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6 Nations

‘We Back Our Skills, We Back Our Intent’ – Baloucoune

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Baloucoune is one of three changes to the back-line from July’s series-clinching win over New Zealand. He replaces the injured James Lowe (calf) in the back-three.

The Ulster speedster, nicknamed ‘the Cat’ because of his relaxed demeanour, won his first two Ireland caps last year against the USA and Argentina, running in a terrific individual try against the Eagles.

Having missed out on the summer tour through injury, he has been back in very good form for Ulster and got a further opportunity to work with the national coaches, including attack specialist Mike Catt, during the recent Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa.

Farrell knows the Enniskillen man has the ability to flourish on the international stage, and there is no better way to find out than against a pace-laden Springbok back-three.

“He offers something that’s a bit different and we all can see that,” he said of the 25-year-old winger. “Rob’s been in camp on four or five occasions, and some of them have been stop-start through injury, etc., and then he’s got back and learned his trade.

“Obviously, we’d have loved for him to come to New Zealand. A trip like that would have been priceless for him, and one of the reasons why we put him on the Emerging Ireland tour was to give him that little bit more experience with how we want to play them game.

“When you have an opportunity like this to see how Rob handles the big occasion, to be able to do that in a good side is pretty important as well. We feel that he’s ready, we feel that he can offer something different.

“It’s up to Rob and his team-mates to help him as well to grab the opportunity and show what he’s about at the top, top level.”

Ulster have become accustomed to ‘the Cat doing Cat things’, from some of his silkily-finished tries in the BKT United Rugby Championship to his aerial skills, offloads and defensive reads, and that memorable hat-trick in Europe against Toulouse.

Now it is hoped that he can transfer all that to the Test arena and become a fixture in Ireland squads going forward. For the player himself, this week is all about the key fundamentals of his game and pushing on from there.

Asked about what the coaches want from him against South Africa, Baloucoune replied: “Again, it’s all the fundamentals. It’s going to be an aerial game. We know that the Springboks love to kick and obviously they’ve got pace on the wing.

“Just trying to back myself with my pace and getting as many involvements as I can throughout the game. Getting off my wing and just trying to be involved.

“Obviously they’re a great side. They’re physical and it’s going to be a huge test for us. I think we’ve said it in camp, we back our skills, we back our intent.

“It’s what we bring to the table rather than fearing them. It’s our ability to take it to them. It’s a great opportunity, and no better to do it than against the back-three we’re playing against.”

Baloucoune was beaming as he recalled the moment earlier this week when he found out he would be starting against the reigning World champions. His hometown support will be out in force should the ticket fairy deliver.

“It was just before the team meeting on Monday. ‘Faz’ (Andy Farrell) just pulled me aside before it started and said I’ll be training this week and starting on Saturday. So, yeah, it was a great feeling and I’m really looking forward to it now.

I phoned my Mum, she was the first person I called. It was a bit of a shock, but I did also tell her not to be saying it to anyone because she likes spreading news quickly!

“I’ve got friends and family coming down for the game. For my Ulster game, half of Enniskillen came down, but it’s harder to get tickets for these games!”

The former Ireland Sevens international was understandably ‘pretty gutted’ to be watching on from afar when Ireland made history against New Zealand in the summer, although he ‘felt great for the lads involved’.

It was a case of bad timing after tearing a tendon in his hip during Ulster’s URC semi-final defeat to the DHL Stormers. However, the Emerging Ireland tour got him back in the national environment and was a good building block for the November Tests.

During their stint in Bloemfontein, he was a try scorer against the Windhoek Draught Griquas and it was his brilliant break from his own half that led to the match-winning try for Jamie Osborne against the Toyota Cheetahs.

All in all, it was a positive experience for the Arsenal fan who cites Thierry Henry as a childhood hero. His natural athleticism drew him to football and sprinting before he took to rugby at Enniskillen Royal Grammar School at the age of 15.

“Obviously I went on the Emerging Ireland tour just to get back into the swing of things,” explained Baloucoune. “Now I’m back playing and I feel good. It’s been a bit of a journey, but I’m back and I’m fit now.

It was more to get into the flow of how Irish Rugby plays, because it’s different to Ulster and what I do with Ulster. Just some one-on-one time with Catty (Mike Catt) and just getting into the flow of things, of what they want me to do.

“It was definitely a good opportunity for me to be in that environment again. I really enjoyed the tour, got to meet a lot of young boys who are passionate, coming through and really wanting to learn.”

The competition for places has certainly ratcheted up, with upwards of 50 players involved in Ireland camp this week between the ‘A’ squad, who face the All Blacks XV on Friday, and the senior side preparing for their own seasonal bow.

