Robert Balacoune enjoys his Ulster debut in win over Dragons
JUST over 18 months after being on the losing side for junior outfit Enniskillen in the Towns' Cup final against Ballynahinch II, Robert Balacoune made a happier return to Kingspan Stadium on a much bigger stage on Friday night when he made an impressive debut in Ulster's 36-18 PRO14 win over the Dragons.
The 21-year-old winger made a series of line-breaks and tackled fearlessly throughout and must have done enough to retain his place in the squad for Saturday's trip to Treviso, when several players will be unavailable due to Ireland's international clash with Italy.
His inclusion in the starting XV for the Dragons game came out of the blue but head coach Dan McFarland's decision to throw Balacoune in at the deep end – ahead of Irish international Craig Gilroy – was entirely vindicated after he had earned his call-up after impressing with the A team in the Celtic Cup.
Only the second Fermanagh native to represent Ulster at senior level, he relished the experience and paid tribute to his team-mates for their support.
Ulster scored five tries in the win over the Welsh side with Balacoune's fellow Academy player Michael Lowry scoring a maiden touchdown for the province and Stuart McCloskey (2), Dave Shanahan and Henry Speight also crossing.
"I've been training with the guys for quite a while and they were talking to me throughout the match and I really enjoyed it and it really settled me into the game," said the youngster.
"Everyone was chittering at me, especially Michael Lowry – he's younger than me and he just kept in my ear the whole time and settled me straight into the game.
"I was really looking forward to it and I appreciated the chance to get out there and the atmosphere was great, so I really enjoyed playing.
"All the Enniskillen ones were up and I could hear them on the sideline and I really enjoyed it. It was a great experience and I'm looking forward to another chance at it."
While Balacoune was clearly on a high after his big night, Ulster defence coach Jared Payne was less than impressed with the overall performance.
McFarland expressed his satisfaction with the bonus-point win while admitting, more diplomatically that the team is still 'a work in progress' but Payne shot from the hip and demanded improvement ahead of Saturday's game in Italy.
"We took a massive step backwards tonight, there was the potential for that to happen so it was a bit disappointing," said the former Ireland and British Lions player.
"We know we need to stay in the games longer, both in attack and in defence, we need to look after the ball better in attack and stay in the points better in defence and make smarter decisions.
"It was disappointing. We talked about it all week and didn't deliver on anything we talked about.
"We've got to improve, we've got to learn from were we went wrong mentally, not getting ourselves in the right head space and not let that impact on our game again.
"They're playing pretty good rugby aren't they, Treviso? We will have to take a long tough look at ourselves and if we put that out on the pitch again next time, it could be a long weekend."
RORY Scannell was Munster's last-minute saviour as his monster penalty from halfway completed a stirring 25-24 comeback win over Glasgow at Thomond Park.
Glasgow were on the cusp of their first victory at the Limerick venue since April 2014, with two counter-attacking tries from scrum-half George Horne.
That gave them a 12-7 half-time lead and Horne's brother Pete then bagged the bonus-point score, on the back of a Matt Fagerson try.
However, Munster rallied superbly against the Conference A leaders as tries from replacement Alex Wootton and Alby Mathewson made it a two-point game entering the final seven minutes.
While winding down the clock, Glasgow coughed up a penalty at the breakdown and centre Scannell, who missed out on Ireland squad selection this week, delivered a peach of a strike from 55 metres out.