Champions Cup playoff could hand Burns a pivotal moment in international career opposite out of form Sexton
Having watched older brother Freddie helped see out England’s famous 38-21 victory over the All Blacks in 2012 as a 17-year-old, Ulster standoff Billy Burns could find himself playing in the green of Ireland over the next year. With a shot at an out-of-form Jonathan Sexton this weekend, his Test future could be handed a springboard at the Aviv Stadium
24-year-old Gloucester Academy star Billy Burns traded Kingsholm for the Kingspan last summer, having moved to Belfast following the Gloucester arrival of prodigal England fly-half Danny Cipriani from Wasps. Qualifying for Ireland through an Irish grandfather, the younger of the Burns brothers has held talks with current Ireland boss Joe Schmidt throughout the season since crossing the Irish sea.
Making an immediate impact for his new side, Burns the younger has settled into the Ulster XV almost seamlessly this season, finding the Northern Irish side’s brand of rugby more befitting of his proclivity for an attacking brand of rugby. Burns has also impressed for his new side within the highest level of club rugby, playing a key role in Ulster’s Champions Cup playoff qualification. Alongside the likes of Ireland’s Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale and Will Addison, the Ulster backline has been challenging the best of the best in Europe.
With Ireland fly-half Jonathan Sexton out of form following a disappointing 2019 Six Nations for the Irish, Burns faces the opportunity of accelerating his international future this weekend. Burns may be fifth choice, at best, for the 2018 Grand Slam winners and unlikely to break into a World Cup squad outside of multiple injuries, but a post-Japan cap is surely on the cards. If he can strike while the iron is hot and catch the eye of both Schmidt and Schmidt’s successor Andy Farrell this weekend, his chances of a post-World Cup Ireland cap could be greatly improved.
Playing a key role in Burns’ success with his new club is the ferocious edge bestowed upon Ulster’s forward pack under the guidance of new Head Coach Dan McFarland this season. The Oxford-born former Emerging Ireland and Ireland Wolfhounds boss has breathed new life into the one-time European Champions. After taking over from current London Irish Head Coach Les Kiss following turmoil both on and off the pitch, McFarland has guided the Belfast side to pleasantly surprising success in just his first season in charge,
With uncompromising Springbok flanker Marcell Coetzee fit-again and tearing up trees in the Pro14, the potential return of Ireland captain and hooker Rory Best and powerhouse centre Stuart McCloskey on his outside shoulder, Burns could be well placed to make a statement against Sexton this weekend.
Although equally, injury doubts surrounding second row Iain Henderson – who twisted his knee during Ireland’s final Six Nations game – Marty Moore (concussion) and Lewis Ludik (knee) could hamper both Ulster’s hopes of standing toe-to-toe with Leinster and an impressive showing from Burns against he reigning Pro14 and Champions Cup title holders. Equally, the absence of Burns’ fellow former England u20 graduate Addison will be a cause of concern, with the former Sale Sharks captain making an instant impact since arriving with Burns over the summer.
Squad injuries may not afford Burns picture-perfect circumstances to challenge Sexton this week, but an impressive performance at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday could serve as a springboard for the Bath-born fly-half’s Test prospects.