Robert Baloucoune
Robert Baloucoune is one of four capped players named in the 35-strong Emerging Ireland squad

Ulster defence coach Jonny Bell says that Emerging Ireland’s tour to South Africa provides the nine Ulster players selected with an “exciting opportunity” and “a chance to stake their claim”.

The contingent will all be unavailable for Saturday’s URC game against Scarlets and then the visits of Leinster and Ospreys to Belfast.

The 35-strong squad will travel to play three matches in Bloemfontein.

“It gives some Ulster players a chance to put a marker down,” said Bell.

“The opportunity some players have with Ireland, and we wish them well for that, offers up an opportunity for other players to have a go here,” he added.

The absence of the Emerging Ireland squad members means Ulster head coach Dan McFarland must plan without six players who were part of the matchday squad for the 36-10 win over Connacht at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday night.

Stewart Moore, Robert Baloucoune, Nathan Doak and Tom Stewart, who was named player of the match on his first senior start, all started the season opener, while Callum Reid and Cormac Izuchukwu were introduced off the replacements’ bench.

Wing Ethan McIlroy, Jake Flannery and Michael McDonald were the other Ulster players named in the squad for the Toyota Challenge matches against Griquas on 30 September, Pumas on 5 October and Cheetahs on 9 October.

On the plus side for McFarland, experienced duo John Cooney and Andy Warwick could be in line to return for the visit to Parc Y Scarlets this weekend, but Iain Henderson and James Hume will be among those still missing through injury.

“Scarlets are a team that like to play a bit of rugby and with their head coach Dwayne Peel having been at Ulster he knows our squad inside out,” observed Bell.

“He’ll probably have something up his sleeve to try and catch us out so we have to be on our mettle against a very good side.

“They’ve got some fantastic players, ball carriers, and skill to get the ball out wide at pace so it’s going to be a challenge for us.”

‘A real tightness to the group’

Having been part of the Ulster team which famously won the European Cup in 1999, Bell then joined the coaching ranks at the Irish province, before moving on to Gloucester in 2015 “to grow as a coach” and subsequently had spells at Glasgow Warriors and Worcester Warriors.

The 48-year-old says it was always his desire to return to his native province and he is excited at the prospect of helping Ulster challenge for honours as the newest member of McFarland’s coaching staff.

“The motivation for me was being part of an Ulster squad that has been growing and getting better and better,” explained the 36-times capped Ireland international.

“I’m coming back to really try and add value to that and try and achieve things with this team, which I believe they are capable of.

“It’s going to be hard work but I’m excited to be a part of it.

“I’m very impressed with the player group. We have really good senior players who drive high standards and the younger group who are incredibly driven and very professional. They are a great bunch of lads.

“There’s a real tightness to the group and I don’t aim to bring revolution by any means, just help evolve the work that’s already being done.”

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