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I won't give up my Ulster shirt without major fight: McPhillips

Staying focused: Johnny McPhillips ignores transfer speculation
Staying focused: Johnny McPhillips ignores transfer speculation

By Jonathan Bradley

We already know there'll be no Joey Carbery at Ulster next season, nor it appears Springbok Elton Jantjies. But while it is believed the Kingspan side are still exploring the possibility of finding an experienced out-half over the summer, Johnny McPhillips isn't willing to give up his place easily.

The former Ireland Under-20s international was in impressive form as the northern province's campaign finished with the booking of a Heineken Champions Cup spot and he seemed to be growing into the jersey having made his debut only back in December.

And he maintains that he will be paying little attention to the speculation that the side may yet strengthen in his position.

"The season is over, so as far as I am aware it is head down and put as much graft into pre-season as I can," he said.

"Whoever comes or does not come, it does not change anything for me. I have still got to go in, become a better player and fight for my spot with the other players who are in there."

With Paddy Jackson's contract revoked by the IRFU, Christian Leali'ifano departing mid-season and injury preventing Stephen Donald from ever arriving, McPhillips made his first start in February and stayed in the starting XV for the campaign's final nine games.

Getting his chance out of necessity, the 21-year-old believes that it matters little how you get there as long as you perform.

"Is there ever a perfect time that you are going to be ready?" he asked.

"An opportunity presented itself and I had it in my head to just take it a week at a time and seize each chance as best as I could and put in a good performance at the weekend.

"Obviously there were a couple of up and down weekends, but it has been massive and I have great support from the lads around me, the team and the management and they have really backed me and that has been something which has filled me with confidence.

"I think what was most important was learning from those losses in Scarlets and Cardiff away, going away from home, playing in those tough games without some of the internationals. The amount I have learned from then on in has been massive. It was nice to get a few home games and play in front of the home fans which was really good."

Having been at the Under-20 World Cup with Ireland this time two years ago, and only a recent graduate of the Ulster Academy, the native Geordie is on an upward trajectory, and there remains a school of thought that Ulster would be best served seeing what they have in the youngster than once again sitting him behind a more known quantity.

For his part, McPhillips believes he is becoming more comfortable in his surroundings with each passing game.

"The more you become familiar and comfortable in that sort of environment, which is the top tier playing with the Irish captain and British and Irish Lions, you are playing with those guys and you can get comfortable and implement your own authority and contributions to the team and the game at present," he said.

"I think the more time I spent in the driving seat at 10, especially when you are young, it is invaluable. I think it sort of showed in the games towards the tail-end of the season that the more comfortable you are in the position you can be more confident."

Much is already expected of the current crop of Academy players moving into the seasons ahead and with McPhillips a few years down the line, he knows how much work is required to make the step up, but feels there is a real opportunity for the younger stars with so many stalwarts having moved on in the last 12 months.

"Obviously it is tough enough when you first move across, but the club as a whole, the squad, the people involved in there make that transition as easy as possible because you are just a schoolboy when you first enter that Academy," he said.

"You may think you are at the top of the ceiling, and maybe a lot of us think we are, but taking that next step into the professional environment, it is not just the games and the physicality sort of things, it is the meetings and that sort of stuff.

"It is all about learning and they have created an environment now where it is good and you will see that now. There are a lot of players retiring, there is a lot of experience leaving the club, so there is an opportunity there and it is exciting because there will be opportunities for us young guys to put our hands up."

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