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'Anyone who watches Ulster knows that Billy has variety in his kicking game'

Billy Burns made an impact during his cameo off the bench last weekend in Twickenham.

Burns set up Ireland's try last weekend with a clever chip.
Burns set up Ireland's try last weekend with a clever chip.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

WHILE LAST WEEKEND was a bad one for Ireland against England, the best moment of their afternoon saw two Ulster men combining beautifully as Billy Burns chipped over the defence for Jacob Stockdale to score.

The try came as no surprise to those who work with them in Ulster, including skills coach Dan Soper.

“Anyone who watches Ulster knows that Billy Burns has such a variety in his kicking game and it’s brilliant,” said Soper yesterday. “We try to use it as a real threat.”

“I know Jacob said he was running a short line for a different play but I guess that instinctively, he probably read the body language of Billy and it was awesome to see him getting on the end of that, opening up, and beating someone to score. I’m sure everyone in Ireland loved seeing Jacob finishing that sort of opportunity and it’s great to see Billy bringing that sort of variety to the attack.

“For Billy starting off in his international career, he’ll take great confidence out of that wee cameo.” 

Both Burns and Stockdale are in line to feature this weekend against Georgia and will hope to use that same connection to great effect in attack.

It looks likely that their Ulster team-mate, Stuart McCloskey, will be in Ireland’s midfield on Sunday, winning what will be just his fourth Test cap at the age of 28. 

Soper believes the inside centre is more ready than ever to shine for Ireland.

“I’ve been so impressed with him in the years I’ve been here,” said Soper. “When I was on the terrace watching, there were parts of his game I was never sure of. But working with him, his distribution and his ball handling is as good as anyone that certainly we have in our squad.

stuart-mccloskey McCloskey is set for a start against Georgia. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“The way Peely [attack coach Dwayne Peel] is setting our attack up it means that Stu has to be a ball player and we’ve seen real progress in his game through that. He brings massive physicality and he’s such a good source of go-forward for us.

“We scored three or four tries last year where he put a kick through. That’s a part of his game that people don’t give him credit for. What is it they call him, the ‘Bangor Bulldozer’? That does him a great disservice. Bulldozers don’t have the skills we see from Stu every week.”

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It remains to be seen if Ulster loosehead prop Eric O’Sullivan features, having only been called up to the wider Ireland squad for the first time this week, but his involvement with Andy Farrell’s group is the latest step in his rise.

The 24-year-old made his Ulster debut in September 2018 but recently passed the 50-cap milestone for the province and has worked hard for this international recognition.

“I think for any young tight forward, the challenge of the jump from AIL to pro rugby, to Pro14, to Europe is the physical side of the game and that’s probably where Eric has had to make his biggest strides,” said Soper.

“I think you saw that in some of his carrying on Sunday night [against Scarlets]. We’ve always known he has a massive engine and work-rate like he’s a back-row forward, but that doesn’t get a tight five forward into international rugby and Eric has made big strides in that physical part of his game.”

Ulster had watched O’Sullivan shining in the All-Ireland League with Trinity before luring him north, where he joined Bandridge, whose head coach was Soper at that time. 

michael-vaughan-tackles-eric-osullivan O'Sullivan making a carry in Trinity colours in 2017. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

As such, O’Sullivan shows the importance and value of the AIL as a development pathway in Irish rugby.

“Personally speaking, I think it’s brilliant because it’s the route that I took as well,” said Soper. “At the end of the day, as a player, there’s no substitute for playing.

“That season Eric had at Banbridge – and it was the same at Trinity – he played a hell of a lot. He played 19 of 20 AIL games, he played four of the senior league games, plus a few Ulster A games. When you’re a prop especially, but in so many positions, it’s time in the saddle where you make the biggest development.

“They’re rugby players, not rugby trainers.” 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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