The pressure to deliver in training and on match day is intense and Baloucoune, who has shown resilience through those injury setbacks, knows he has to take his chance with both hands.

“It’s great to see (the extended squad in together). There’s always boys on people’s heels. It definitely drives standards in camp and I suppose I know a lot of the boys now because I was in the Emerging Ireland squad.

“I know that everyone is passionate to play, and everyone is biting at heels to try and get that opportunity,” he added.

Images & Content from Irish Rugby & Images © Inpho Photography


6 Nations

‘It’s A Great Appointment’ – Farrell On Murphy’s Move To Ulster

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With Dan McFarland stepping down as Ulster head coach this week, it has been confirmed that Murphy will take over the role on an interim basis following the conclusion of the Under-20 Six Nations Championship.

The Ireland Under-20s are in title contention again thanks to two opening wins, with Murphy having overseen back-to-back U-20 Grand Slam successes and a World Rugby U-20 Championship final appearance in the last two seasons.

Farrell first worked alongside Murphy when they were defence coach and skills and kicking coach respectively, during Joe Schmidt’s coaching reign with Ireland.

The pair have kept up a strong connection with Murphy continuing for a short while as a specialist kicking resource for the senior squad, and the Under-20s often training with Farrell’s men during the Six Nations window.

“I think it’s a great appointment. I think Richie will do a fantastic job (at Ulster), his rugby knowledge is second to none,” commented Farrell.

“He is a very experienced guy that has been an assistant for quite some time and I know that he worked with us for a short period before we went to the Under-20s, but that was his next step to take that type of mantle on and do it his way.

He has certainly done a fantastic job. I mean, coaching the Under-20s is coaching in its purest form, it’s bloody difficult because of the swapping and changing the whole time each year.

“It shows exactly the quality that he’s got and his knowledge of the whole game. I think the players up at Ulster there will love him.

“His attitude is great but first and foremost I think they will respect his knowledge, definitely.”

McFarland was in charge of Ulster since 2018 and guided them to the PRO14 final two years later. They looked to be finding form again with a trio of wins over Racing 92, Connacht, and Leinster, coming into the New Year.

However, last Sunday’s poor 19-17 defeat at the Ospreys was their third loss in a row, leaving them eighth in the BKT United Rugby Championship, and came just a few weeks after failing to reach the last 16 of the Investec Champions Cup.

Assistant coach Dan Soper will take the reins for their next URC fixture at home to the Dragons on Saturday week, before Murphy comes on board for their two-match tour to South Africa where they will play the Hollywoodbets Sharks and the DHL Stormers.

The Bray man will have to quickly get up to the speed as the Ulstermen then travel to Montpellier in the EPCR Challenge Cup’s round of 16, just after Easter. Given the people involved, Farrell is confident they can turn things around at Kingspan Stadium.

“Look, it’s obvious that we want all the provinces playing at the top of their game. If that happens, it’s a special place to be but it doesn’t tend to happen that often, does it?

“One thing I know for sure is that Ulster have got a fantastic squad and good people up there. The lads that we have within our squad are exemplary to the province, as far as their attitudes are concerned whether they’re playing or not.”

A dislocated toe, suffered during that loss to the Ospreys, means Iain Henderson is unavailable for Ireland’s clash with Wales on Saturday. His Ulster colleague, Stuart McCloskey, is one of only two backs on the hosts’ bench as they opt to return to a six-two split.

New-look Wales, who lost their first two games to Scotland and England by a combined three points, come to Dublin with a squad that has accumulated 662 caps, compared to Ireland’s 1012.

119 of those caps are provided by George North alone, while 21-year-old Exeter Chiefs lock Dafydd Jenkins continues as captain, and Cardiff back rower Mackenzie Martin could make his debut off the bench.

Asked what he is expecting from Wales this weekend, Farrell replied: “Playing against Wales, you know it’s always going to be a scrap.

“You know that every single time Wales play against Ireland, it means probably a little bit more to them, I’ve been told (that) over the years.

“So we’re aware of that, and we also know as well that Wales historically have got better throughout the competition.

“We’re five weeks into it come the weekend, from when we first started training. We know that they’ll be better and hopefully we’ve used our time wisely as well.”

Images & Content from Irish Rugby & Images © Inpho Photography


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6 Nations

Wales team to face Ireland in Dublin named

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Senior men’s head coach Warren Gatland has named the Wales side to face Ireland at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin in the third round of the 2024 Guinness Six Nations on Saturday 24 February (KO 2.15pm live on ITV and S4C).

