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Ulster out-half Billy Burns still focused on progress after Ireland call-up

 

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Making strides: Billy Burns on the charge

Making strides: Billy Burns on the charge

�INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Billy Burns with brother Freddie

Billy Burns with brother Freddie

�INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Making strides: Billy Burns on the charge

It has been quite the week for Billy Burns.

Last Wednesday, the uncapped Ulster out-half was called into Andy Farrell's Ireland squad for the upcoming Six Nations camp, then, by the weekend, he had guided his province into the last-eight of the Champions Cup with a man-of-the-match display against Bath in Belfast.

As if that wasn't enough to put a smile on his face, all-important family bragging rights were earned in the process with brother Freddie having been his opposite number in the Kingspan Stadium.

Now in his second season with Ulster, and with over 100 appearances for Gloucester having preceded the switch, but still only 25, he credits his growing experience for his ascension into the international reckoning.

"My maturity I think has grown, in terms of managing the boys around me and game management," he said. "I probably would have been too quick to pull the trigger when I was at Gloucester and probably last year as well. I think working closely with Dwayne Peel and Dan (McFarland), a second year of building with the coaches and players around you, you grow.

"I'm happy with where I am but I've a long way to go to be the player I want to be and can be."

While more often than not it has been his half-back partner John Cooney hogging the headlines in Ulster's European campaign, Burns was to the fore at the finish. With the side making hard work of a Bath team already eliminated by the time they pitched up in BT6, they needed calm heads and their No.10 duly obliged, mixing some measured play with a more adventurous spirit when called for.

"We just felt we didn't fire any shots," he said while admitting to mixed feelings caused by the achieving of a goal when not their best. "We felt like the atmosphere had changed because we weren't firing into attacking and defensive sets the way we had been in previous weeks.

"When you get the crowd behind you and into the game it gives you a lift and we probably didn't do that at times.

"I wouldn't say the pressure got to us. I think we've played in pressure games and showed we can hack it but we probably tried to force the game a little too much at times. Credit to Bath, they pinned us back and we struggled to get any territory.

"There are a lot of learnings. It gets a bit boring saying it but we showed great character to hang in there, potentially a little bit unlucky to be 7-7 at half-time. We had a few chances we didn't take but I wouldn't say pressure, maybe a bit of overeagerness to get the game done early.

"We said, coming out in the second half, we wanted to change that and start well and we did. For a moment it looked like we might run away with it but we were inaccurate in our breakdown, inaccurate in our attack play across the park and let them back into it.

"I think there's always been belief but that grows when you're winning. We've been fortunate to be winning pretty much all our games at home which is great. There's a part of me that thinks maybe we thought the Kingspan Stadium was going to win it for us but you've still got to go out and perform. There's belief, there's character but that only gets you so far and we know we have to sharpen up and execute better."

While Burns' demeanour betrayed no hint of all's well that ends well, he was at least able to enjoy dinner with his brother yesterday all the more.

"It was about getting the result but there's always a little bit of banter floating about," he said of the sibling rivalry. "It is different, it's cool to be playing at the top club level against him, and obviously the family are all here and I'm sure they're proud.

"I want to give you a more interesting answer but once you get on the field and the ball is in play, you're so focused on what you want to do, you hardly think about it. It's the stoppages in play when you look across, and you want to give him a bit of stick.

"He caught me a couple of times to be fair, got me at the bottom of rucks, and almost took an interception off me... I'd have probably retired if he'd taken that and scored."

Thankfully for the younger of the brothers, he's not hanging them up just yet, the promise of a first senior cap in the coming weeks quite the carrot for the former English U20 ace.

"I found out by email," he revealed of the call-up to the squad for which he qualifies through his paternal grandfather. "It's cool. I've tried to put it all to one side. I was over the moon but I knew how big a task this (Bath) game was. Now I can probably take time to let it sink in.

"I want to be happy to be in the squad but I can't just be happy with that. I want to go down and to play and there's some great talent in the squad. I'm excited to meet up on Tuesday, with a lot of guys I don't know.

"That will hopefully take my game to another level and lead to an international cap."

Always a goal when he made the switch in the summer of 2018, and one reason why he was such an attractive proposition for Ulster when they sought to fill a large void in the No.10 jersey, he always maintained that he was here to play for Ulster not Ireland. Still, with the curtain coming down on the Joe Schmidt era after the World Cup, he sensed an opportunity this season.

"It seemed a good time, a bit of a new era with Joe leaving and Andy coming in," he said. "Ultimately I had to get my stuff right here and I'm still building here. My consistency was in and out and if you want to be a top-quality, international 10, that needs to improve.

"It's always been a goal of mine to play international rugby and I'm in the squad but that doesn't mean I'm an international. I've to prove my worth."

And while Ireland don't travel to Twickenham until round three, what of divided loyalties in the family, including his brother and his four England caps?

"My old man will definitely support Ireland, he always has done," he said. "I like to think my mum would but you never know. I'm sure they'll be supportive, I've a lot of family in Dublin who are all very proud who I'm sure will be there cheering my name if I do get that opportunity.

"I'm not looking too far ahead, I'm just looking forward to getting into camp on Tuesday and I want to train well and put my best foot forward."

Belfast Telegraph