Burns faces day of atonement against Six Nations favourites France

Dublin (AFP) –


Billy Burns can erase the disappointment of his final kick in Ireland's 21-16 loss to Wales and show he is the natural successor to Johnny Sexton against Six Nations favourites France on Sunday.

The 26-year-old fly-half dropped to his knees, head bowed, after he missed with his kick to touch close to the Welsh line in the dying seconds of the game.

But the Ulster playmaker has been given a vote of confidence by head coach Andy Farrell and chosen to fill the vacuum left by Sexton.

The 35-year-old Irish captain failed to pass return-to-play protocols after taking a knock to the head against Wales despite optimism earlier in the week that he would make it.

Burns will not have the reassuring experience of Conor Murray at scrum-half, out with a hamstring injury. Instead, New Zealand-born Jamison Gibson-Park has been given the nod.

It will be the first time since 2011 that neither Sexton nor Murray feature in a Six Nations match for Ireland -- coincidentally the same year France last won in Dublin.

The figures are stark. Burns and Gibson-Park have 10 Ireland caps between them compared with a combined 184 for the veteran pair.

They will face a French partnership of scrum-half Antoine Dupont -- so talented he was labelled a "Martian" by team-mate Cyril Baille this week -- and the exciting Matthieu Jalibert.

Despite the daunting prospect, Farrell said the pair had a chance to make a statement.

"One man's loss is another man's opportunity," said the Ireland coach.

England-born Burns took his opportunity when Sexton was injured for part of the Autumn Nations Cup last year and looked more at ease than his rival for the succession, Ross Byrne.

Farrell admires the "dynamism" Burns brings, saying he had moved on from his disappointment in Cardiff and had been leading training this week "as a fly-half should do".

Both Burns and Gibson-Park have been backed by their team-mates.

"Jamison is cool as a breeze," said veteran wing Keith Earls, who wins his 90th cap on Sunday. "He has played massive games for Leinster before."

"There will be no fear for him, no fear for both of them," he added. "We're all quite confident they will be just as good as Conor and Johnny."

- 'Limit his damage' -

France coach Fabien Galthie also sees a threat from the pair, believing Gibson-Park is a less orthodox player than Murray but predicts Ireland will stick to their traditional approach.

Galthie has preferred Damian Penaud to Teddy Thomas on the wing, expecting Ireland's tactics to continue to focus on "kicking down the tramlines and the aerial battle".

Burns and Gibson-Park will be keen to have as much ball as possible and get it out to their powerhouse wing James Lowe.

Gibson-Park has so far shown himself better with the ball in hand than in defence -- he was exposed last week by the Welsh for Louis Rees-Zammit's try.

The exuberant New Zealander can expect to be targeted by the French and he acknowledges he needs to work on his weaknesses.

"Obviously, mistakes are amplified aren't they? That's the big thing," he said of Test rugby. "The small margins, that's huge. Something I'll definitely work on."

Ireland need to stop Dupont if they are to get their Six Nations campaign back on track.

The 24-year-old ran the show, scoring France's first try in their last meeting with Ireland, a 35-27 victory in the final 2020 Six Nations match in Paris last October.

"He's an amazing player," said Lowe. "To me, the world's best player at the moment.

"He's the key man and someone that we have to try to limit his damage. He's the one we're going for."