the Lions tour to South Africa will be confirmed when Warren Gatland announces at the squad on May 6th and there will be a number of players in the national squad for whom a rest on foot of a heavy workload this season would be preferential to travelling to Fiji.
However there’s likely to be a senior cohort to backbone any Irish touring party in tandem with an opportunity to look at the credentials of a handful of uncapped players. Ulster wing Robert Baloucoune is an obvious example of a player who would benefit from the experience.
The 23-year-old Enniskillen native has already caught Farrell’s eye and was brought into the extended Ireland training squad during the 2020 Six Nations Championship before the first Lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic intervened and forced a six-month playing hiatus.
When the sport re-opened a freak accident in an internal practice match with Ulster in which he suffered a hamstring avulsion (torn from the bone) followed by an ankle issue kept him sidelined until late February of this year when he returned to play 40-minutes off the bench against the Ospreys.
His performance in the Pro14 game against Leinster when he scored one try and had another chalked off offered a reminder of his prodigious talent. He followed that with three more 80-minute performances against Zebre, where he was again a try scorer, and European Challenge Cup victories over Harlequins and the Northampton Saints.
Baloucoune is a rare ‘commodity’ in Irish rugby a bona fide wing with the skill sets to match his top end pace. It is more commonplace among the provinces and the national team to convert fullbacks and centre into wings.
Shane Horgan (centre), Geordan Murphy (outhalf/fullback), Tommy Bowe (fullback), Andrew Trimble (centre), Luke Fitzgerald (fullback/centre), Keith Earls (centre/fullback), Andrew Conway (fullback), Jordan Larmour (centre/fullback) and Jacob Stockdale (centre/fullback) offer examples of players that played a substantial amount of rugby on the wing for Ireland having started elsewhere in a positional sense.
Baloucoune’s development was accelerated by playing with the Ireland Sevens team in much the same way as current Leinster and Ireland fullback Hugo Keenan benefitted from the programme. Injury and pandemic permitting the six foot four inch Ulster wing will play for Ireland at some point in 2021 but a summer tour with a sizable cabal of senior players would be an ideal environment to expose him to test rugby.
He is far from alone, hoping to give Farrell and his coaching team a nudge. Fellow Ulster players Michael Lowry and James Hume - young Ethan McIlroy has made an end of season dash for prominence - have excelled while others like Alex Wootton and Gavin Thornbury at Connacht, Jimmy O’Brien, once fit again, and Scott Penny in Leinster and Gavin Coombes (Munster) have been standout players for their provinces; with a gear or two left.
If the tour to Fiji goes ahead, then the Rainbow Cup will enjoy a little extra spice from an Irish national team perspective because it will encourage all players to try and redefine any pecking order. They’ll have something for which to play individually and collectively and that would be preferential to the alternative; a considerably less interesting vista of a tournament that offers nothing more than the games themselves.