The expression ‘tearing it up’ has a rather different, more painful connotation for Rob Baloucoune, one that refers to hamstring and hip tendon problems rather than a euphemism for his prowess on a rugby pitch.
The 25-year-old Enniskillen native made a timely, try-scoring return to action in Ulster’s victory over the Bulls last weekend, and his presence for the Champions Cup clash with Leinster at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday is a significant boost for Dan McFarland’s team.
Baloucoune has endured an injury-pockmarked 10 months that began when he tore a tendon in a hip in last May’s URC semi-final defeat to the Stormers and was forced to miss Ireland’s tour to New Zealand. He was in brilliant form at the time, having scored 11 tries in his previous 13 matches.
He travelled to South Africa with Emerging Ireland in the autumn and in November Andy Farrell picked Baloucoune to start in the win over the Springboks. The following week he scored his second try in his fourth senior cap in the victory against Fiji.
Hamstring issues resurfaced since then, restricting his game time for Ulster to just 376 minutes this season. Having returned against Munster on New Year’s Day, he suffered a recurrence of the problem against Benetton six days later, which put the kibosh on making the Ireland squad for the Six Nations Championship.
Baloucoune is something of a rarity in Irish rugby, a wing with genuine top-end pace as well as,other prized attributes, including excellent footwork, aerial ability and a knack for scoring tries where the odds appear to be stacked against that outcome. In addition, his time with the Ireland Sevens taught him how to both tackle and defend.
Quiet and unassuming off the pitch, the young wing was challenged by Farrell to find his voice and, to that end, he was taken on the Emerging Ireland tour, a conduit to grabbing those two caps last November.
Saturday’s game at the Aviva Stadium is an opportunity for Baloucoune to time his run for a place in Ireland’s World Cup squad. To achieve that goal, he needs to stay injury-free but also have a prominent impact in matches of this ilk.
He admitted: “Yeah, it has been a tough enough season for me, coming on the back of injury. I am getting [on top of it], just trying to get as many games as I can and playing to the best of my ability. I was injured during the Six Nations so this is a huge chance for me to show what I can do against tough opposition, top players and people playing in my position.”
Baloucoune is set for a tussle with a player for whom he has huge respect, Leinster and Ireland left wing James Lowe. “He’s a great lad, he chatted to me, and he helped me whenever I was trying to learn my roles when I got capped.
“He’s a class player, you can see that on the pitch and what he has done for Ireland and for Leinster. That’ll be tough opposition to play against but it’s something I am looking forward to. He’s got a bit of everything. He doesn’t really look like he is running that fast [but] he’s moving quickly.
“He is strong, got a range of skills which is why he is there. He’s got a cannon of a left foot and he’s just an all-round good player. I am going to have to be on the ball.” So, would Baloucoune prefer to be running at Lowe rather than the other way around? The Ulsterman smiled: “I back myself in attack and defence so I will see what happens on the day.”
Baloucoune delighted in Ireland’s Grand Slam success, watching games with a practised eye and trying to spot attacking moves in advance. He desperately wants to get back into the squad. That means performing.
Farrell will be watching, aware that Saturday’s game is like a quasi-trial as World Cup aspirants duel in Dublin. Baloucoune said: “[The World Cup] is huge, it is always in the back of your head, but you are playing against people in positions that I am fighting for, so it’s a big game for me to show what I can do. I will be trying to do that for the full game.
“It’s always huge, it’s always great playing for Ireland. To get selected for the World Cup would be amazing. I will, week by week, have to build, and perform as best as I can.” Staying injury-free is vital to allow him to ‘tear it up’ in the positive sense . Hopefully he’s earned that bit of good fortune.