Ulster out-half Billy Burns. Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

'We still have plenty left in the tank' - Burns braced for Munster challenge

Ulster take on Munster in a URC quarter-final meeting in Belfast this evening.

WHEN HE WAS left out of Ireland’s squad for the Six Nations in January, Ulster out-half Billy Burns was brutally honest when asked to reflect on losing his place in the international set-up.

“I was disappointed but I probably don’t warrant my selection at the moment,” he told BBC Sport Northern Ireland in early February. “I’m still trying to get that consistency week on week, to back up my performances.”

Since then he’s got the consistency part right, starting all but two of Ulster’s games from the start of the Six Nations to the present day and leading the line against the likes of Leinster and Toulouse, and then in big United Rugby Championship games against Edinburgh and the Cell C Sharks.

Burns’ form played a big part in helping the province secure a home quarter-final in the URC – tonight against Munster [KO 7.35pm, live on Premier Sports 2, TG4] – and, despite the temptation to move Mike Lowry to stand-off or bring in the experience of Ian Madigan, it has been the former Gloucester man who has been consistently relied upon by head coach Dan McFarland.

Whether Andy Farrell has seen enough to bring him back into the Ireland fold for the upcoming tour of New Zealand is yet to be seen, but he has surely done enough to at least warrant being back in the conversation. But impressing the national coach isn’t the main goal for Burns himself, he’s only interested in the man in the mirror.

“Personally I’ve been really happy this year I’ve been able to put back-to-back performances in,” says the 27-year-old.

“That’s been a real issue since I came to the club in terms of picking up little injuries, but this year is the first year where I’ve been able to play 80 minutes in games as much as I can. From doing that, I’m more comfortable on the pitch, I feel like I’m seeing pictures on pitch quicker and being able to react quicker.

In terms of my form, yeah, I’m doing okay. I’m hard on myself, I’m my own harshest critic, but I just focus on doing my job to the best of my ability and getting results at the weekend. I feel I’m in a good position but there’s still definitely room for improvement.”

Of course, given the nature of tonight’s game being an inter-pro and with someone who will be competing with him for a place on that plane opposing him in Joey Carbery, the usual head-to-head storyline is rolled out. But, once again, that’s something that Burns is not concerning himself with.

“Joey’s someone I’ve worked with a lot in Ireland camp and learned a lot off. I think he’s a great player. But I tend not to look much into playing for international spots because it’s probably an added pressure I don’t need. I put enough pressure on myself to perform well,” he adds.

So, with the pressure taken off the individual battle, the focus shifts to the war as a whole and the fight to make it into the URC semi-finals at Kingspan Stadium this evening, with neither side willing to see their seasons end in the first week of June.

For Ulster, the fear that both their domestic and European campaigns could come to an end on home soil is a very real one. After being beaten by Toulouse in Belfast, which knocked them out of the Heineken Champions Cup at the last-16 stage, there is a powerful motivating factor for them not to do likewise in the URC.

billy-burns-kicks-past-fineen-wycherley Ulster take on Munster in Belfast tonight. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Understandably, drawing on that gut-wrenching disappointment against the French giants is at the forefront of the mind this week and making sure they don’t repeat that feat against their southern cousins. Fortunately, there is plenty they can use.

“I genuinely feel like we prepared well for that game. We’ve got a lot of guys who have been around the squad for a long time and we all know you don’t get these knockout games at home very often. We didn’t handle the occasion well, I think we went into our shell a bit in that second leg and that might have punished us late in that second game,” recalls Burns.

We learned a lot. There were a few things that didn’t go our way on the night. Probably over the two legs, we didn’t make the most of the period when they were down a man over there, we probably didn’t build ourselves a big enough lead even though we backed ourselves to get the job done at home.

“We learned huge amounts in terms of how we approach games. Win or lose, you learn something every week, but this is our first knockout game since then so we’ll see if we’ve learned those lessons. Hopefully those hard lessons we’ve learned, as hard as they were, we can turn those learnings into a good result.”

A good result would set up a semi-final away to either the DHL Stormers or Edinburgh, but first they need to overcome a Munster side that already have experience of triumphing at Kingspan Stadium having caught Ulster flat-footed after that Toulouse disappointment at the tail end of April.

Indeed, at that time there were fears that Ulster’s season could completely go off the rails and that they had simply run out of steam, but they recovered well with wins over Edinburgh and the Sharks, and Burns insists they are peaking at just the right time for a play-off run.

“We still have plenty left in the tank,” he maintains.

“Our season has gone up and down a bit. We probably played our best rugby around Christmas-time and around the start of the New Year, and then we had a dip around when we went to South Africa. We learned a lot of lessons from those games, and obviously in Europe as well.

“The Sharks game was nowhere near perfect but we were back on trend a bit, and we have to be at our best this weekend because they’re a top quality team.”

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