There is one change to the starting XV that played England at Twickenham on 10 February, with Sam Costelow returning for Wales at fly half.

Among the replacements back-row Mackenzie Martin is in line to win his first senior cap this weekend and would become the 1,200th Wales men’s international.

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Tight-head prop Dillon Lewis would be making his first appearance of this Championship if called on from the bench.

Gatland said: “We are excited to go out to Dublin and test ourselves against one of the leading sides in world rugby. It’s a challenge we are relishing.

“We’ve made steps in the last couple of games and now it’s about building on that, learning from those experiences and taking that into this weekend.

“It’s about continuing to work hard, looking for accuracy in our performance across 80 minutes and also keeping our discipline.”

Wales senior men’s team to play Ireland at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin in the Guinness Six Nations, Saturday 24 February KO 2.15pm GMT. Live on ITV and S4C.
15. Cameron Winnett (Cardiff Rugby – 2 caps)
14. Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby – 56 caps)
13. George North (Ospreys – 119 caps)
12. Nick Tompkins (Saracens – 34 caps)
11. Rio Dyer (Dragons – 16 caps)
10. Sam Costelow (Scarlets – 9 caps)
9. Tomos Williams (Cardiff Rugby – 55 caps)
1. Gareth Thomas (Ospreys – 27 caps)
2. Elliot Dee (Dragons – 48 caps)
3. Keiron Assiratti (Cardiff Rugby – 4 caps)
4. Dafydd Jenkins (Exeter Chiefs – 14 caps) Captain / Capten
5. Adam Beard (Ospreys – 53 caps)
6. Alex Mann (Cardiff Rugby – 2 caps)
7. Tommy Reffell (Leicester Tigers – 15 caps)
8. Aaron Wainwright (Dragons – 45 caps)

Replacements

16. Ryan Elias (Scarlets – 40 caps)
17. Corey Domachowski (Cardiff Rugby – 8 caps)
18. Dillon Lewis (Harlequins – 54 caps)
19. Will Rowlands (Racing 92 – 30 caps)
20. Mackenzie Martin (Cardiff Rugby – uncapped)
21. Kieran Hardy (Scarlets – 19 caps)
22. Ioan Lloyd (Scarlets – 4 caps)
23. Mason Grady (Cardiff Rugby – 8 caps)

Images & Content – Wales Rugby


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6 Nations

Jager and Ahern Join Ireland Squad Ahead Of Wales

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The Ireland squad re-assembled in Dublin on Sunday evening ahead of this weekend’s Guinness Men’s Six Nations Round 3 clash against Wales at Aviva Stadium (Kick-off 2.15pm).

Prop Oli Jager has joined the squad and Thomas Ahern has also linked up with Andy Farrell‘s side at the IRFU High Performance Centre this week.

Iain Henderson picked up a foot injury during Ulster’s URC game away to Ospreys on Sunday and there will be a further update later in the week.

The Ireland Match Day Squad to face Wales at Aviva Stadium will be named on Thursday at 2pm.

Ireland Squad – Wales Week: 

Backs (15):

Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht)
Harry Byrne (UCD/Leinster)
Craig Casey (Shannon/Munster)
Jack Crowley (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Ciaran Frawley (UCD/Leinster)
Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster)
Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster)
Hugo Keenan (UCD/Leinster)
Jordan Larmour (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
James Lowe (Leinster)
Stuart McCloskey (Bangor/Ulster)
Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster)
Calvin Nash (Young Munster/Munster)
Garry Ringrose (UCD/Leinster)
Jacob Stockdale (Lurgan/Ulster)

Forwards (21):

Thomas Ahern (Shannon/Munster)*
Ryan Baird (Dublin University/Leinster)
Finlay Bealham (Buccaneers/Connacht)
Tadhg Beirne (Lansdowne/Munster)
Jack Conan (Old Belvedere/Leinster)
Caelan Doris (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster)
Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster)
Iain Henderson (Academy/Ulster)
Oli Jager (Munster)*
Ronan Kelleher (Lansdowne/Leinster)
Jeremy Loughman (Garryowen/Munster)
Joe McCarthy (Dublin University/Leinster)
Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster)(captain)
Tom O’Toole (Ballynahinch/Ulster)
Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster)
James Ryan (UCD/Leinster)
Dan Sheehan (Lansdowne/Leinster)
Tom Stewart (Ballynahinch/Ulster)
Nick Timoney (Banbridge/Ulster)
Josh van der Flier (UCD/Leinster)

*Denotes uncapped player

Images & Content from Irish Rugby & Images © Inpho Photography


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