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Burns is all fired up to succeed in ultimate big brother task



Sibling rivalry: Freddie Burns (left) will go up against brother Billy when Bath play host to Ulster in the Champions Cup tomorrow

Sibling rivalry: Freddie Burns (left) will go up against brother Billy when Bath play host to Ulster in the Champions Cup tomorrow

Sibling rivalry: Freddie Burns (left) will go up against brother Billy when Bath play host to Ulster in the Champions Cup tomorrow

Over at The Recreation Ground in Bath they've apparently dubbed it the 'Burns Cup'.

As Ulster and their hosts begin their Heineken Champions Cup campaigns on the banks of the River Avon tomorrow afternoon (1pm kick-off), it will be convenient, if a little awkward, for Gerry and Donna Burns, to see two of their sons in action over the course of the same 80 minutes but on opposing sides.

Frequent visitors to Belfast since the youngest of their four offspring, Billy, left Gloucester and swapped Kingsholm for Kingspan Stadium in 2018, following the rugby careers of both the Ulster fly-half and his elder brother Freddie, now of Bath, has become an increasingly time consuming affair in recent seasons.

Weekends have long-since been lost to the oval ball but, with air-miles now into the equation, at least the latest edition of the sibling rivalry allows for the rare opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

"It is was just bound to happen wasn't it?" laughs Billy of the draw that sees the brothers going head-to-head in what seems sure to be a key contest in a tight Pool Three, joking that subsequent trips to Belfast for Freddie have likely been more of a scouting mission than familial solidarity.

"I was in my car and I had (the draw) on the radio, and when it got down to the last eight or nine teams I was sort of sure it was going to happen, it was strange.

"When you are put into the Champions Cup there are so many quality teams that you're not really looking at whether you would rather have this team or that team or whatever, but obviously for me to get Bath is great, and the minute it was announced (head coach) Dan McFarland texted me straight away just saying 'get your head on'."

While the pair have been on opposite sides previously in the Premiership, the element of luck of the draw in this instance has added to the excitement.

"I have played against Fred a few times before and it is obviously a special occasion for the family - not my mum! - but the rest of them," he says.

"We will have good craic with it obviously.

"I am looking forward to it more because it is quite strange how my rugby career has gone.

"I started in Bath (Academy) and I am now going to be going back across and representing this province there. And obviously with my mum and dad now having to fly across here to watch me, they can just pop down the road for a change which will be good for them too."

Burns' readiness for this clash figures to be a big boost for Ulster, undoubtedly now one of the side's key men. While his half-back partner John Cooney remains the backline's beating heart, Burns' value has been shown in his absence.

When on the field, the 25-year-old's willingness to play flat and encourage his forwards onto the gainline has been key to sharper attacking performances, while his ability to pick out a winger with a cross-field kick provides an extra dimension too.

The switch from Gloucester seems to have the makings of a real success, even if growing up it was the blue and black of tomorrow's opponents he dreamed of wearing. Before turning out for David Humphreys in cherry and white, before winning a junior World Cup with England alongside the likes of Maro Itoje, before even earning a place in the Bath Academy, Burns was just a humble ball boy at The Rec, fetching towels for Lee Mears at the lineout, seeing the exploits of Danny Grewcock and Steve Borthwick up close, and hoping to one day be out there himself.

"I did it for four or five years," he recalls.

"I probably overstayed my welcome there because I loved it so much, I was about 15 and the rest of them were all 10.

"That was where I got my love for rugby. I knew that it was something I wanted to do when I went down there to watch those guys and loved just being right by the pitch, you felt as if you were part of the game.

"I actually learned quite a lot too. It was great because one of my jobs as the senior ball boy was to go and fill the water up which meant I was in the changing rooms, so I used to be right in the thick of it when they did their team talks. That's still my excuse whenever I say something rude, I would say it all stemmed from back then.

"It will be a strange occasion, but one that I will be looking forward to. I got introduced to rugby at Bath, so it will be a great experience. Well, not if we lose, that's for sure, if we win."

Beating Bath at The Rec on a big European day - a slight variation on the childhood dream then.

Looking to get one over on your elder brother, though? That one never changes.

Bath vs Ulster

Heineken Champions Cup - Pool Three

The Recreation Ground, Tomorrow, 1.00pm

Belfast Telegraph