Ulster Rugby Lad meets… Adam McBurney
For years, the perception of Ulster has been that they’re ‘too nice’.
Times are changing – Dan McFarland’s directive to ‘fight for every inch’ has given Ulster a gritty, more abrasive edge.
Adam McBurney typifies the type of hard edge Ulster need.
Ulster have been left with a Rory Best shaped hole and Ulster are lucky to have several quality hookers vying to fill it.
Adam McBurney has set his sights on staking his claim to become first in line to fill Rory’s boots.
He very kindly spoke to Ulster Rugby Lad about his passion for rugby, his inspirations, the future of Ulster Rugby and life outside of the game.
Who or what made you passionate about rugby?
To be honest for me, unlike a lot of guys, it wasn’t a case of starting rugby from a very young age. When I was younger my family were more into football.
I initially went out to Ballymena rugby club, my cousin suggested it to my mum to give it a try. They turned me away as they had too many kids. This must have must have been when I was about 8/9.
My dad was originally from Randallstown and my cousin had played out there before, so that was the next option for me. I went to Randalstown and I’ve never really looked back since. The people out there and the coaches I had made it really enjoyable for me and that was the thing that made me want to keep on playing.
When I started to get a bit older I realised I was actually decent enough at it, going through school that was the only real interest I had, there was nothing in school that I really wanted to do when I left so I really put all my eggs into one basket with rugby and hoped for the world it worked out. Thankfully, it has worked out quite well!
People always ask me if rugby ended tomorrow what would I do and I say I don’t even want to think about it, wouldn’t have a clue what I’d want to do. I can’t picture myself in an office in a suit and tie working 9-5, so I’ve no other thoughts about what to do really. That’s something I need to work on in the next couple of years!
Yeah that’s a recurring theme from other guys I’ve spoken to – other players often say they never saw themselves a typical 9-5 job and that’s what inspires them to make sure they make it and play professional rugby.
Yeah, if you come straight out of school and go into an ordinary job and that is all you know it might be easier to work in an ordinary job. However, once you have 10-15 years of living quite a flexible life – training hard, playing rugby and going out for coffees with everyone at lunch, that’s all the good things about living the rugby career. If you’re used to that for 10-15 years it would be hard to go back to the daily grind!
Are there any improvements you think could be made to the club game to help retain players?
I always think club players continue to play rugby and stick at it better than ones who leave school. For some of the big schools around Belfast, the guys who play rugby live in this bubble and train so intensely, in quite a professional environment, so by the time they are out of the School’s Cup they don’t have anything else to enjoy or look to in rugby going into a senior environment. They train so intensely they don’t enjoy it anymore.
With club rugby, you play once a week on a Saturday, there’s no real pressure on you from a young age, you go out and play with your mates, it’s all about enjoying it, it’s not about the pressures of school rugby and training 3 times a week getting shouted at by your coach/teacher.
From playing with guys who came from the big schools at under 18/19s into the 20’s at Ulster, I found that if they were never quite good enough to make it at the representative level, it was over for them and they just stop taking it seriously. They go off to university or they just stop playing completely.
You’ll notice a lot of the club guys have a hard mentality when it comes to not quite making it at first – they haven’t reached the peak of their rugby career when they finish school. They will keep trying. A lot of the school guys will be used to being number one when they’re playing at school and being treated as a professional with all the pressures that come with that.
Then, when they come out and go into the senior environment and they aren’t number one because they’re playing with guys who are more established, who have been around for 5 or 6 years already they just think ‘nah, ill not be playing second fiddle to anyone’, so they just stop playing. Once people get 9-5 jobs maybe rugby’s not their main priority and they give up. That’s why I think enjoyment and playing rugby with your mates needs to be emphasised – that’s probably the best way to retain players.
What was it like when you first joined Ulster with all these big names, how helpful were they to you? What was it like to soak up the atmosphere around the senior squad?
I think first coming through and first time you train around them there are going to be nerves no matter what, but they are all down to earth, no-one is an asshole. Everyone was great and there is a really welcoming atmosphere.
