Billy Burns will make his first start for Ireland against Georgia this weekend and Iain Henderson feels that is due reward for the out-half’s bold step in quitting Gloucester for Ulster over two years ago.
Now 26, Burns had played for Gloucester over 100 times across six seasons before making the switch across the Irish Sea, his Cork-born grandfather providing the bridge for international ambitions that are now being realised.
First called into the senior squad late last year by Andy Farrell, he made his debut earlier this month off the bench against Wales and added a second appearance as a replacement against his native England in Twickenham last week.
Now the show is his to run from the off.
“Billy’s obviously been an asset to the management at Ulster who somehow managed to get their hands on him,” said Henderson, his Ulster colleague.
“It was a fantastic signing for us. He’s been unbelievable up there. He’s slotted in seamlessly.
“I’ve said it to him before, I’ve great admiration for him taking a leap of faith, backing himself and coming over. He’s worked incredibly hard for what he’s got over the last couple of years at Ulster. He’s really fitting into 10, into that commander role. A lot of the players up in Ulster respect him.”
Burns has been overshadowed by his regular half-back partner John Cooney for long spells since arriving in Belfast but he has taken on a leadership role at the Kingspan Stadium and Henderson has seen that transfer down to national camp in recent weeks.
That’s good to hear.
Jonathan Sexton remains the top dog among Irish out-halves despite the fact that he is 35 and has struggled to perform in the biggest games this last year or more. Unavailable due to injury this week, it would be a good time for Burns to step up to the plate.
Ross Byrne, who had a tough time of it as the starter for an Ireland team that was well-beaten again by England last time out, will offer back-up off the bench as Joey Carbery’s injury nightmare continues and Jack Carty struggles to get back in the frame after a post-World Cup dip in form.
If Burns’ journey to this point has been a long and circuitous one then what of Stuart McCloskey who will line up beside him at inside-centre on Sunday? It’s closing in on five years since his first cap and this will be only a third appearance since.
McCloskey has suffered for the fact that he is a specialist 12 and not someone who covers a plethora of positions. He is also a member of a midfield fraternity that boasts the considerable talents of men like Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, and Chris Farrell.
The 28-year old centre, who admitted to a sense of impatience when speaking earlier this week, has been in consistently good form for Ulster in recent times and Henderson has been taken with his willingness to wait for this opportunity to finally come his way.
“It could have been very easy for Stuart to switch off after not getting a game in the first... how many weeks are we in now? Four or five weeks? He could have easily switched off in training and decided, “no, this is not for me”.
“He could have thrown the head up with not getting selected but he’s stuck at it. He’s training really well. He’s helped prepare the guys. He’s helped prepare defences, attacking and defending our attack, and he’s getting just rewards for it now.”