Billy Burns couldn’t perform his basics under mind numbing pressure

‘He is trying to get every single last inch out of that ball. He slightly overcooked it’

Ireland’s Billy Burns after coming on at the Principality Stadium. Photograph: PA

Ireland’s Billy Burns after coming on at the Principality Stadium. Photograph: PA

 

There is no sugar coating this. No shelter from the storm. Billy Burns had the game in his hands. Three times in fact. Twice he faltered, revealing an outhalf below the standard required to guide Ireland to victory.

That is not an indictment of Burns, although his presence exposes a glaring flaw in the Irish system. When the 35 year-old captain was forced off - as is almost always going the case - the next man up could not perform his basic tasks under mind numbing pressure.

The 26-year-old was brought to Belfast from Gloucester to deliver in this exact moment. As the clock went red and everything was on the line, the Rugby World Cup winning England under-20 outhalf had an opportunity to guide Ireland to a first championship scalp in Cardiff since 2013.

Three times Burns had to display nerves of steel. The first opportunity came three minutes after Johnny Sexton was forced ashore by Justin Tipuric’s knee to the temple.

“Haven’t done [the Head Injury Assessment] yet,” said the Ireland captain. “I’ll do one later and I’ll do one tomorrow obviously.

“I am well used to them by now, the return to play protocols,” Sexton added. “Hopefully I’ll be OK for training next week.”

When Alun Wyn Jones lumped his awkward frame on the ball five metres from the Welsh try line, Burns needed to slot the penalty to make it a five point game. The strike wobbled before curling between the sticks.

Next, after Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne made some brutal yardage, the Ulster 10 was gifted possession in the middle of the park. His brain seemed to freeze as he punted straight into the lower deck. Ireland head coach Andy Farrell covered his face in frustration.

No matter. Ronán Kelleher hammered his body into wilting opponents to present Jamison Gibson Park and James Lowe with vital inches to dance and create. Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour swerved into Welsh territory before the phenomenal Robbie Henshaw forced a penalty out of George North.

All Burns needed to do was find touch and let Paul O’Connell’s reshaped lineout-maul complete the third act. Burns needed to do what he has done a thousand times before. He needed to produce certainty not risk. He choose risk.

“Billy is upset,” said Henderson. “Billy puts a huge amount on his own shoulders a lot of the time and he has definitely - almost always - carried Ulster in the past. And he will do for Ireland in the future as well. Obviously he realises, with that kick to the corner there, he is trying to get every single last inch out of that ball. He slightly overcooked it.

“I thought he was excellent when he came on. I think, when he goes back and looks at it again, he will take a lot from the impact he made.”

Elite sport is desperately cruel but everyone knew the score.

“Other days you’re the hero when you stick it on the five,” said Sexton. “It’s the life of the number 10.”

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