The stars aligned for Burns’ move to Ulster and he hasn’t looked back since.
Billy Burns has been a revelation for Ulster. 18 months after leaving Gloucester to join Ulster, Billy Burns was called into the Ireland squad ahead of the 6 Nations, rewarding his excellent form. Burns has grown into the coveted Ulster 10 jersey, forming a formidable half-back partnership with John Cooney.
The 25-year-old was born in England but qualifies to play for Ireland through his paternal grandfather and it is a matter of time before he fulfils his dream of playing international rugby. In the meantime, he has loved his time playing for, and living in, his adopted province.
Here, he discusses sibling rivalry, his journey to Ulster and the sacrifices required to play at the top level of the game.
(This interview was conducted in the summer.)
What made you passionate about rugby?
It’s a bit of a strange one actually. I’m from a family of 4 brothers, I’ve got 3 older brothers. It was probably my dad in fact who, when he was young, was very much into his motocross, his motorbiking, never really touched a rugby ball. Then he got to know a friend of his, around late 30’s early 40’s, a guy asked him to go up to the rugby club and give it a crack. So, he went up there and he’s now knocking on the door of 60 and he’s still playing!
And obviously him and my mum had had us boys and from then we’d go up and watch him play, especially my older brothers, they’d go up and watch him play then they started taking to it and it was just passed down through the family.
I’m 4 years younger than Freddie, who’s the next sibling so I’m a lot younger than the rest of them and I sort of just followed those guys into it. I just picked up a rugby ball, I just loved the game, I loved that competitive side of it even from a young age. Just going out there and just chucking a ball about on a Sunday morning back home was what it was all about. Lucky enough I was fairly talented at it and here I am now, so it was just one of those things that happened quite naturally really.
Are you competitive with your brothers?
Yeah, we’re probably too competitive if I’m honest! Birthday parties or anything like that, we tend to try and do something active – we’re all quite an active bunch so whether it be go-karting, bowling something like that it normally ends up in an argument or a fight of some sort. Whoever loses isn’t happy about it but I think that made us who we are, I think that’s part of our DNA.
We all love being winners and I don’t think you can get to the level that Fred and myself are at if you don’t have that competitive edge so it’s something that we’ve always been brought up with and it’s something that we enjoy so it was quite a natural progression I guess even from a young age.
It toughens you up being the youngest.
Yeah it certainly does, it toughened me up that’s for sure. I remember my brothers used to, it was back in the craze of WWE started, any new wrestling move they practiced it on me. It always ended up with me putting my back out or something.
Would you have watched rugby growing up and had any favourite players?
Being brought up in Bath, I used to watch Bath quite a lot. I used to be a ball boy down at Bath Rugby which was good fun. That was back in the days of when, well it was a completely different team back then, it was Olly Barkley and all those guys playing for Bath, Mike Tindall, Matt Perry. I used to love that.
In terms of an idol I probably didn’t have any really, I just enjoyed watching rugby. Obviously back when I was at home, watching England win the World Cup and Johnny Wilkinson hitting that kick is obviously a moment that sticks out. In terms of rugby idols and stuff, I wouldn’t say there was anyone. There are certain players that I like watching the style of rugby, I liked watching Super 14 (Super 12 back then), so I used to just love watching those games. Whether it be watching my old man for the local team or an international game on the telly or the Lions, I used to just love watching any game I could really.
Can you tell me about your journey, how you ended up at Ulster?
To go back to the start, I wasn’t the most academic person at school to put it lightly. I was very much into my sport and sport would always come first.
I got an opportunity just as I finished my secondary school years to go to Hartbury College. One of the coaches had seen me play in a county game back in England for Somerset against Gloucestershire and lucky enough I played quite well, and they offered me a scholarship to go up to Hartbury.
So, I went up there to study and Hartbury is probably as close to a professional environment as you can come to without being professional. So, I did two years at Hartbury, signed for the Gloucester Academy then signed my first pro contract for Gloucester.
I was at Gloucester for a long time – I played over 100 games for Gloucester and really enjoyed my time there. Then, it was last summer with the goings on at Ulster, they needed a fly half. I always knew it was an option with my Irish background, my granddad being Irish. It was just one of those opportunities that I heard of it and I thought ‘no, I’m happy at Gloucester’ – I didn’t want to leave.
But then a few things fell into place. I came over to have a look around, I obviously spoke to David Humphreys at Gloucester and he didn’t want me to leave but understood that it was potentially a good opportunity for me so he let me come and have a look. As soon as I came over, I enjoyed the look of the club and the way the club was going, it felt like a club that was almost starting again which to some people might be negative but I just thought it was a good time to come into the club and try to put my stamp on things. That’s how it went really.
To be honest with you, I’ve absolutely loved the move since I’ve come over, I’ve been here almost a year now. I was as nervous as anyone moving over, obviously it’s a big life change for me, moving away from my family who were just an hour down the road when I was in Gloucester to over the water. Not only has it helped my playing on the pitch but I think as a person as well it’s made me – I wouldn’t say grow up a lot – but it’s made me mature and probably I’m doing things in life now that I wouldn’t have been doing back in Gloucester and I’m really enjoying that. So that’s sort of how it all fell into place for me in brief summary.
Are there any young guys coming through that you think are the next big thing?
Yeah, bar the obvious guys who’ve played a lot already like Rob Baloucoune, Michael Lowry, James Hume those guys who have been phenomenal, one for me, and it’s probably slightly left field being a fly half and picking a forward but Marcus Rae, I know he had a great game against Leinster but whenever he’s trained with us and I’ve seen him play in A games and stuff, he’s just got that quality about him so I’m really excited to see how he goes. Obviously, it’s a hotly contested position with the amount of great players we’ve got in that back row but I’m sure he can get a bit more game time this year and hopefully he can show what he’s about. Like I said, we’ve so many guys, like I touched on a minute ago, part of the reason why I wanted to come to the club is there’s a real good academy set up here and you can see the pathway for players coming through. I think at some cubs, most clubs have that pathway but they maybe don’t have the management who trust them to give them the opportunity but I feel like they do here and I think that’s a good thing for the club, it’s positive for where we want to go. Yeah, it’s hard to single one person out but I’m excited to see how Marcus goes. But yeah, I could name 6 or 7 if I’m being completely honest.
How do you get into the right mindset before a game?
Do you know what, I probably learnt in time for me that I like to be quite relaxed leading up to a game. I like to make sure, I’ve always been a firm believer in getting your work done early so I like to make sure that I’ve done my analysis of the team, I’ve got all my training bits, I’ve got all my kicking done come Thursday so then I know that if that game is on Friday night, I’ve done everything in my power to prepare and give myself the best opportunity to perform well individually but also do my part in the team.
I think that’s the main thing for me, I know a lot of people have things they do in terms of rituals and stuff like that but I’m very relaxed before a game. On a Saturday morning after a Friday night I look back and think why did I perform well/why I did I not perform well? Generally when I perform well it’s when I’ve really got everything right in terms of my preparation, I’ve ticked all the boxes that I need to. That puts me in the mindset that I’m confident to go out there and confident to execute a game plan, so I think that’s the biggest thing for me. Its sounds pretty easy but it’s not. There’s not a lot of time in the week when you’re trying to recover from a game the week before, you’re trying to focus on your game plan, you’re trying to get your footage done. It does sometimes mean long days but it’s definitely worth it come that Friday night or Saturday afternoon kick off when you’re confident and you know where you stand.
What do you think the difference is between someone who makes it as a professional and people who are talented but don’t go on to make it?
That’s a really good question. I think the main thing for me it is I’ve seen a lot of players with massive potential but they’re probably not willing to sacrifice that extra little percentage.
What I mean by that is if you want to be a professional rugby player, you have got to sacrifice a lot that people around you would be doing if that makes sense. Your rugby career comes first, that’s right at the forefront and I think sometimes some people get that wrong.
Hartbury probably gave me that – I worked closely with Adam Martinovich and Barry Maddocks when they were there and I owe a lot to them because they made me realise if I was really serious about having this great career that I’m involved in now and having the best job in the world (to me anyway) that I’ve got to sacrifice a few things but in the long run that’ll pay dividends. I think that was probably the biggest thing that I learnt.
Short term it might not be the greatest thing to sacrifice going out and having a few drinks with your mates or whatever it may be but if you can visualise the long term and what that’s going to benefit you then it’s definitely worth it. It’s not easy for sure – it’s very, very tough – but there’s a lot of talented players who fall by the wayside and for me I don’t think you can look much further than that sacrifice. I guess it comes down to how much you desperately want to achieve and be there.
I hope that answers your question, it’s a tough one. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy going out for a drink as much as anyone. It’s not about not enjoying yourself, it’s just about picking the right times I guess. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made many mistakes in terms of getting that wrong in previous years but as you slowly get older you learn to adjust and pick your moments when you want to enjoy yourself and when it’s time to really work hard, you knuckle yourself down and make sure you do.
Can you think of any examples of where a failure has set you up for later success?
Yeah definitely, one thing I didn’t add when I was talking about my early career was I went to school in Bath so I was originally in their set up. When I chose to go to Hartbury I actually got a letter through from Bath after I told them, and it was ‘you’ve been deselected from the academy. We’ll keep an eye on you playing’ blah blah. I remember when I read that letter, my parents were a bit sceptical to show me because they knew I’d be devastated. But I just used that, for some reason, I was lucky, whether it’s the way I’ve been brought up, but I just used that as fuel.
For some people you can quite easily let that get on top of you. I’ve had many, many experiences like that where things haven’t quite gone my way but again it’s all about looking to the long run, backing yourself, having that belief in yourself and then if you’re willing to work hard it’ll come good for you in the end. I sort of use these things as fuel to improve me and to get me to where I want to be really.
Did you find Ulster welcoming and have they fully embraced you?
Yeah, I guess you’ll have to ask those guys if they’ve fully embraced me! For me, from the minute I showed up I’ve been made to feel nothing but welcome by players, fans, management. I think that’s what I’ve loved the most is there’s a definite culture of togetherness here and people looking after each other. In a squad of 40-odd blokes, you’re not all going to get on all the time. The good thing for me here is there’s one common goal, that’s is to be successful and to be competing for championships whether that be in Europe or whether that be domestically and if you’ve all got that common goal and that respect there then you sort of all get on and I think that’s what I’ve really enjoyed.
In terms of Dan McFarland and the rest of the coaches, I think what they’ve done last year and this year is they’ve made an environment which as players gives you the best opportunity to go in and be the best you can be and also improve and along with that, enjoy what you do and have a good time. And I think that’s what I’ve enjoyed most. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t go into training and I’m not excited to go in or I don’t enjoy it.
It’s just a really good environment to be in like I said where you can learn and a great leadership group in terms of the players there. There are a lot of great players there who’ve achieved great things who are willing to give time to younger guys and I think that’s really, really nice and that’s something that if we can harness that and keep hold of that in years to come then we’ll be in a pretty good proposition going forward.
What’s the best advice you’ve received? What would you say to your younger self?
It’s a very hard question!
For me it sort of goes back to what I touched on in terms of sacrifice, being willing to sacrifice things that might not be exactly what you want to do at that time but in the long run will pay dividends.
I genuinely believe that there’s a few things that I’ve sacrificed over my career that if I didn’t, I’d be nowhere near where I am, and I wouldn’t have played as many professional games as what I would now. I guess for me it’s having that goal and doing all you can to make sure that you achieve that goal. I think that would probably be the biggest one for me.
And I think I’m still learning that now, by no means am I a perfect athlete by any stretch of the imagination but I think if you can set yourself up with that mindset then that really does push you forward. The other one that we touched on is that there’s two ways to look at perceived failures I guess and that’s either you can throw the towel in and sulk and whatever but for me I’ve learnt that whenever Dan McFarland gives me a hard time in a meeting or Jared Payne gives me a hard time for missing a tackle or whatever it may be, the only reason they’re doing that is to make me a better player and they know that I can be a better player. It’s when coaches or management or schoolteachers, whatever it may be, aren’t talking to you that’s when you want to be a bit worried. So, it’s almost taking the rough with the smooth and not being afraid of criticism. I used to be very defensive if someone criticised me when I was younger, it was sort of ‘why don’t you like me?’ but whereas now I’ve learnt in time, I guess that probably just comes with age a little bit, just taking on board what other people think and try to act on it.
Rugby is stressful, do you think there’s enough done to support the mental health of players?
I think it’s definitely getting better for sure. Again, I’m quite new to the environment over here but we can get a good amount of support. The great thing about being at Ulster, which I’m really enjoying again, is Dwayne Peel, Jared Payne, all these guys are quite recently retired so they sort of understand the stresses that you’re going through and they can relate to it. I do think there’s a lot more being done and I probably think there’s a little bit more that can be done but I do think as well in this environment you have got to be able to deal with it yourself a little bit. You can’t always have an arm around you but there’s definitely a time and a place for being looked after. To answer your question, I think it is getting better but I do still think there’s a lot of growth going forward in terms of preparing for post rugby and things like that.
Do you have any plans post rugby?
I’ve done my coaching badges which was something that I really enjoyed doing which is good. There’s little bits and pieces that I potentially dip a toe in and out of. For me, now, I’ve never had a proper job so to speak, I’ve never had to go and do a job interview or anything like that. Hopefully that’s a little way down the line but is there going to come a time when that’s going to happen and I think the Rugby Players Ireland over here, the way they look after you and prepare you for that sort of stuff, that has probably opened my eyes a bit since I’ve got here and it’s definitely something I’m preparing to do so it doesn’t come as massive a shock as it does to some people when I retire.
You play full time basically from when you’re 16 – that would be hard to come out of.
It’s a highly pressurised environment for 10-15 years then there’s nothing after that. I guess it’s trying to fill that gap. I think there definitely is things being done but I think there could be a little bit more but also it falls on the players being proactive as well. Overall, I think it’s getting better.
What are your ambitions in rugby?
I think if you ask any player, international rugby is at the top of anyone’s list. Playing for Ireland one on that international stage. In terms of how to get there, I think for me again it’s very much about getting my consistency right here at Ulster and pushing my way into the team again this year, playing week in week out and if I play well here then that will give me the best chance of going forward and playing international rugby.
For me it’s about making the most of every day here at Ulster, performing well at Ulster, hopefully winning trophies for Ulster and what comes off the back of that will come off the back of that.
When you think of the word successful who do you think of and why?
You should have given me more time to prepare for this question! Pep Guardiola – is that a strange answer? Don’t get me wrong, I hate Man City. I’m a Chelsea fan which has had its ups and downs.
What hobbies or obsessions do you explore in your free time?
I’ve started playing a lot of golf since I came over here. I always played a little bit of golf but I play quite a lot here, we got a membership at Royal Belfast so I like to try and get out and do that when I can, keep the body moving and take my mind away from things. I’ve got 2 dogs as well, so I like to take them out for walks with my partner. But other than that, not too much really. I like traveling around the world when I can. I like to visit places. But other than that, not nothing too wild really.
What is your favourite documentary or movie?
Great question. My favourite movie is the Great Gatsby and my favourite documentary would be Making a Murderer.
What are your ambitions at Ulster?
I think for us it’s just about continuing to improve. It’s a young squad and the guys have a lot more experience now. I think for us it’s just about consistently performing well. We’ve shown that when we play well, we can beat anyone, and we can match up with the top sides so again it’s just about getting that consistency right and hopefully picking up as many wins as we can along the way.