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Dublin: 10 °C Thursday 28 May, 2020

'It sort of justifies coming over here': Burns relishing Sexton battle

The Ulster out-half has grown into his role at the northern province ahead of Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Leinster.

CONSISTENCY HAS always been the name of the game for Billy Burns. Striving for it, and bidding to maintain it. Both in his minutes in the jersey and in his level of performance. The former has been achieved this season on the back of his move to Ulster, the latter is still a work in progress.

Since arriving in Belfast last summer, the 24-year-old has been an everpresent for Ulster, becoming a key cog in Dan McFarland’s wheel and emerging as the solution to the club’s out-half dilemma.  

Billy Burns Ready to go: Ulster and Burns are bidding to upset Leinster. Source: Matt Mackey/INPHO

Thirteen Pro14 appearances and starts in all six of the province’s Heineken Champions Cup pool games, Burns has grown into his role at Ulster during his first season at Kingspan Stadium and continues to evolve his all-round game as a playmaker.

Ulster fans have seen his passing, acceleration and vision throughout the campaign, with Burns providing five try assists during the Champions Cup pool stages, the joint-most of any player, while three of those came from kick passes.

“I’ve definitely matured a lot,” he says of his first season at Ulster. “I definitely understand the game a bit more. That comes from working with a different coach and a different playing group.

“There’s still so many aspects of my game that I feel I need to improve on and part of the reason why I came over here was because I felt like I needed a new challenge and I wanted to improve and I feel like I’m doing that here.

As long as I keep that process going and keep improving and keep the hunger to go out and work hard with the coaches and the players I’ll be happy. I’ve definitely improved, it’s just a matter of consistency now.

There’s that word again.

Burns continues: “I think, for me, it’s just I’m not the young guy any more, I’ve played plenty of games albeit not in this competition [Champions Cup] but I’ve played plenty of professional games and it’s now about being a leader.”

The Irish-qualified out-half has acquired plenty of experience since making his professional debut for Gloucester at just 17, and enjoyed some big European occasions in recent years with the Premiership club, including last year’s Challenge Cup final against Cardiff Blues in Bilbao. 

But Saturday’s European showdown with Leinster at a sold-out Aviva Stadium will be his first taste of Champions Cup knockout rugby, having played a leading role in guiding the province to the last eight for the first time since 2014.

“I think I said when I did my first interview here, I remember when I first started talking to Ulster, the first thought that came into my head was those European knockout games and to be here now, to be in the business end of the competition is awesome,” he says.

“I came over here to play in the top tier of rugby and to play with quality players and play against quality opposition and I’m hugely excited about that this week.

“Obviously, going up against probably the best 10 [Johnny Sexton] in the world over the last few years, what an opportunity that is for me and I’m sure the other guys as well will be looking forward to challenging themselves against the best.

Billy Burns Burns has been an excellent signing for the province. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“It was one of the main reasons I came over here and it sort of justifies it as well coming over here. I’m hugely excited about it and hopefully we can get a good result.”

In what is just the second European meeting between the sides, Ulster travel down to Dublin ready to fire shots at the defending champions, but are hindered by the loss of Will Addison to injury, while there are major doubts over the fitness of Marty Moore, Darren Cave and Iain Henderson.

If they are to seriously challenge Leinster’s 11-game winning streak at the Aviva Stadium, McFarland’s side will need to get a lot right, not least their tactics at the breakdown and at the set-piece, but also in their kicking game, where Burns will be absolutely central alongside John Cooney.  

Firstly, Ulster will need to execute the basics to perfection.

“I think so, obviously there’s no hiding the quality of these guys, they’ve been the best team in Europe for a number of years now and without these basics you’re not going to stand much of a chance,” Burns agrees.

So the set-piece is going to have to function well for us, we’ll have to play well in the right areas of the park, discipline again is going to be massive, if you give those boys field position, they’re pretty dangerous. I think it’s just getting all those basic parts right.

“Obviously, it’s a big occasion, not letting that occasion get to us and just going down there, we’ve got a good brand (of rugby) in place, just getting the job done.

“Like I said, we’ve gone through what we want to achieve in the game, we’ve got a good plan and everyone is behind the plan and now it’s just about going out and executing it.” 

Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman look ahead to a huge weekend for the provinces in Europe and Ryan Bailey catches up with Ian Keatley on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Ryan Bailey

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