'It's not as if somebody said, 'You're Irish by the way'. I knew all along'
The first time Billy Burns came up against Irish sides was at age-grade level for England. If you've ever seen English teams at under 18 or under 20, the first thing that strikes you is their size. They are like something from another planet.
Burns was Lilliputian by comparison. But the giants were on his side so it didn't matter. As a nippy, skilful 10, he could observe and direct from a discreet distance.
"We ended up battering them," he remembers of those two games, the second in the Junior World Championship semi-final in New Zealand four years ago. "I loved that because I was tiny - by far the smallest player, and I was saying, 'Right you do all the donkey work,' while I was sat in an armchair pulling strings, which was nice. Those games were good. I loved playing at 18s and 20s."
Funny, then, how it should be Ireland who came to Burns' rescue when his career in England's south-west should stall at the most inconvenient time. There he was, preparing for Gloucester's Challenge Cup final against Cardiff last season, when the grapevine told him Danny Cipriani would be joining him at Kingsholm. Time to ring his agent.
In fairness, Ulster's need was every bit as great. This was a connection made in makey-up land: province at a low ebb lose quality international outhalf in brand-damaging circumstances; then meet with talented playmaker whose wings have just been clipped by a new arrival. Better still, he could fly in green as well as white if required.
The IRFU's IQ system likes to think it has most bases covered on qualified players across the water, but Burns' Irishness - his paternal grandfather is from Cork - was below the radar.
"It was a cool thing to have," he says. "Obviously not a lot of people knew it about me and people thought that I'd suddenly got a call and somebody said, 'You're Irish by the way'. I've known all along, and like I said it was just a really good opportunity for me. A lot was made of me coming over here to play for Ireland and I came over here to play for Ulster and win trophies with Ulster.
"I'm nowhere near . . . no I'm not going to say I'm nowhere near but I believe I've got a long way to go for international honours, but the main reason I came over was because I want to play at the Kingspan and win trophies for Ulster."
Billy is the youngest of the Burns brothers of Bath. Four of them: one plays for Cyprus courtesy of getting citizenship in that country having served there in the RAF; two of the other three are pro rugby players - Freddie in Bath and Billy, formerly of Gloucester, now with Ulster.
To give you a flavour of the menu in the Burns household, the old man, Jerry, now pushing 60, is still playing for his local club, Oldfield, in Bath. The four lads all followed him down that road to start. The long-suffering mammy was arriving over in Belfast the day we caught up with her son.
"That's why she gets on with my girlfriend so well," he says. "She loves the female attention! But she loves it (rugby) - she loves travelling and watching . . . well she says she loves it. She hasn't really got too much choice, I guess."
The Burns parents run a plumbing business in Bath with help from one of Billy's brothers. It would be unlikely they would get through a day where rugby didn't dominate the conversation.
"He's a nightmare!" he says of his dad. "I've actually got a good story: I was up there to watch a game - it's probably not legal now - I was up there and he was playing for Oldfield 3rds and I'd just got into the Bath Academy at the time, I was 15 I think. And the ref didn't show up. And they asked could I ref. I said: 'Dad I'm so scared I don't want to do it - I'm so scared!' And he said: 'Don't worry about it, if anyone gives you any backchat, I'll come over and sort it out.' He talked me into it. First kick-off it goes off and I give a penalty against Oldfield to the other team, and who's the first one to come over shouting in my face but my old man! So I blew him up and sent him back 10 metres and the rest is history. Luckily enough, they won the game. We were always brought up around that, it used to be the highlight of our week going up to the club."
The time invested paid off. If it's unusual for families to have a professional athlete pulling up a chair at the dinner table then fewer still have two. In a neat twist of fate, Freddie's last game for Gloucester coincided with Billy's debut there. They played alongside each other at 10 and 12. For two lads who had shared so much it was a special day.
"Me and Fred are obviously close being in the same profession but it's great for me learning so much from him. He's four or five years older than me so I've seen him go through it all as a youngster and it's prepped me better for what was to come. As well, seeing him go through the ranks and doing what he did at Bath Academy and then with Gloucester, it sort of cemented for me what I wanted to do as well, seeing him do his thing.
"I still look at it in the same way. I'm so lucky to be doing a job I absolutely love. Playing rugby is an absolute dream. It definitely helped me out having him go through it before me."
The learning experience hasn't stopped. Top of the list will be the protocol that surrounds getting into the in-goal area and getting the ball down safely. In the first round of this season's Champions Cup, Freddie Burns suffered the kind of double-whammy you couldn't make up. A missed kick - a gimme - to put Bath ahead against Toulouse late in the day was followed a couple of minutes later by him losing the ball carelessly when he should have been touching down. Credit to Maxime Medard for not giving up; zero marks to Freddie for clocking off. The incident was food and drink to the savages online.
"Definitely, we actually spoke about this when I went home," Billy says. "You've got to take the rough with the smooth. When we play well and perform well obviously you get all the love and it's great, but when you make a mistake like that - which doesn't happen too often - it's pretty savage. I was devastated.
"I had my oldest brother Jack over because we were playing Leicester that evening so Fred's game kicked off at 1pm and we were watching it - yeah it was devastating because I know him very well. Obviously he'd missed the kick and hit the post from in front, and then a lot of people see it as arrogance and showboating but he was just so relieved to have sort of got them back in it by (almost) scoring that try. It was heartbreaking for him. It probably took a couple of days and then we started giving him stick and he was fine about it. I'm sure he won't be doing it again. There's no excuse for it. That's the thing. I'd love to be able to say, 'It wasn't your fault.' But it was your fault! And you made yourself look an idiot but it happens so move on.
"As long as it doesn't happen again. The great thing was it showed Fred's character - he went out the next week when they played Wasps away and kicked all his goals. They drew the game in the end but he played pretty well and that must have been difficult for him but it was a real testament to his character. Obviously with him being brought off as soon as the mistake was made, it must have been a very lonely place for him. Well, I know it was. But that's the beauty of the game - you've got to take the rough with the smooth, I guess."
It's been mostly smooth for Billy in Ulster. Yesterday's Guinness Pro14 game against Cardiff was his 11th of the season. Had he stayed in Kingsholm, he would have been holding Danny Cipriani's coat.
On Friday night he will lead the attack in Parc y Scarlets in a game Ulster have to win if they are to have any chance of getting out of Pool 4 in Europe. The teams are 1-1 in the Pro14 already this season. And after Ulster's struggle against Cardiff yesterday, where Burns was withdrawn having taken a couple of dunts - he ran off under his own steam - it requires a leap in form.
"Yeah, we massively give ourselves a chance," he says. "We went up there the week just gone and had a game-plan that we didn't execute for reasons that we've tried to rectify this week but we showed that we can beat them. Obviously it was a very tough first game of the season. Back-to-back Champions Cup rugby is always tough because you're trying to hide things from teams and not get sussed out too much, but we'll be massively excited for that game. When I looked at Ulster before I came over here you always think of those big European nights back when David Humphreys was playing and all of those guys. They're the games you want to play in so I'm hugely excited about that."
And the Ulster fans are delighted to have him. He's not operating behind that juggernaut pack he enjoyed in his teens but he's coping well. Billy Burns has been good business for Ulster, and perhaps at some point for Ireland.
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