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'I'm in the squad but that doesn't mean I'm an international. I've to prove my worth'

Ulster out-half Billy Burns is aiming to make his Test debut during the Six Nations.

IT’S EASY TO imagine Billy and Freddie Burns practicing their kick passes in their youth, nudging the ball over and back as they perfected the skill.

Whether they clocked 10,000 hours or not, the Burns brothers have fine attacking kicking skills and we saw a demonstration at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday evening as they played opposite each other at out-half, Billy for Ulster and Freddie for Bath.

29-year-old Freddie provided an assist for Ruaridh McConnochie’s first-half try with a cross-field kick but 25-year-old Billy stroked a lovely example of his own across to Robert Baloucoune in the second half.

billy-burns-with-his-brother-freddie-burns Billy and Freddie Burns at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I was gutted,” said Billy with a smile after his side’s 22-15 win. “The cheek of him coming here and putting in a cross-field kick!

“He’s not had loads of game time which has been tough but coming over here, he challenged us with his kicking game. I was glad to put that one over for Rob and even the score on the cross-field balance but we didn’t get the try. It was cool.

“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! It is different, it’s cool to be playing at the top club level against him.”

Their family were all in Kingspan Stadium on Saturday and they met up last night for a meal in Belfast. The Burns family are a tight unit, Freddie taking delight in how Billy’s career is on an upward trajectory even amidst his own frustrations at Bath.

“Get the f*** in there! So proud to see @BillyBurns10 hard work beginning to show reward. No less than he deserves,” tweeted Freddie on Wednesday when it was confirmed that Billy is in Ireland’s Six Nations squad.

Burns, who played for the England U20s, is Irish-qualified through his Cork-born grandfather and has relatives living in Dublin, meaning there is real pride throughout the family.

The Ulster out-half learned of his selection by email last week and, having done his best to put it to one side in the build-up to the Bath game, can now reflect on what lies ahead with Ireland.

“I want to be happy to be in the squad but I can’t just be happy with that,” said Burns. “I want to go down and to play and there’s some great talent in the squad.

billy-burns-makes-a-break Burns makes a break against Bath. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I’m really excited to meet up on Tuesday, obviously with a lot of guys I don’t know. That will hopefully take my game to another level and lead to an international cap.

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“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 hopefully get on the pitch.”

Burns will be competing with captain Johnny Sexton and Leinster man Ross Byrne for minutes at out-half in the championship, which starts at home to Scotland on Saturday 1 February, and it will be intriguing to see how Andy Farrell views the pecking order behind Sexton.

The Ulster playmaker believes he has improved since his move from Gloucester in 2018, particularly in how he runs games.

“My maturity, I think, has grown, in terms of managing the boys around me and game management. 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 [Ulster attack coach] Dwayne Peel and Dan [McFarland, head coach], a second year of building with the coaches and players around you and you can 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.”

Burns says he was often inspired by Freddie’s achievements in rugby as he grew up, never more so than when his older brother impressed off the bench in England’s win over the All Blacks in 2012.

“Being in that stadium, you could tell it was just that next level up, the pressure was higher, the skill level was higher, and ultimately any player wants to be at that level,” recalled Billy.

ulsters-billy-burns Burns throws a pass in Ulster colours. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I’ve learned a lot from Fred, I spent a couple of years behind him at Gloucester, he’s been a massive inspiration. I still watch his games, I still follow him closely.”

Now, the Burns family hope to see Billy take that next step into the Test game.

“My old man will definitely support Ireland, he always has done,” said Burns. “I’d 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 of me getting in the squad 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.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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