Few rugby players have their own song. Again, few rugby players go to the European champions and score a hat-trick.
n the second half, after Robert Baloucoune had crossed the whitewash a third time, the pocket of traveling Ulster supporters in Toulouse were heard above the din of the locals chanting the name of the winger.
In a raucous atmosphere fueled by the sending off of winger Juan Cruz Mallia after just 10 minutes, Baloucoune admitted he struggled to hear himself think, but the serenade was hard to miss.
There was certainly no better time for a first professional hat-trick – his first, he reckoned, since scoring four against Connacht for Ulster U-19s.
Still early in his career, the 24-year-old is getting used to such timing. His scoring against Racing 92 and, more specifically, Leicester in the 2018-19 season was key to ensuring safe progress to that season’s quarter-finals and he repeated the trick in Game 6 against Bath a year later. late. Having already scored twice in wins over Northampton and Clermont this year, the player so relaxed he’s been dubbed ‘The Cat’ by his teammates certainly looks at home on the biggest stages.
Indeed, he might even have had four scores on the day and was only robbed of what would have been the best of the lot by a final tackle from Antoine Dupont.
In the aftermath of 10 years of Craig Gilroy’s unforgettable score against Munster in the quarter-finals, it is difficult not to remember this test as he criss-crossed the Toulouse defensive line from one half to the next.
In fact, he had to settle for three, his final tally when he intercepted Dupont’s floating pass and ran the length of the field, ultimately proving to be the difference in a game decided by just six points.
Speaking afterwards, the star of the match was keen to praise his teammates who helped create his first two scores.
“I really can’t take credit for all the trials,” he said. “It was good work from the whole team and it’s something we’ve been working on all week, trying to move the ball wide.
“It was good to have a few break-ins.
“There was room for me and I got a few points, but to be fair to Toulouse, they played well and still put pressure on us.
“It was still a very tough game (despite the early red card) and it showed at the end where there was a lot of boys cramping and at the end of the game a lot of boys were falling. It showed the intensity of the game,” Balcounne (right) added.
It was during this frantic late game that it looked like Toulouse might just win on the sly, despite trailing 13 points in the dying moments.
While Romain Ntamack’s late scoring could still prove telling in the second leg at the weekend, this, like Leinster and Clermont’s wins earlier in the season, looked like a game Ulster might have being lost as recently as last season.
John Cooney spoke last week about how the team learned lessons on how to close out games from last season’s failed Challenge Cup campaign and certainly Baloucoune spoke of a team seemingly with a new newfound confidence against even the best teams in the world.
“We talked about Dupont and Ntamack and their world-class players, but we always said we had the same ability and we knew what we could do on our side of the game, and that showed in the game. .”
“They had their relays and so did we.”
When Toulouse had those purple spots, Baloucoune was at the center of Ulster’s efforts to stop such a range of attacking talent.
It’s not a given that young full-backs particularly arrive on the scene with such a comprehensive skill set, but Baloucoune is in the minority where his skills off the ball are just as impressive as his work with it.
While he made a string of fine interventions on Saturday, none was better than his first read to get the better of Thomas Ramos, ending an attack that looked sure to produce the opening try with the match to come. only had a few minutes.
His head coach Dan McFarland could only marvel at some of the effort.
“How good was his defense? How good was it? Some of the pieces there, I watch him and his timing, his understanding of when he has to go, his double efforts, he literally covers it all. I thought he was excellent.
“In terms of finishing, he has what every winger wants, which is top speed. It’s different from others.
“When he is released, you have seen him many times as he does.
“But he’s a superb player, a terrific athlete and a very good rugby professional.”
After the weekend, the rest of Europe is surely starting to notice it too.