Burke proves there's life after Rog

 

Pool Four, Munster v Neath/Swansea Ospreys: Gerry Thornley talks to a well-travelled outhalf who is relishing the opportunity to step into Ronan O'Gara's boots

Ye Gods. Munster without Ronan O'Gara in a crunch Heineken European Cup tie at Thomond Park? It's like the living-room without the TV, a Martin Scorsese gangster movie without Robert De Niro. O'Gara has been the man. As a general rule of thumb, when O'Gara plays well, Munster play well. But alas, a broken finger has ruled him out of the next two games.

Yet, fear not, help is at hand. The signing of Paul Burke now looks an even more astute bit of business by the Munster brains trust than it did last April. At 31, he remains a cool customer, self-assured without being arrogant with it.

He's been there and bought the T-shirt, a well travelled career taking him through two-year spells at London Irish, Cork Con and Munster, Bristol and Cardiff before a four-year stint with Harlequins, not to mention 13 caps for Ireland.

It's also comforting to know that he himself sounds as composed about the prospect. "I'm not fazed at all. To me it's just another game. I've played in some massive games for Harlequins and for Ireland, so I'm not fazed by it in any way. Ever since we found out on Sunday that Rog's hand was broken I've been on tenterhooks really. I've been focusing on the game so much that it's been on my mind ever since."

Not that he isn't mindful of the responsibility he carries. "It's going to be a massive game for me because Rog has done so well for Munster in the European Cup. In some ways there's a lot of pressure on me, but I've been there before and I've done it, so I'm thoroughly looking forward to it."

Although there would have been days like this in mind, ostensibly he was signed to steer Munster's Celtic League campaign on the frequent occasions when O'Gara would be on international duty. Ten successive wins in the Celtic League, with Burke starting in five of them , are testimony to Munster's strength in depth, and the signing of a proven goal-kicker and experienced playmaker in a pivotal position has been a key factor in that.

Initially, it hadn't been the most auspicious of beginnings for Burke, who featured in the first three winless games of the campaign. Munster were slow out of the blocks, and Burke took a while to acclimatise himself to his new surrounds and, one ventures, to a more varied game than he had become used to at Quins, who relied heavily on him retreating in to the pocket to play position and then kick his goals.

The return of the full internationals gave Munster some impetus and when Burke returned to the staring line-up during the autumn Test window, he kicked 55 points in four successive wins. In all he has scored 92 points, with a healthy kicking ratio of 81 per cent, the fourth highest in the league and is happy with his all-round game.

Even so, playing in front of a vibrant, capacity Thomond Park in a crunch European Cup tie is what he returned for. Certainly, it must compare favourably to a 3-0 epic on one of those wild, wild west days that the Sportsground occasionally specialises in, or an 11-0 win on an echoing Saturday night in Murrayfield.

"Definitely, yeah," he agrees, chuckling. "This is what you play rugby for. These are the days that you go out and traipse through the mud and the cold and the wet, to be available for these types of games."

It also comes with the lure of a game against his old club at a raucous, home-from-home for Munster at Twickenham a week later.

"It could really set up our season in the sense that we could be going on to Twickenham and going for maximum points to get a home tie in the quarter-finals. It's huge and everyone realises that. It's a must-win game for Munster."

It was something of a surprise to begin with when Munster announced that Burke would be leaving Harlequins and the Premiership to return to the province, but the way he describes it, the move made perfect sense for the player and his wife Hilary, who comes from Limerick.

"I'd spent four years at Quins and I needed a change. I suppose it was a challenge thrown down to me. Once Munster got in touch with me and offered me a contract, I sat down and talked about it with my wife and I felt that if I do want to play for Ireland again, which I believe I can, it was a big opportunity."

He is settled and happy in his current environment. And it's not just the normal platitudes you hear about the great camaraderie in the Munster camp.

Akin to the Irish set-up, he's been struck by the collective work ethic, and the high standards demanded of each other in training, not least by the two outhalves.

