Billy Burns is 24, he was a long-time servant with Gloucester having picked up his 100th appearance for the club in the European Challenge Cup final defeat to Cardiff Blues in Bilbao. But the writing was on the wall when Danny Cipriani signed for the club, Burns would be vying with a newly recalled England international and Owen Williams, a regular Wales squad member.
Burns’ versatility saw him operate at 15 for Gloucester, but ask any outhalf, they want to stay in that pivot position. In many ways his situation is similar to that of Joey Carbery at Leinster, effectively third choice 10 at club level, but with international rugby in mind – both moved.
Burns insisted he was “very happy” at Gloucester but the former England U18 and U20 international had his road blocked at club level, meaning that senior honours were bordering on nil. “The interest was there from Ulster and, of course, a chance to pursue my ambitions of playing international rugby. To play at the highest level of the game is something any player wants to do” Burns said after completing his move to Ulster.
He didn’t have too far to look when it came to the difficulties of breaking into the international fold – his brother Freddie. Freddie Burns is just 28 years old, he should be in his prime, however his England days are effectively over. He made his debut in England’s thrilling 38-21 win over the All Blacks in November 2012, but remains stuck on 5 caps.
“I feel like I’ve been in good form for 18 months to two years now, but if I was going to play for England again they would have picked me in the summer (for the tour to Argentina) given how I’d played for Leicester.” Freddie Burns told The Rugby Paper last November.
“I’ve not spoken to anyone involved with England since Mike Catt told me I wouldn’t be in the World Cup squad two years ago. That’s not me getting my violin out, I’ve just got to an age now where I have a lot of hopes and aspirations but realise sport is defined by a coach’s opinion of you. I’d love to play for England again, but it’s unlikely to happen under Eddie”
Freddie Burns is even further away from Eddie Jones’ plans now, a move to his hometown club Bath hasn’t worked out in the way he might have liked, he’s found Rhys Priestland a difficult man to shift. Internationally Alex Lozowski and Piers Francis have moved ahead of him, as has Marcus Smith, not to mention Cipriani, George Ford and Owen Farrell.
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His tweet to his brother Billy proved telling too “Congrats bro! Proved your worth over the last few years and deserve to be backed by such a big club #SUFTUM #proud”. The inference seems clear, that Gloucester may not have fully backed or been convinced by his little brother, the signing of Cipriani reaffirmed this. Burns senior probably also had his own situation at previous club Leicester Tigers in mind too, when he was effectively used as a makeweight for the transfer of George Ford, something that did not go down well.
“I had a year on my contract. I’m a man of integrity and wanted to see it out”, Burns told the BBC after his move from Welford Road to Bath was confirmed.
“I am disappointed with the way it came about and the way it was dealt with.”
— Freddie Burns (@FreddieBurns) July 9, 2018
So, Billy has learned first-hand from a club and international perspective from his brother. What awaits him at Ulster? Johnny McPhillips certainly stepped up once Christian Lealiifano left in January and in the absence of Paddy Jackson, who eventually departed the club. McPhillips certainly won’t want to relinquish the shirt without a fight, but Ulster clearly see Burns as their main man. The new head coach Dan McFarland doesn’t start until January due to his commitments with Scotland, with Ireland forwards coach and former Scarlets head coach Simon Easterby the interim measure.
Those few months with Easterby could be vital for Burns if he’s going to force his way into the international reckoning, a chance to regularly impress first-hand one of Joe Schmidt’s coaching team. He will be aided by the fact that scrum half John Cooney was a revelation last season, so much so he earned a call-up for Ireland’s tour to Australia, coming off the bench to win his second cap in the 26-21 win over the Wallabies in Melbourne.
Billy Burns was nowhere near the 2019 World Cup last week, fast forward to Monday when he completed his move to the Irish province, he has a realistic chance of playing in Japan and has 14 months to prove it. As it stands it would be as third-choice, competing with Leinster’s Ross Byrne. Johnny Sexton is as immovable as they come when it comes to first choice international outhalves. Joey Carbery, who will be alongside Ireland scrum half Conor Murray at Munster, is also a long-term pet project of Schmidt’s which began when he threw a raw 21-year-old into a Chicago cauldron as Ireland beat the All Blacks (40-29) for the first time. In pretty much all respects Billy Burns had nothing to lose and plenty to gain and Ireland have added a fourth option to their outhalf mix, Freddie Burns would love to be that close with England.
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