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Ball boy memories and his brother await as Burns prepares to steer Ulster in Bath

The northern province’s playmaker grew up in the dressing room at the Rec.

AS A KID, Billy Burns’ love for the game of rugby was forged at The Recreation Ground in Bath.

It was there that he served as a ball boy for several years, chasing the ball down the muddy sidelines, occasionally going for a dip in the River Avon for a particularly hard-hit clearance and generally having the time of his life getting to see his heroes up close and personal.

billy-burns File photo: Burns chatting to the media at the Kingspan. Source: Philip Magowan/INPHO

While young Bathonians today perhaps idolise World Cup stars such as Sam Underhill, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson, Burns would have been admiring the talents of the likes of Lee Mears, Steve Borthwick, Danny Grewcock and Jonathan Humphreys.

He wouldn’t follow any of them into the pack, instead opting to work his more agile frame into the role of fly-half, it didn’t prevent him from being in awe every time he was within touching distance of his childhood heroes, and it eventually led him to make his own way into the professional game. Not that it was all that glamourous.

“That was back when the fine arts of being able to kick someone on the floor was going on so I was semi-hesitant if it was a sport I wanted to get involved in!” he recalls with a grimace.

“I was about 15 and the rest of the ball boys were all about 10… that was probably where I got my first love for rugby.

“But I really harnessed the sport and knew that it was something I wanted to do when I went down there to watch those guys and loved just being right by the pitch, you almost felt as if you were part of the game which was great.

“I actually learned quite a lot going down there, it was great because one of my jobs as one of the senior ball boys was go and fill the water up, which meant I was in the changing rooms before they would go out, so I used to be right in the thick of it when they did their teams talks and stuff, so it was good.”

Burns will be making his first trip back to The Rec this weekend to take on his home town club since he took a leap of faith and joined Ulster ahead of last season.

billy-burns-scores-a-try Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The dream may have been to follow those he watched on a weekly basis into the squad he so adored, but right now Burns can’t complain with the hand he’s been dealt. While his first season with the province may have been a little underwhelming, this season he has established himself as an attacking 10 with a willingness to vary Ulster’s game through the boot or by going to the gain-line.

And, as fate would have it, he would only have to wait one season for the Heineken Champions Cup draw to grant him a return to The Rec, pairing Bath and Ulster together in the pool stages. Along with French giants Clermont and Harlequins, they form what looks to be a rather lopsided pool, with the Auvergne outfit heavily tipped to progress as easy pool winners, leaving the other three to fight it out over the scraps.

Clermont come to Belfast next weekend but, for now, there’s only one game in focus. Ulster have a good record against Bath, winning all four of their previous encounters, two of which came at The Rec, and they’ll be keen to keep that 100% record intact as they aim to repeat last year’s feat of reaching the knockouts of European competition.

While tomorrow may be a homecoming for Burns, you do have to remember in all this that the 25-year-old never represented Bath as a professional. Beyond being a ballboy on the banks of the Avon, he never wore the blue, black and white hoops, swapping them instead for the cherry and white of Gloucester after joining their Academy out of Hartpury College.

Still, that doesn’t dampen the passion with which Burns is looking forward to renewing acquaintances.

“It was just bound to happen wasn’t it?” he says with a wry smile. “I was in my car and I had (the draw) on the radio and when it got down to the last eight or nine teams I was sort of sure it was going to happen, it was strange.

The minute it was announced, Dan McFarland texted me straight away and said ‘you are playing against your brother, get your head on.’”

And, of course, there is that sibling rivalry that needs no introduction.

Brother Freddie, four years older than Billy, did start out in Bath’s Academy before also moving on to Gloucester. With five England caps to his name, he also had spell with Leicester Tigers before going home.

Things haven’t been smooth, exactly, since his return to The Rec – this season, he has been primarily playing fullback to accommodate Rhys Priestland – but he is still togging out regularly for Stuart Hooper’s men, which is something he can hang his hat on given the depth that Bath possess along the back line.

It’s interesting to compare the two Burns’ career progressions. While Freddie seemingly was on the up when he got the switch to Leicester, Billy was the one who was struggling for game time behind Danny Cipriani and Owen Williams at Gloucester. Now it is Billy who is thriving with Ulster, while Freddie is having to play out of position to get minutes.

freddie-burns Freddie Burns endured a horror start to last year's Champions Cup against Toulouse. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

This will be the first time the Billy will play off against his brother since moving to Ulster. It will be a reprove of sorts to parents Gerry and Donna, who have been making regular trips to Kingspan Stadium to see their younger son, but for once can rest easy in their own home prior to seeing both boys play.

Not that it will be any easier for them to watch. With very divided loyalties, if ever a half-and-half scarf was applicable to a situation, this might be it.

“I have played against Fred a few times before and it is obviously a special occasion for the family – not my mum! – but the rest of them,” adds Burns.

“It is great to play against him. I am looking forward to it more because it is quite strange how my rugby career has gone. I started in Bath and I am now going to be going back across and representing the province here, and it will be a strange feeling but one I will be massively proud of.

“To do it in front of a lot of people I went to school with, and obviously my mum and dad now having to fly across here to watch me, they can just pop down the road will be good. But it will not be good if we lose that is for sure. It will be a better experience if we win.”

The result at The Rec might make for some interesting discussion around the table at Christmas dinner next month. Until then, neither Burns sibling will be wanting to do the other favour this time around.

Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman join Gavan Casey in studio to assess the four provinces and their chances heading into the 2019/20 Champions Cup campaign.


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