"The biggest difference would be the whole razzmatazz that goes along with the Premiership. All the advertising, all the commercial side of the game that goes on with the game; having to go up to hospitality boxes after games, talk for 15 or 20 minutes with your sponsors who put a lot of money into the club.

"That doesn't happen here. They haven't got the facilities to do that. With the new stadiums at Thomond Park and Musgrave Park and corporate hospitality boxes, I'm sure that will come into the game over here yet. And obviously the sheer intensity of the Premiership week-in and week-out is pretty tough.

"There's no let-up. It's a pretty unforgiving league. The Celtic League isn't there. There are still some very tough matches in the Celtic League but also there aren't."

Burke last started a European Cup tie at Thomond Park for Harlequins three seasons ago. And, like all his team-mates that day, the memory is tinged with a sadness which puts even the 51-17 defeat into context.

"I remember the game for a couple of reasons. A poor young girl got murdered in our hotel the night before the game and poor old Nicky Duncan, who is no longer with us, got his first taste of senior rugby with Harlequins that day."

He'd also played twice for Munster in the European Cup back in 1995, but when the game went pro, Burke was a ready-made professional. A nomadic career was the consequence of circumstance. Bristol went bust after his two seasons there, so he took up an offer at Cardiff before then buying out his own contract prior to a third season as deputy to Neil Jenkins.

"I was 27 at the time, and I just felt that if I was going to progress to a level which I know I can, I couldn't be playing second fiddle to Neil Jenkins. I took a bit of a hit in the pocket at the time but in the long run it worked out very well for me." Three Cup finals, two in the European Challenge Cup and one in the Tetley Bitter Cup final, as it was then known, were proof of a rewarding time at Quins.

Burke scored over 1,000 points in over 90 games for Quins, the highlight being his 27-point haul in the Challenge Cup final win over Narbonne four seasons ago, when he nailed a 45-metre drop goal to seal a 42-33 win with the last kick of extra-time.

It had been a sort of homecoming too. His father Finbarr, from Galway, and his mother Nora from Newbridge, had moved to London in their late teens and he grew up nearby in Hampton Hill. Burke attended Epsom College and then St Paul's in Sunbury, and actually played against an Irish schools team featuring Anthony Foley in 1991, going on to play age-grade rugby for England from 16s to 21s. He started playing mini-rugby at London Irish from the age of six, working his way into the senior team at 19.

As a kid, he played soccer on Saturdays and rugby on Sundays, and almost every Tuesday and Thursday evenings he went down to Sunbury in all weathers with a rugby ball just to watch the senior team train. "It was my life basically. I just loved rugby. I played for London Irish and I watched London Irish all my teenage years," he recalls.

"I've no English relations at all. All my family are Irish. I've just been tagged with an English accent, having been born and educated in London," he says. "I declared for Ireland when I was 20. Once I got to the stage where I could make a decision, I made that decision. I always wanted to play for Ireland. That's where my roots were."

There's been no regrets, although he'd be entitled to harbour some, all the more so when dropped after scoring a then record eight penalties in the 37-29 defeat to Italy in 1997.

Since then, his subsequent four caps have been as a replacement but those were the revolving doors days.

"There was no disgrace in losing to Italy but at that time with Irish rugby if things weren't going well it must be a problem with the half backs. I think I must have played with four or five different scrumhalves at the time," he reckons, and recounts that his only back-to-back caps were his first two, against England at Twickenham and Scotland in Lansdowne Road in 1995.

He appreciates, rather than envies, the patience and stability afforded Irish players and teams nowadays. In any event, the desire to play for Ireland, and the belief that he has the ability to do so, has burned undimmed.

"Definitely, definitely. You never shut the door on playing for Ireland because it's a great honour to play for your country. The day when I feel my Ireland ambitions are over is the day I hang my boots up, and I'm nowhere near that at the moment."