Obviously, with Rory being the Irish captain he was busy enough and I didn’t want to go up to him and say I need help with x, y and z and put pressure on them. Just training with them you pick up some of the stuff they do. Rory especially with his leadership. You pick up some of the small things he does and says.
It’s the same with all players, not just Rory, but he’s an obvious example because we play the same position. There are some great leaders in the squad and guys with a lot of experience. You just listen to them and watch the way they act, and you hope in a couple of years’ time that can be you.
You can tell just how much experience helps you in certain situations, when it comes to certain points in training and team meetings, a lot of the boys, like Rory, wouldn’t speak a lot but he speaks at the right time and says the right things which is a lot better than a leader that speaks all the time for the sake of it. That was one of the things I noticed about Rory, he can be quiet at times but when he speaks everyone was listening because the point, he’s making is always going to be valid, that’s how you get respect from your team-mates.
Whenever I see you play there’s an aggression and abrasiveness to your game that is not that common, you seem to really be up for it and give a bit of edge to the team. Are there players who you look up to who are like that or are you naturally an extremely competitive person? How do you get into that mind-set, is it natural or do you have to really get yourself up for games?
Pre-game I am definitely one of the calmest in the changing room. I look at myself and I know I’m not the most athletic, I’m not the biggest, strongest or fastest, so I know going into every collision I have to give it everything or else I’m going to get absolutely smoked.
I think that’s probably why people like yourself maybe see that from me. I just know going into a collision or running around that I have to give it everything. I’m not as big as Marcel or as fast as Jacob, so I have to have something that’s different from other players. I’d love to have the ability to put 60% into something and run over the top of someone but, unfortunately, I’ve not been blessed with that ability!
It’s not really something you can train for but in games it’s something I try to bring – an aggressive edge. It’s more from club rugby, that’s where I learned it and it’s always been one of my traits, if I didn’t have that they probably wouldn’t rate me as they do at the minute.
How did you end up as a hooker? You played a bit of back row before, didn’t you?
Coming through the club system I think they always just put the biggest guys in the back row, so that’s were that came from. Obviously, in the back row it was a dream not to have to get down at the front of the scrum and scrummage every time a back knocks a ball on! As a professional I always knew it was never going to happen as a back row. In under 18 I made the switch at Ulster and that’s always been my position for my body shape and size and the only way I could play professionally.
I suppose there is a modern breed of hooker – more dynamic, they are 6ft like yourself, a bit bigger, do more around the pitch. Obviously, you have to get scrums and line outs right, but do you try and play a bit more like an extra back row? Are there any players that inspire you in that regard?
I think gone are the days were a hooker can just throw the ball in and that would be it. A big part of my game is competing for ball and trying to get turnovers.
Watching the game when I grew up the likes of David Pocock was and still is an amazing athlete in that area of the game, so he would have been one I would have looked up to in that aspect of the game especially.
If you look at hookers these days a lot of players bring that, one of Rory’s biggest traits would be getting over the ball and competing at the breakdown. Other players like Malcolm Marx – he’s got everything to his game, he’s big, he’s strong he’s athletic, can get over the ball, a scrummager, he can throw, he’s pretty much got everything at the minute, he’d be the one you’d look up to as doing it all right. Back in the day it would have more David Pocock.
What was it like to play for Ireland for the first time at the Under 20’s world cup? Do you harbour ambitions to play for Ireland in the future?
That was probably one of the most enjoyable experiences I had, playing with the bunch of boys that I played with and how well we did was really good, because there wasn’t such a hype about our squad going out that made it even better and sweeter.
I remember in the first game we were 17-nil down after about 20 mins against Wales and we thought to ourselves ‘this is going to be a long 4 weeks if we don’t pull something out here’. We managed to turn that first game around and beat Wales which gave us a bit of confidence going against New Zealand. Going up against them for the first time was class and then after that there were a couple easier games, I suppose you could say, and that got us to the final. England to be fair to them were the better side on the day and they deserved it and it was obviously great getting there in the first place.
