Friday 18 January 2019

Ulster comes first but Ireland 'ambition' a big plus for Burns

Billy Burns arrives from Gloucester with a decent reputation as a ball-playing out-half. Photo: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Billy Burns arrives from Gloucester with a decent reputation as a ball-playing out-half. Photo: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Ulster hope this will be their year zero and, after a torturous season of controversy and inconsistency, they have turned to Billy Burns to lead the revival.

With their head coach in limbo in Scotland and a slew of new faces in the ranks, fans may need to be patient about the province's ability to hit the ground running in the coming weeks.

Yet, the Kingspan Stadium crowd always expects and they'll be particularly keen to see how their 24-year-old out-half measures up to his predecessor, Paddy Jackson, who is now in Perpignan rebuilding his career.

Burns arrives from Gloucester with a decent reputation as a ball-playing out-half based on 61 Premiership appearances and his Irish roots facilitated his arrival.

Ulster's search for a replacement for Jackson was constrained by the IRFU's need for Irish-qualified players in specialised positions and, with Ian Madigan under contract, the market hardly appeared to be brimming with options.


Burns has always been aware of his connection and, when Danny Cipriani signed for Gloucester and Ulster made contact, the deal made sense.

His grandfather Patrick emigrated to England from Cork long ago and, while Billy never met the man who connects him to his new home, his father Jeremy kept the contact with the family in Ireland.

And, while his older brother Freddy won five caps for England and he himself represented the country of his birth up to U-20 level, Billy is open to the possibility of playing for Ireland if his form for Ulster merits a call-up.

"It's an exciting prospect," he said.

"I know I've got a lot of work to do before that. My focus is on getting in with Ulster and performing well there.

"Who knows what the future holds? I've got a massive ambition to play international rugby. We'll see. I've a lot of family in Dublin. I've come over for many a family wedding which were always interesting occasions!

"When I chose to come down this avenue, it was one that made my old man very proud. We still get over here a lot. We've got a lot of family who are going to come over and I'm sure they'll be watching a lot of our games.

"It was always an avenue that I could go down. I'd spoke to my agent a lot about it from when I originally signed as a 17-year-old with him.

"At the moment, it's all about coming over here, coming to a club like Ulster who have great history, have probably underperformed a little bit in the last few years, pushing those guys back up the league and see what comes after that."

Once he and Gloucester had agreed his exit, Burns just had to go upstairs to talk to the man who is most associated with the No 10 jersey at Ulster in Cherries director of rugby David Humphreys.

"He's been great to me over the three or four years he's been at Gloucester," Burns said. "He didn't coach too much but he knew what I was going through as a young out-half having been there and done it.

"I had a great relationship with him. He's helped me massively over that time. He was very firm believer in not taking that x-factor away from me because that is part of who I am and that is why I play rugby; just rein it back sometimes. I've got massive respect for David Humphreys.

"You only have to look around the place at Kingspan and his face is everywhere, he's a legend over here so yeah, he's done a lot for me in my career.


"I like to play on the edge, I like to challenge myself and the guys around me. I mean, I think, it's a tough question, I guess it comes back to what we said at the start, it's about getting back to be being that all-round player and trying to maybe make the decision at the right time.

"If I make a decision on the pitch, it's because it's the one I think is the right decision. But I'm not always going to get it right. If I can pull back on it a bit then hopefully it will improve and put me in a better place and a better player for it."

Simon Easterby has been running training in head coach Dan McFarland's absence, with Jared Payne now manning a new-look defence. Burns believes they are in good hands.

"It's a young squad, there are a lot of new faces which is good," Burns, who has been named in Ulster's squad to take on his former club in a pre-season friendly on Saturday, said.

"And a lot of guys who are hungry to learn. It's not been ideal with Dan not coming in but Simon has come in who's been good for us, we've done loads of good work and Jared has been awesome as well.

"It's not a massive issue, it would be great to get him in as soon as possible but I think we're looking at January if not a bit sooner.

"Dwayne Peel and Jared have got everything under control."

Irish Independent

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