Billy Burns’ ability to direct Ireland’s play in his first Test start against Georgia should not be in doubt given the fearless manner he showed in dealing with his father as a teenage referee.
Burns has a golden opportunity to stake a claim to be the long-term successor to Johnny Sexton when the fly-half finally decides to call time on his career.
The 26-year-old has impressed in his two performances coming off the bench in the Autumn Nations Cup, including against England, where he was born, and has earned a starting spot for Sunday’s match.
Burns played for the England Under-20 side that won the 2014 world championship, “battering” the Irish along the way, in his words.
But Ireland have always been on his radar.
“My father has always worn the Ireland shirt,” Burns said before last week’s England game, which Ireland lost 18-7.
Jerry, whose father hailed from Cork, gave his each of four sons an Ireland shirt along with an England one when they were young.
It was in another shirt that Jerry and Billy had their contretemps, when he was asked to referee his father’s club side’s game at the age of 15 after the official referee failed to show up.
“I said ‘dad I’m so scared, I don’t want to do it — I’m so scared’,” Burns told the Irish Independent.
“He said ‘don’t worry about it — if anyone gives you any backchat, I’ll come over and sort it out’.
“First kick-off it goes off and I give a penalty against Oldfield (Jerry’s club) to the other team, and who’s the first one to come over shouting in my face but my old man.
“So I blew him up and sent him back 10 metres.”
– ‘Ability to mix in’ –
Burns’ display of authority that day has transferred itself into professional rugby. He made more than 100 appearances for English Premiership side Gloucester before the bold move to Belfast-based Ulster in 2018.
The impending arrival of the mercurial Danny Cipriani forced his hand but the decision proved the right one.
The calm authority he exudes, which he has shown in his two Tests so far, is referred to by Ulster and Ireland teammate Iain Henderson.
“I’ve great admiration for him taking a leap of faith and backing himself and coming over,” said Henderson.
“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 if you like, and a lot of the players up in Ulster respect him.”
Henderson said Burns was experienced for a player of his age and had the knack of getting on with others.
“I think his ability to mix in with all the players and get on with them so well gives the players a reason to follow him or a reason to follow the example he sets,” he said.
Burns is the youngest of his brothers but is not the first to play international rugby for a country other than that of his birth — Sam was capped by Cyprus, where he served with the Royal Air Force.
Freddie, who won five caps for England, says his youngest sibling will forever be “Little Bill”.
“He’s (Billy) very assured and never looks too flustered,” Freddie told the Daily Telegraph.
“I guess, maybe, the difference between us might be that he’s happy to go through games almost unknown.
“You’ll look back at his game and he’ll have managed it very well, happy being the puppeteer pulling the strings.”
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