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Ulster are on the right path to ending title wait, says Billy Burns


Ulster fly-half Billy Burns in training
Ulster fly-half Billy Burns in training
Making strides: Billy Burns can see a bright future for Ulster
Billy Burns in the heat of battle
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

While Ulster last visited the Twickenham Stoop only two years ago, ahead of tonight's clash with Harlequins in the Heineken Champions Cup (7.45pm kick-off), out-half Billy Burns still has more experience of the ground than most.

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Over the course of over 100 appearances for Gloucester, the 25-year-old became well acquainted with the Cherry and Whites' Premiership rivals and remains sure that his new side will have their work cut out for them in London if they are to maintain their table-topping position at the head of Pool Three.

Keeping their winning run going against the same opposition last weekend required a 79th-minute penalty from John Cooney, and the repeated message this week has been one of the need for improvement in the second leg of the back-to-back battles.

"I had the luxury of playing there with Gloucester and I know how tough a place it is to go," he said. "They'll be disappointed with their form there this season.

"It's a typical saying but in the Champions Cup if you go anywhere it's hard to get a result.

"We looked at Harlequins going into the game and not only is Paul Gustard a world-class coach, he's a world-class defensive coach as well.

"We knew they'd be organised, we knew they'd have a lot of numbers in the front line and they'd be making big collisions.

"I'm sure they'll have looked at that from the weekend and have been disappointed to concede three tries, and I'm sure they'll have that covered this week.

"We know there'll definitely have to be a big improvement on our performance from the weekend. Although we got the result, there were parts of our performance that we weren't happy with, and if we want to go there and not only compete but come away with four or five points, then we're going to have to improve. We're excited by the challenge but it's a huge one in front of us."

Ulster's dramatic late victory certainly appears to have resulted in Harlequins pivoting their focus back onto domestic matters.

Their team selection sees seven changes from a week ago, with only Italian international centre Michele Campagnaro having been listed as picking up an injury. With a big league game against former London rivals Wasps to come next weekend, Chris Robshaw, Joe Marler, Marcus Smith, Danny Care, Gabriel Ibitoye and Tom Lawday have all been given a weekend off.

One beneficiary of the rotation is former Ulster out-half Brett Herron, who will wear the No.10 jersey on what will be his first Champions Cup appearance for the side.

Regardless of who is taking the field for the opposition, Burns has stressed the need for Ulster to take a greater percentage of the chances they are creating.

Against both Harlequins and Clermont two weeks prior, games came down to the wire when Ulster could have had the wins wrapped up long before, a product of some errant play in the opposition 22.

On the road, Burns is all too aware that the province may well not get enough chances to let so many slip through their grasp and still claim victory.

"We could have had that game done a little bit earlier," Burns reflected after the first Harlequins game.

"There were parts of our game where we weren't ruthless enough in our attack. We created a lot of good try scoring opportunities but we didn't take them, and then defensively we picked and chose our moments, and that's not us, we're normally a team that likes to smother other teams' attacks.

"But I think that shows the growth in us. We've got a good result at home in the Champions Cup but we're not happy with how we performed.

"As well as that, there's 40-odd blokes in there - I know only 23 played - who were in that (match review) meeting and every single one of us knows that if we want to get a result we're going to have to improve, not massively, but largely in several areas. It's a great opportunity for us, a great challenge. We're looking forward to going over there and giving it a good shot."

While there will still be work to do to secure a quarter-final place, win tonight and Ulster can rest somewhat easier heading into the Christmas period, Burns especially having sorted out his immediate playing future with a two-year contract extension signed last month.

Having made the switch to Belfast in the summer of 2018, the Bath native admits he already feels right at home.

"Everyone always says this but it was an easy decision," he said.

"I've been here just over a year now and I've loved my time here.

"The fans have been awesome in welcoming me, my partner's settled in really well and also it's a club where I can see everyone is fighting to go in the right direction.

"It's an exciting place to be, a good style of rugby, a great place to play and it was a no-brainer.

"I wish the weather would clear up and it wouldn't be so cold but other than that it was easy to do, and I'm glad to get that out of the way and focus on the rugby."

Burns, who is now over the hamstring complaint that ailed him in recent weeks, admits that helping the club end a silverware drought stretching back to 2006 will be a huge motivation over the course of his stay.

"When you are a player aspiring to do things in your career, you always look and think, 'Is this a place where I can see genuinely pushing for silverware in the future?'," he said. "I am not saying we are close to being that team yet, but I feel we are on the right path, and the main thing is that we have guys who are going to work incredibly hard and a great coaching staff here, great support network and a great following.

"We know it is going to take a lot of hard work, sweat and blood and all that, but we will fight hard to get there if not this year, in the coming years."

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