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I was almost overwhelmed by the emotion of playing in Belfast, says Ulster new-boy Burns

 

By Michael Sadlier

He wasn't expecting it to happen, but the emotion of the occasion suddenly got the upper hand on Billy Burns as he ran out at Kingspan Stadium last Saturday.

The 24-year-old's competitive debut for Ulster - he had played in last month's opening friendly against former club Gloucester - certainly hadn't seemed like something that would stop him in his tracks as he had remained cool, calm and collected throughout the day.

After all, what was there to be nervous about? The out-half came here after already running up over 100 appearances at Gloucester and had played under age rugby for England.

But, for all that, as he hit the turf, it just got to him.

Between the atmosphere, the fact that most of his family were looking on from the stand and, of course, his Irish connections via Cork being fulfilled by playing for a province; the heady combination had a greater, though thankfully brief, grip on him than the job at hand.

"I had been pretty good all day, and then it wasn't until I ran out and 'Stand Up For The Ulstermen' was getting sung that it sort of hit me," he explains.

"The first five minutes was then a little bit nervy for me, and you could probably tell as I made a couple of small mistakes, but I eased into it after that and really enjoyed myself.

"My mum and dad and two of my brothers were over and it was really nice to have them over.

"They loved the experience and it was a proud day for the family to see me coming over here and playing for one of the provinces of Ireland and at a great club like Ulster.

"It certainly made my old man proud so it was a good day all round," Burns adds with still some discernible emotion at revisiting the memory.

The sense of occasion was added to as Burns also managed to get off to a winning start as the Irish-qualified player - playing for Ireland is indeed an ambition - begins a new chapter in his career, a feeling that older brother Freddie hadn't enjoyed the night before when Bath were beaten by Bristol Bears in the English Premiership.

Indeed, five-times capped England international Freddie had gone a few extra miles to make sure that he was in Belfast on Saturday evening for his younger brother's debut and, according to Billy, there was no sense that the younger brother had secured the bragging rights over his sibling.

"He was happy for me which was good," Burns recalls, while mentioning that Freddie has experienced the other side of playing in Belfast having togged out before against Ulster at Kingspan Stadium.

"We're very close and we both want the best for each other, and it's actually good being in different leagues now as we can kind of support each other, though, of course, it could be different come the Champions Cup," he jokes.

For the meantime, Ulster's Burns - who exited Gloucester after David Humphreys signed Danny Cipriani - is focusing on tomorrow night's challenging encounter with Edinburgh and hopes to further forge his already promising-looking playing partnership with John Cooney.

It could prove to be quite a combination for new head coach Dan McFarland and, with the talented Burns more than able to mix his game well, and play very flat, the province look to now have two quality-looking half-backs.

Burns has encountered Edinburgh before and, though he mentions that he was benched on that occasion and didn't get on the field, the Bath-born player omits to reveal that this happened in 2015's European Challenge Cup final which Gloucester won.

So, he comes to Ulster with a winning medal for not playing, however he was very much on the pitch in last season's pulsating Challenge Cup decider when Gloucester were pipped by Cardiff Blues.

When it comes to medals, though, Burns can't really compete with Cooney - his half-back partner has accumulated four winning gongs from his bench time with Leinster and Connacht - but, regardless of that, their on-field relationship is simply about propelling Ulster forward.

They combined well together against Scarlets and, though Burns is taking nothing for granted - particularly his starting place, even though that looks nailed-on - he is optimistic that he and Cooney can forge an effective understanding.

"The more minutes we get together then the better that relationship is, which will hopefully help the team put in more positive performances," says Burns, who points out that he is patiently waiting for a chance to show off his goal-kicking skills should Cooney be off the park.

Richard Cockerill's Edinburgh won on their last visit to Belfast and ultimately managed to beat the province to a play-off place in Conference B, though none of this means much to new signing Burns, who feels that there is tremendous positivity around the squad primarily fuelled by the way McFarland wants them to play.

"I can see the ambition of the coaches and the players and that's something that really excites me.

"I also think that last Saturday (the narrow win over Scarlets) was just a glimpse of what we're hoping to achieve.

"But we're not getting ahead of ourselves, it's a great start but it is only a start."

With some solid set-piece work and a clear appetite to off-load in the tackle to keep the ball alive, Ulster seem intent on being positive and, though they didn't manage it against Scarlets, going all out to score tries.

"We showed some real attacking intent," Burns reflects.

"When it's the first game of the season you're probably going to try and force off-loads too much and we were probably guilty of that last week.

"It was disappointing not to come away with tries, but we built pressure and we got penalties from that which was good.

"If we can execute just a little bit better, I think we'll run those tries in pretty soon."

This time, he'll not be ambushed by emotion when running out, and the thought pattern will all be about making it two wins on the bounce.

Belfast Telegraph

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