Ten years ago Robert Baloucoune took up the game of rugby with Enniskillen and what a decade it has been. The Ulster and Ireland winger has been tipped by many as one of the great Irish prospects.
Former Ireland skipper Willie Anderson, who worked with Baloucoune at the Ulster Academy sees massive potential in the former Portora Royal student.
“Robert Baloucoune was hard to miss. I christened him The Cat: he was so laid back he could curl up and have a snooze whenever it suited him,” said Anderson in a recent interview, “But Jeepers, when he woke up!”
Anderson predicts that the Enniskillen man will be a candidate for the Lions Tour to Australia in 2025.
And it’s been some journey so far, for the 25-year-old.
Albeit, it hasn’t been easy. Baloucoune has had more than his fair share of injuries in the last few years, and in particular, a hamstring injury that has once again reared its ugly head.
On the day he made his 50th cap, for Ulster, last month, Baloucoune suffered another hamstring injury against Benetton Treviso.
He says he now faces another six to eight weeks on the sidelines and with that his hopes for the Six Nations, which gets underway this weekend, evaporated.
It’s a blow for the talented winger but he’s focused on his return to the pitch;
“I got an injection there, so I’m kind of on the mend now.
“It’s kind of hard when you’re not getting a run of form and a few games under my belt. It’s just something that comes with the sport and I’ll try and get back as strong and as fast as possible.
“It’s the one (hamstring) I had surgery for a couple of years ago. It’s a bit of a recurring injury. So we’re just trying to get it right now, instead of trying to push it to get back early, because at the end of the season is the World Cup, so I am just trying to get fit for that,” he said.
The process of rehabilitation is a ‘lonely’ place admitted the Ulster winger;
“It can get a little bit lonely because you’re not involved in the squad and stuff. You’re kind of going about your day doing your own rehab and it’s usually one-on-one with the physio. It sometimes does feel like you’re not really part of the team because you’re not playing or you’re not training with the rest of the squad.”
Despite his lack of game time right now, the affable Enniskillen man is putting his other talents to good use.
Following in the footsteps of his late dad who was a chef, Baloucoune is a bit of a whizz in the kitchen.
Before Christmas he hosted a dinner party for his Ulster teammates and cooking is something he really likes to do;
“I quite enjoy it, being in the kitchen,” he admitted.
“There was six of us (for a pre-Christmas Christmas dinner) but it was still stressful enough!” he laughed. Asked what was on the menu, he wouldn’t divulge too much information but said ‘it had all the trimmings!’
While Baloucoune doesn’t get home to Enniskillen for his mother’s home cooking too often due to rugby commitments, he still sees plenty of his mum Shirley, who is never too far away when he’s playing;
“She was down at the Ireland game, she usually gets the bus down or if I’ve got Ulster games as well (she will travel). My aunty usually travels with her as well to support.”
In November, Baloucoune started two out of Ireland’s three Autumn International Test matches.
The first of which was against South Africa when he earned his third international cap on what was a memorable day for the team as they beat the Springboks 19-16.
“The biggest game probably of my career was against South Africa,” reflected Baloucoune. “There was a lot of support and loads of messages coming through and it was class to hear from everyone.
“I really enjoyed the opportunity and playing against world class players like South Africa have, a wee bit daunting, I’m not going to lie.
“Before the game I probably was the most nervous I have ever been before a game. I don’t really get too nervous. But it was a great opportunity and I really enjoyed the experience.”
The following week, Baloucoune was again selected on the wing by Andy Farrell and he scored a try as they defeated the Fijians by 18 points.
The transition to international rugby is different, admitted Baloucoune;
“It’s a lot faster,” he explained. “You just have to be completely switched on all of the time.
“There’s no real chance to switch off and that’s the main difference that I find between an Ireland camp and training with club teams.
“Everyone there is fighting for places and there’s a lot more competition as well.”
Baloucoune will hope to be back fighting for a jersey at the Rugby World Cup in France come September.
At the minute, rugby is all-consuming for the Enniskillen man as he forges a very successful career in the game but he knows too well that injury and just the nature of the game means that there is a lot of living to do beyond your career as well.
It’s something the 25-year-old does think about a lot and he is currently studying business and economics part time with an Open University.
“My head is always changing.” he said.
“I’m genuinely not sure what I will get into after rugby but it’s something that I do think about quite a bit, but it’s something that will come to me.
Adding, “I might do nutrition or something if I’m doing all this cooking!” he laughed.
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