Robert Baloucoune has become Ulster’s nominated speedster
Former Sevens player has been central so far to province’s success story in Europe
Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune scores a try against Leicester Tigers in the Champions Cup. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Plucked from Sevens rugby, Robert Baloucoune finds himself planted in Dan McFarland’s horizon. Because of two things, his nose for the line and pace, with deference to Jacob Stockdale, the right wing has become Ulster’s nominated speedster.
With a Senegalese father and Irish mother as well as Enniskillen heritage, Baloucoune cuts a different figure from the familiar bulk of Ulster-born players from Belfast.
And for the last few days there has been a Fermanagh twinkle in his eye. He didn’t see this elevation coming. Now with a European Champions Cup match against Leinster in the March pipeline, just like that the landscape has entirely changed for him.
“It’s flown by,” he says. “The Sevens . . . I wasn’t playing too much 15s and then just a few games for the [Ulster] As. 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.”
A try in Ulster’s win over Racing in Belfast, where he showed good hands and the awareness to speed away after seven minutes, was followed by another against Leicester on Saturday in Welford Road. Outhalf Billy Burns played a delightful kick behind the Leicester line and Baloucoune firing his jets was again the try scorer designate.
“It’s been quite the experience, hasn’t it? I was quite surprised to be picked for the Racing game. It’s been good to get the tries to settle in, especially against Racing getting it early.
“The Dragons game was my first game and I was shocked by that. I’m just enjoying it, I’ve been given the chance and now I have to take it. Most coaches just tell me to run and back my pace. If I can burn someone then that’s a bonus.”
It has been part of McFarland’s thinking to bring on talent and Baloucoune’s first senior Pro12 League outing was against the Welsh side last October.
The 21-year-old from Enniskillen Royal Grammar School (formed in 2016 by the merging of Collegiate Grammar School and Portora Royal School) was called up to the Ireland Men’s Sevens Squad for the World Cup in San Francisco last May.
But he had been turning out for Enniskillen RFC in the Towns Cup and played in the final as recently as April 2017. He scored a try but it didn’t stop Ballynahinch IIs winning the trophy.
Now he is scoring the winning try for Ulster to clinch a European quarter-final against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium. That probably describes meteoric. As it goes Burns will thread the needle. Baloucoune will chase.
“He’s just trying to get the kicks in behind so I can run on to them, so I’m just trying to get the wheels going,” he says.
“If someone said I was playing this year, I would have been surprised by that. I’m just looking forward to the quarter-finals now and hopefully I’m playing.”
There’s been a lot of talk about the Dublin accents in Ulster, some of it inferring criticism about the talent production line from the academy. But Baloucoune has been one of a number of names including Mike Lowry, Angus Kernohan, Eric O’Sullivan and James Hume, who have emerged.
McFarland has made it part of his thinking to identify and encourage faces.
“I want to be playing as much as I can. I’m trying to keep my spot on the wing,” says Baloucoune. “Hopefully there’ll be a few more academy players getting their chances because there’s a lot of talent coming through. The Six Nations is a great chance to improve your position but there’s a lot of competition.”
The winger’s first away trip with an Irish team was to Hong Kong for their glamour Sevens competition. But McFarland has now repositioned his career, having described him as an “exciting talent” with the skillset to make the transition.
His tackle on the Leicester loosehead prop Greg Bateman on Saturday also indicates Baloucoune is willing and no show pony winger.
“That was my first trip away,” he says. “But if I’m playing for Ulster I’m happy enough. I don’t even know if I’d be fit enough for Sevens. I’m enjoying playing 15s at the minute and enjoying my rugby.”
Maybe more importantly McFarland is too.