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
Jones officially sacked by RFU
The Rugby Football Union (RFU) will now conclude the long-term work it has been undertaking on coach succession planning with changes set to be announced in the near future. In the interim, Richard Cockerill will take over the day to day running of the men’s performance team.
“It is important to recognise the huge contribution Eddie has made to English rugby, winning three Six Nations Championships, one Grand Slam and taking us to a Rugby World Cup Final,” said RFU CEO, Bill Sweeney.
“He has the highest win ratio of any previous England head coach and has helped develop the leadership skills of many players and coaches. I am grateful to Eddie for all he has done for England across many areas of the game and the professional way in which he has approached reviewing the performance of the team. He has provided the panel with astute insight and meaningful lessons that will support the team performance going forward.”
During his time in charge Jones steered England to three Six Nations titles, including a Grand Slam in 2016, two series wins in Australia, an unbeaten run of 18 matches, an Autumn Nations Cup, and a Rugby World Cup final in Japan.
“I am pleased with much that we have achieved as an England team and I look forward to watching the team’s performance in the future,” said Jones. “Many of the players and I will no doubt keep in touch and I wish them all well in their future careers.”
The decision for Eddie to leave was taken by the RFU board earlier today. Speaking about the decision, RFU Chair, Tom Ilube said: “The independent review panel regularly updates board on its discussions and findings. We are fully supportive of its process and recommendations.”
Gatland returns as Pivac is sacked
Warren Gatland will return to Wales before Christmas to replace incumbent head coach Wayne Pivac.
Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) CEO Steve Phillips has confirmed Gatland will take charge of Wales for the 2023 Guinness Six Nations and at the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, with the ability to go through the next World Cup cycle up to and including Australia 2027.
Wales’ most successful and longest serving coach is back to take over from fellow New Zealander Pivac, who has agreed to part company with the WRU after the official 2022 Autumn Nations Series review was completed and approved by the WRU Board.
“This is one of the toughest calls to make in sport, but the review process has reached its conclusion and we have acted quickly and efficiently in the very best interests of our national team,” said Phillips.
“Ultimately we are in the results business and we have agreed with Wayne that the current trajectory for Wales is not where we want it to be and we thank him sincerely for his time, enthusiasm, diligence and effort, which is unquestioned, as head coach over the last three years.”
Gatland leaves Super Rugby side the Chiefs to return, after formerly serving Wales over a 12-year period. He completed his first Six Nations clean sweep in his debut season with Cymru in 2008, before repeating the feat in 2012 and finishing on the same high to win the 2019 tournament.
“In Warren we are bringing in one of the very best coaches in the international game,” continued Phillips.
“We were sorry to see him go when he left and we are delighted that he has agreed to return.
“We know him well and, most importantly, he knows us well too. We are extremely excited about this latest chapter for Wales-and-Warren-Gatland and I know the feeling is mutual.
“He will undoubtedly be able to make an immediate impact, just as he did when he joined us for the first time in 2008. But it has also been important to both parties to ensure we get absolute maximum gain out of the return of such an experienced and highly regarded individual.
“It is for this reason that we are particularly pleased to have been able to secure Warren’s services for the next few years with the ability to go to the 2027 Rugby World Cup.
“This appointment is no quick fix, nor sticking plaster, it is part of our long term planning for the game in Wales.
“We have been able to take swift action in difficult circumstances and that is testament to the good grace and professionalism of Wayne and the efficiency of our review process.”
Native New Zealander Gatland, who took charge of two successful British & Irish Lions tours during his time with Wales, was also in charge for three Rugby World Cups, reaching the semi-final stages on two occasions (2011 and 2019) and took Wales to the top of World Rugby’s rankings – for the first time – by virtue of a record 14-match unbeaten run during his final season.
“I’m very much looking forward to returning to coach Wales,” said Gatland
“This is an opportunity to achieve something with a talented group of players in a country so passionate about rugby. A country which made my family and I so welcome, when we first arrived fifteen years ago, and all the time we were there.
“Our immediate priority is obviously the 2023 Guinness Six Nations and next year’s Rugby World Cup.
“There is little time for sentiment, professional sport is all about preparation, values and results. There will be new challenges as there always is with a change in head coach, but for me the environment, the players and their families will always come first.
“We must prepare to the best of our ability in the time available. We will value and respect each other, we will work hard and, if we get this right together, performances and results will follow.”
The WRU and New Zealand Rugby have reached agreement for Warren Gatland to be released from his existing contract with immediate effect.
“Warren Gatland is Wales’ most successful coach, overseeing a period in which we won three Grand Slams and reached the very top of World Rugby’s rankings for the first time in the history of those records,” added recently appointed WRU chair Ieuan Evans
“We are delighted he has agreed to return to us. We will of course need to afford him time and ensure he has the tools at his disposal to rekindle the success he has achieved with Wales during his previous tenure, but we are all very excited about the future.
“I would like to add my sincere gratitude to Wayne. He has given much of himself over the last three years, including leading Wales to the Six Nations Championship title in 2021 and we are extremely grateful to him for his dedication to the role.”
Wayne Pivac said: “I am obviously extremely sad to stand down from the role.
“It was a speedy review process post-Autumn Nations Series as time is of the essence with the Six Nations fast approaching. Unfortunately, the results or performances this year were not all as we hoped. As a group we all take responsibility for that, but me in particular as head coach.
“We have played some really good rugby at times, but needed to do that more consistently. However, I know that there is a strong foundation for the squad to progress to great things in the future.
“I would like to thank the players, coaches, management and the WRU for their commitment, support and hard work in my time as head coach and to all the people in Wales for making me feel at home here over the past eight years.”
Images & Content – Wales Rugby
Ireland’s TikTok Women’s Six Nations Home Games To Be Played At Musgrave Park
Ireland’s home matches in the 2023 TikTok Women’s Six Nations will be played at Musgrave Park.
The Cork venue has been the home of the Ireland U20s since 2019 and has become a real fortress in recent seasons, with Ireland Women also enjoying huge support there when they defeated Italy at Musgrave Park in last year’s Six Nations.
Greg McWilliams‘ side open their 2023 Championship against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday, 25th March (2.15pm) before welcoming France to Cork in Round 2 on Saturday, 1st April (3.15pm). After a rest weekend, Ireland will be on the road again, going head-to-head with Italy in Parma on Saturday, 15th April (4.45pm).
World Cup finalists England will visit Musgrave Park in Round 4 on Saturday, 22nd April (2.15pm) and the Championship will conclude with a trip to Edinburgh to take on Scotland at the DAM Health Stadium on Saturday, 29th April (7.30pm).
“We received huge home support during last year’s Six Nations and we’re excited to make Cork our home base for the 2023 Championship,” McWilliams said. “We enjoyed a good day out against Italy last year, with the people of Cork coming out to support the team and we will be hoping for more of the same in 2023, as two of the best teams in women’s rugby come to visit.”
Ticket details for Ireland’s home matches at Musgrave Park will be announced in due course.
TikTok Women’s Six Nations Fixtures 2023:
- Wales v Ireland, Saturday 25 March, Cardiff Arms Park, 2.15pm
- Ireland v France, Saturday 1 April, Musgrave Park, 3.15pm
- Italy v Ireland, Saturday 15 April, Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, 4.45pm
- Ireland v England, Saturday 22 April, Musgrave Park, 2.15pm
- Scotland v Ireland, Saturday 29 April, DAM Health Stadium, 7.30pm.
Images & Content from Irish Rugby & Images © Inpho Photography
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