It seems like there are a load of young players coming through in Ulster – especially guys born in the late 90’s. What are your predictions for the next generation and Ulster rugby in the next few years?
I think from playing with a lot of them and training with them, it’s in a great, competitive place. Gone are the days were because of who you are, a young guy wouldn’t get playing in front of you. I think Dan has shown as a coach that, if you are good enough, you’ll get an opportunity.
Coming through as a young player seeing that, it can only drive you on. I remember doing training sessions in Newforge at 6am, in the sub-academy and now even all the academy’s and sub academy’s train together and everything is integrated. That was unheard of back when we were coming through.
I think for the future its only looking brighter, if you look at the age profile of the squad going into the next season its fairly young compared to what it had been for the past couple of years and that’s only good for the club. Obviously, you need that bit of experience that we still have around too, with Hendy and other boys, so I think it’s a good mix now of youth and experience.
You had a couple of injuries last season, didn’t you? How serious were they?
I had surgery on my foot and on my thumb so they both had me out for longer than I would have hoped in a season but I guess at my age as long as you haven’t done knees, hips, backs, necks, they are the main ones you want to stay away from and thankfully none of them have been reoccurring.
I’ve been pretty good for the rest of the season and I’m pretty happy with my injury profile so far to be honest. I think all the hookers in general all seem to be pretty robust which is obviously good for the club but if you are looking for an opportunity it’s not great!
Is there anyone in particular coming through that you would earmark as the next big thing? Anyone you’ve been particularly impressed with or guys coming though even from the School’s Cup or academy that you think “he’s gonna be pretty good?”
I think you’ve got the likes of Aaron Sexton who’s got a lot a hype and, training with him, he probably deserves all the hype he’s got. Then there is someone who has had some time off with injury but Stewart is probably one that I really rate, I’ve known him for a couple of years now and just the way he conducts himself he is a very
talented player, obviously with the injuries it hasn’t been very good for him. If he gets his finger out and stay injury-free he will be one for the future that not as many people will have heard of yet.
What’s the best advice that you’ve been given in life and coming up through rugby? What advice would you give to young rugby players coming through or maybe ones still playing at school and looking to make it?
Don’t take anything for granted, just because one coach thinks one thing it doesn’t mean everyone thinks it. Equally, just because someone has blown smoke once, it doesn’t mean it’s time to stop and celebrate.
You can always keep getting better no matter what you do or how good you are at something and those are the differences between the players that are happy to be average and the ones who want to push on. That’s the main difference I find anyway and some players who could have been incredible and some who are happy to be average. Keep your feet on the ground no matter how good you are.
What are your rugby playing ambitions, what’s your ultimate goal and where do you see yourself going?
My ultimate goal is to play internationally, outside of that it’s to set myself up for the best life for myself and my family. Once you hang up the boots, playing a professional sport has its ups and downs but if you do it right and make good investments you can set yourself up while enjoying the job that you are doing. There are not many people who can do that in their job. So, to enjoy what I’m doing and to set myself up for life after rugby, playing at the highest standard that I can.
When you think of the word successful, who is the first person that comes to mind?
Cristiano Ronaldo and Tyson Fury, he’s came through a lot, he’s had all the highs and lows so that someone who I would respect for being successful. A lot of people are born into success and I don’t think he was.
What obsessions do you explore in your free time? Do you have any hobbies or anything that you spend your free time doing?
To be honest rugby is the only thing I’ve ever put my all into, I’d follow a bit of MMA and stuff, but I wouldn’t have any real hobbies.
Do you spend a lot of time analysing games and watching rugby?
For me it’s always just been about making it, doing whatever I can to put myself in the best position to be a pro rugby player, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. I would watch rugby if it’s on and stuff, but I wouldn’t watch random games because I enjoy rugby, I’d watch because I have an interest in that game.
What’s the best purchase or investment you have made?
I just recently bought a house and my phone; I’d be in trouble without it! Last summer’s holiday to Ibiza was probably the best actually.
What’s your favourite documentary or movie?
Documentary would be either Power or Prison Break is probably my favourite, or Evil Genius is a crazy watch.