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Dublin: 11 °C Friday 6 December, 2019
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'Not a new boy any more,' Ulster out-half Burns hoping to relive 2018 South Africa heroics

The northern province face the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein tomorrow.

12 MONTHS AGO, in the sweltering heat and breathtaking altitude of Bloemfontein, Billy Burns stood over a conversion to snatch a draw for Ulster on their first trip to the Toyota Stadium.

billy-burns Ulster's Billy Burns. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

After 80 minutes – and a tad more – Ulster and the Cheetahs had run each other into the ground, almost literally. By the time Henry Speight had crossed the line for a try with the final play of the game, Rob Herring was hobbling around on one leg, several players were struggling just to get off the turf and Speight himself had just enough energy to get over the line and no more.

So, under the circumstances, it was a big kick for Burns, who up to this point had ceded kicking duties to John Cooney. But the scrum-half had been injured the previous week against the Southern Kings and wasn’t playing against the Cheetahs, so it all fell on the fly-half’s shoulders.

With the game on the line, he nervelessly slotted it. Ulster went home from their mini-tour to South Africa with seven points instead of six and, in the context of the season, their ability to snatch results out of nowhere prevailed again.

So, 12 months on and facing his second trip to Bloemfontein as Ulster continue their Guinness PRO14 campaign with a trip to the Cheetahs tomorrow [KO 5.15pm Irish time], how does he feel about the prospect of doing the same this time around?

“I hope it doesn’t take us that long this year!” laughs the 25-year-old, before settling into the more routine response.

“It was a tough game last year. It was the first time for me going out and playing at altitude. I think they’ve shown enough form to prove they’re a much better side now than they were then.

“We’re expecting a really tough challenge over there. Obviously we’re doing it the other way about this time which will hopefully freshen the legs that bit more for us, but it will be a huge challenge and one we’re hugely excited about.”

12 months can do a lot to a team, and to a player.

For Ulster, while they came into their South African tour last season off the back of two home wins – both last-gasp heroics against the Scarlets and Edinburgh – there were still question marks out over the side given their dismal showings the season prior.

This season, they go to the southern hemisphere in a much better frame of mind. Coming off last season, where they exceeded all expectations on the pitch and did much to improve their image off it, they travel knowing they can get a result in Bloemfontein, rather than in hope.

There has also been a striking change in Burns, too. Last season he was still finding his feet at his new team having taken the plunge and moved from Bath. By his own admission, not having a pre-season meant he was thrown in at the deep end and he was forced to adapt week to week.

billy-burns Kicking at goal in Bloemfontein last September. Source: Frikkie Kapp/INPHO

Already this season it’s clear that he’s approaching games with more confidence. In last weekend’s victory over the Ospreys he was man of the match, and while it was his two cross-field kicks to Craig Gilroy that caught the eye, the Englishman’s control of his back line was impressive.

“There’s still definitely areas where I can improve on, defensive areas where I need to improve and there’s always times where you could manage the game that bit better, but ultimately we got a good result from it and it’s always better learning when you’ve won a game than when you’ve lost,” he opines.

“I definitely feel more comfortable. I’m not a new boy any more, I didn’t feel that way since after Christmas and stuff.

“We’ve just had a good pre-season, we’ve been really clear on what we want to do this year and how we want to play. We’ve added some great quality to the squad, both in terms of the coaching department and on the playing side of things.

“I definitely feel more comfortable but, again, it wasn’t just down to a few individuals, it was the group as a whole.”

Just don’t be expecting too many cross-field kicks in the Bloemfontein altitude this week, though: “I’ll have to figure that one out, won’t I?” he laughs.

The Cheetahs are coming off a statement result by putting 48 points on the Glasgow Warriors last weekend in their opener in the Guinness Pro14 and, of course, winning the Currie Cup before their attentions turned to the cross-hemisphere tournament.

For that reason, Ulster cannot afford to dwell on last week. As impressive as they were in restricting the Ospreys to just six points after the opening eight minutes, it’s going to be a whole new ball game in South Africa against a mercurial and lethal Cheetahs side, now led by former provincial hero Ruan Pienaar.

“Very much the focus has moved on,” insists Burns. “We reviewed the game and so many areas where we can improve, and we have an opportunity to do that this weekend against an incredibly tough and flamboyant side like the Cheetahs.”

And, of course, the chance to go away as a team for two weeks will provide a crucial chance for the side to bond as they bring a few new faces along – Matt Faddes, Sam Carter and Jack McGrath chief among them – for the first time on an away trip.

It’s how Burns got to know a lot of his new compatriots this time last year, something he hasn’t taken for granted.

marcus-rea-and-billy-burns-after-the-game With Marcus Rea after a pre-season friendly against Glasgow Warriors. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“It’s awesome. It was my first experience [of playing in the southern hemisphere] last year. Obviously in the Premiership you’re only going around England but it’s a great opportunity for us, to get over there and play two tough games but it’s also a good chance to bond as a squad,” says Burns.

“I’m sure there’ll be a few times where we’ll have little trips out as a team. That only helps with cohesion and it’s good it’s come early in the season because we didn’t go on tour in the pre-season.”

With their tour concluding in Port Elizabeth next weekend and a trip to the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium to take on the Southern Kings, Dan McFarland and his team will be hoping they can come away with two wins, and potentially more to really take a stranglehold on Conference A at this early stage of the season.

For Burns, however, he’s focusing on the long-term benefits. While there may be a short-term gain to be had by putting points on the board, he believes that there’s positives to take from what they’re able to achieve away from the pitch as well.

“This is like a mini tour so we can go away, have some craic, enjoy each other’s company and hopefully get two wins along the way and come back a closer squad than we went out,” he states.

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