Friday 18 October 2019

Sexton's injury difficulty presents Burns with a perfect opportunity

Billy Burns will aim to capitalise on the expected absence of Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Billy Burns will aim to capitalise on the expected absence of Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

A half-tale of two out-halves.

One arrives in Dublin in swaggering mode, the other staggering - or possibly watching from the stands with doubts emerging that Johnny Sexton, whom Leinster fans had hoped would bounce back in blue, will make the all-Ireland showdown.

Sexton's difficulty with injury could be the perfect opportunity for Ulster No 10 Billy Burns to show those outside the province what he's made of. The relatively unheralded fly-half will aim to compound the great man's sense of misfortune.

He cannot do so alone, of course.

There is a reason the defending double winners are 15-point favourites, for Leinster house a supreme squad and a recent history of swatting aside their neighbours on the hard grounds of spring in decisive championship contests.

Burns cannot argue the odds but he can shout them when asked to assess his regard for Sexton, admitting the current World Player of the Year is the one he looks up to when he looks at improving his own game.

"I don't think it's for me to say how he played in the Six Nations," says the Irish-qualified fly-half with dollops of diplomacy. "He's shown that he is a world-class player before.

"He's a top quality player, he's led both Ireland and Leinster to massive honours over the years. I wouldn't even say he is particularly out of form to be honest. And if he is out of form, I'm sure it won't last long."

International Rugby Newsletter

Rugby insights and commentary from our renowned journalists like Neil Francis, Will Slattery, Alan Quinlan & Cian Tracey.

Burns has never faced Sexton before and it looks like he will have to wait for that challenge; neither has he played in the Aviva Stadium.

"I'm hugely excited," enthuses Burns, who has never played a club game of this magnitude before.

"I've been watching a lot of his game this week and over the past few years.

"He's been probably the best fly-half and player in my position and I've tried to learn as much as I can from just watching his games."

Burns might empathise with Sexton's recent travails. Discarded by Gloucester's former European Cup winner David Humphreys due to summer arrivals which pushed him into third-choice, Ulster weren't particularly interested in him at all.

South African Elton Jantjies had been their preference until the IRFU pulled that particular plug. In stepped Burns, whose convenient Irish eligibility under the grandparent rule ticked a further box.

A stuttering start made many Belfast supporters dubious; however, once Burns stepped into his groove and a once-ridiculed pack began to pull their weight, the 24-year-old began to find his feet.

He has the most assists in this competition and of his five, three have derived from kick-passes.

"I've definitely matured a lot," he enthuses. "I definitely understand the game a bit more. That comes from working with a different coach and a different playing group.

"There's still so many aspects of my game that I feel I need to improve on and part of the reason why I came over here was because I felt like I needed a new challenge.

"I wanted to improve and I feel like I'm doing that here. As long as I keep that process going I'll be happy.

"I've definitely improved, it's just a matter of consistency now."

By the New Year, Schmidt was name-checking him. The pair first met at the start of the season but with Jack Carty clearly shunting Ross Byrne off the plane to Japan, barring injuries, Burns will have to wait patiently for an Irish chance.

"What will come off the back of that will come, but for me, there's not been any contact and my firm focus is here," he affirms.

Irish Independent

The Left Wing: Welcome to Irish rugby's biggest week - is an upset on the cards?

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport