Billy Burns’ second season at Ulster could hardly be going much better and he hopes it will lead to silverware and maybe even an Ireland call-up further down the line.
For a variety of reasons, the fly-half did not produce in his rookie season anything like the quality he is showing now.
Alongside John Cooney an in-form half-back pairing is one of the chief reasons Ulster have won seven of the last eight matches and the pair will again be key in tonight’s Champions Cup ‘return’fixture against Harlequins at the Stoop.
“I’ve been here just over a year now and I’ve loved my time here,” says former Gloucester player Burns.
“The fans have been awesome in welcoming me, my partner’s settled in really well and also it’s a club where I can see everyone is fighting to go in the right direction. I just wish the weather would clear up and it wouldn’t be so cold.
“Other than that, I am loving it. There is a really great core of young guys coming through but also those older guys, those international guys who have experienced a lot of rugby are great leaders.”
Burns felt the lack of a pre-season last year under head coach Dan McFarland, who was still under contract with Scottish Rugby, was a factor in his slow start to life at Kingspan Stadium.
He says: “This year we had the luxury of having him for a long period of time along with the other coaches, and I think that has helped me massively being in a position of fly-half where you are running the team.
I had a few things happen over the summer away from rugby that has just made me realise how lucky I am, so I have come into this season with a real clear mindset of trying to improve as much as I can and having fun in doing that as well.
Ulster reached the Heineken Cup final in 2012 but have come nowhere near that since, though last year’s quarter-final defeat by Leinster at the Aviva Stadium was a sign that they could be capable of stepping up to the big league more consistently.
Burns said: “When you are a player aspiring to do things in your career, you always look and think, ‘is this a place where I can see genuinely pushing for silverware in the future?’
"I am not saying we are close to being that team yet, but I feel we are on the right path and the main thing is we have guys who are going to work incredibly hard and a great coaching staff here, great support network and a great following.
“We know it is going to take a lot of hard work, sweat and blood and all that but we will fight hard to get there, if not this year in the coming years.”
Burns is Irish qualified and surely would love to attract the attention of new Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, yet insists he’s not thinking about it.
“If I focus on playing well here and getting results then maybe that will come further down the line, but I know there is plenty that I still need to work on to get to that position.
“John has been outstanding though, and if he gets called up it will be fully deserved, he has certainly been one of our standout players.”
Ulster have made two changes from last weekend’s 25-24 home win over ’Quins.
Matt Faddes replaces Craig Gilroy on the wing and Kieran Treadwell is preferred to Alan O’Connor in the second row.
Ulster lead the pool after three games but will need an away win tonight to stay ahead of strong French challengers Clermont.