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'I'd be in the wrong environment if I wasn't gutted and chomping at the bit'

Johnny McPhillips said he needs to be patient if the 21-year-old fly-half is to get more game time with Ulster.

Ulster's Johnny McPhillips and Steven Shingler of Cardiff Blues.
Ulster's Johnny McPhillips and Steven Shingler of Cardiff Blues.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

WHEN ULSTER’S PROPOSED move for Stephen Donald fell through at the last minute at the start of 2018, he may not have said it publicly, but Johnny McPhillips was probably the happiest man in Ulster.

The former All Black was meant to relieve Christian Lealiifano, who was departing back to the Brumbies, but Donald’s non-arrival meant that someone else would have to fill the void left by the Wallaby.

Enter stage left, Johnny McPhillips.

The former Ireland U20s star was thrust into the spotlight at fly-half and told to sink or swim, and he swam superbly, guiding Ulster through a rocky season and into the Champions Cup via the play-offs thanks, in large part, to four wins from five to end the campaign.

While it was no surprise to hear Ulster linked with No.10s over the off-season — mercurial Springbok stand-off Elton Jantjies chief among them — no move materialised. It looked like McPhillips would be the man once more.

Enter stage right, Billy Burns.

To say the English-born Irish-qualified fly-half was plucked from obscurity wouldn’t be true, but certainly not too many were aware of his Irish heritage, so perhaps the phrase ‘it came out of left field’ would be more apt.

Billy Burns after the game Ulster's Billy Burns after their meeting with Munster on 21 December in Belfast. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Having done so well the year before, McPhillips found himself relegated to a back-up again, a role he has had to endure for most of this season having made just two starts in the campaign so far.

“I think I’d be in the wrong environment if I wasn’t gutted and chomping at the bit,” admits the 21-year-old on losing the starting jersey to Burns.

“But, at the same time, the coaches gave me good feedback and I need to be patient, and when these opportunities come, perform and look at a general thing as well, contribute to the team if I am getting 10 or 20 minutes here and there, or even a minute I need to be switched on.

I need to be performing and contributing as much as I can so that’s all I’m looking to do and then the rest hopefully will take care of itself.”

As positive as the young fly-half, who was born in Newcastle, can make it out to be, the truth is he’s behind the eight ball yet again given that Burns gets the lion’s share of minutes. It’s not ideal, but McPhillips isn’t complaining too much.

“Billy’s a really quality player and he’s been playing very well and had a really good performance in the Champions Cup, so he’s setting the standard there and I’ve just got to push on,” says McPhillips.

“When you’re young, the more you play there, and I think I realised that at the back end of last season getting a good run of games, it’s massive. Not just for confidence but you’re seeing pitches better and you’re getting comfortable in that environment.

Caolin Blade runs in to score a try despite Johnny McPhillips Connacht's Caolin Blade in action against McPhillips. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“That’s something you want to be in every week and that’s something that I’m chasing for every week.”

He got it last week in Galway when Ulster travelled down to face Connacht in the second of their festive inter-pros and, by his own admission, he didn’t take the opportunity.

Hauled off after 52 uninspiring minutes, it wasn’t the performance the out-half wanted in order to impress head coach Dan McFarland. But, then again, the performance as a whole wasn’t up to scratch as Ulster’s four-game winning streak ended with a 21-12 loss.

It’s a performance that has visibly hurt the side, as was reflected in McFarland’s blunt post-match assessment and the stinging words of the midweek match briefing as frank acknowledgements of being bested up front in the first 20 minutes were thrown around.

It was a tough one away from home,” admits McPhillips. “We performed in parts but didn’t put the whole thing together. We started slowly which cost us, so that’s something we’re really trying to work on this week.

“In the first 20 minutes we weren’t at the races and ultimately in the grand scheme of things that’s what cost us because for the next 60 minutes it was 12-7 to us. We showed that we’re capable of doing it, but the start let us down so that’s a big focus this week.”

Any other week you’d be pumped up by such a statement of intent, but given Ulster’s history at the RDS Arena against the juggernaut that is Leinster, there’s little cause for optimism around the Belfast fanbase.

Eight straight losses in the Irish capital since their last win there in May 2013, and before that no wins since 1999 – it’s not exactly been a happy hunting ground for the northern province in past years.

Dan McFarland Ulster Head Coach Dan McFarland Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Throw in the fact that Ulster have named a significantly changed side for this one – four Academy players start, with a further one on the bench and a potential debutant – and it gives you a reflection of where their priorities lie.

With Racing 92 coming to Kingspan Stadium next week for what will be a behemoth Champions Cup tie that could go a long way to determining Ulster’s European fate, there does seem to be one eye on that one.

So, as tends to be the case when Ulster make their annual trip down the M1 to Dublin, they’re hoping to get something, anything, from the game.

For McPhillips, however, it’s not a lost cause. It’s a chance.

“It is the toughest place to go in Europe, if not world club rugby at the minute, but then again it’s a massive opportunity,” he grins. “There’s no better place to test yourself than against the people who are leading the way.

It’s an exciting opportunity as well. If we’re not on our game there’s a calibre of player who will punish you instantly. So there’s a big focus on being really switched on from the start; the warm-up getting to the ground and starting well and doing ourselves justice as well.

“Ultimately especially away from home we’ll try to build pressure and build as much as we can through our defence and our attack, whether that be kicking or playing in the right areas. It’s the basics of the game that you’ve got to really nail down. That’s what let us down (against Connacht).

“They’ve got so many players, so much strength in depth that no matter what team they put out it’s going to be strong. We know that. We’re under no illusions this week. It’s a massive task but exciting at the same time.

Ulster’s Johnny McPhillips The 21-year-old pictured kicking against Munster at Thomond Park. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“There’s a lot of young guys as well and we’re all eager and raring to go and do ourselves justice and put in a good performance really. We’re all fighting for each other this week and hoping for a big reaction to last week with a lot more energy, a lot more intent and that will put us in good stead.”

And, in somewhat cyclical fashion, the talk gets around to the fact that this will be McPhillips’ first set of back-to-back starts since the tail end of last season.

“We’re coming in on the back of a disappointing performance both from team and, if I’m being hard on myself, personally as well, so I’ve got another opportunity this week and we’ve got another one as a team to raise the standard and really put a good marker down,” he says.

“Like I say, nowhere better, nowhere tougher to go than the RDS.”

Indeed, no better time to prove himself than the present. And, as he so rightly says, there’s nowhere tougher to go than the RDS.

Gavan Casey, Murray Kinsella and Andy Dunne preview the weekend’s action:


Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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