Ulster wing Robert Baloucoune admits the prospect of an Ireland debut seemed implausible just three years ago, describing his path to Test level as a “weird journey”.
The 23-year-old is among 12 uncapped players included in Andy Farrell’s squad for next month’s Dublin clashes with Japan and the United States.
His current position as one of his country’s most promising backs is a far cry from turning out for home town club Enniskillen amid serious doubts about making a living from the game.
A stint in Ireland’s sevens set-up, including a trip to the 2018 World Cup, helped reinvigorate Baloucoune’s career before he burst on to the scene with Ulster, where he has scored 80 points in 31 outings.
“When I was at Enniskillen, I didn’t think I was going to be involved in anything. I was out of the Ulster system as well and that didn’t really seem like a goal,” he said.
“Once I signed my first contract for the academy and sevens, it was only then that I could make a living out of this and this could be a full-time job.
“It seemed like a long goal whenever I was playing for Eniskillen because I was just getting by and playing games, I didn’t really see it as an option.
“I look back at it and if you’d said to me three or fours years ago (that I’d be in the Ireland squad), I would be shocked, I wouldn’t have thought about it at all.
“It has been a weird journey, but I’ve kind of just went up every step and now here I am in an Irish camp.”
The Northern Irishman was initially called up by national team head coach Farrell as a development player during the 2020 Six Nations before being sidelined for almost a year due to a combination of the coronavirus pandemic and a serious hamstring injury.
Ireland are preparing to host their first matches in front of fans since a Six Nations success over Wales in February 2020.
Japan, who beat the Irish in the pool stage of the 2019 World Cup, will be at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, July 3 before the USA visit a week later.
Baloucoune has been striving for international recognition and believes he will contribute speed and intensity.
“It’s the next step for me. It’s something that, when I started playing for Ulster, was my aim, to try to represent Ireland,” he said.
“It’s what I’ve been training for and pushing for. All my games for Ulster, putting in a performance that leads to this, I’m really looking forward to getting my first cap and if that happens in this series it would be great.”
Speaking about his attributes, he added: “The easy one to say is I’ve got speed.
“What I back myself on is my defensive plays. I feel I can read the game well, I’ll go out and try to force them behind the gainline.
“Bringing that intensity to defence and attack as well, catching kicks and stuff like that, is something I bring to the game.”