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Nowhere better to return to form than at the RDS, says Ulster's McPhillips


Looking up: Johnny McPhillips is keen to improve
Looking up: Johnny McPhillips is keen to improve

By Michael Sadlier

It's an honest enough appraisal of what was a pretty low-key performance in a season which seems to be sitting in neutral for Johnny McPhillips.

He was off the money in Connacht, and was hauled ashore just after the 50-minute mark, but now the 21-year-old out-half goes again and knows he dare not repeat what was seen in Galway from this rare opportunity of being granted back-to-back starts.

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The only issue is that he is being invited to up his game at Leinster as part of a callow-looking Ulster squad which seems to be jammed firmly behind the eight ball even before Andrew Brace blows his whistle to open hostilities.

"We're coming in on the back of a disappointing performance both from the team and personally as well," said Irish-qualified McPhillips, who made the switch from his native England to Ulster's Academy back in 2015.

"Maybe there was a bit of rust there, a bit of not quite being in the groove, but that'll be something I'll be looking to put right this week.

"So I've got another opportunity, and we've got another one as a team, to raise the standard and really put a good marker down.

"There's nowhere better, nowhere tougher to go than the RDS," added the player who starred for Ireland U20s when they made the Junior World Cup final back in 2016.

Interestingly, he plays alongside Greg Jones and Adam McBurney today who were part of that Ireland U20s side while Leinster provide Max Deegan, Andrew Porter as well as Conor and Jimmy O'Brien for what will be a bit of a reunion.

It all seems a far cry from nearly a year ago when McPhillips - with Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding out of action - stepped up to the plate after Christian Leali'ifano had returned to Australia and the rumoured Stephen Donald deal had failed to materialise.

With so much turbulence both on and off the pitch, McPhillips managed to put in some strong showings as Ulster finished their season by stumbling on some decent form and then salvaging their place for this campaign's Champions Cup by beating the Ospreys in last May's play-off.

But then along came Billy Burns - another Irish-qualified 10 from England - and the door pretty much closed on McPhillips other than providing back-up and getting the occasional start.

It hasn't been easy and, again, he doesn't dodge the issue with cameo showings from the bench being his most frequent exposure to game time.

"I'd be in the wrong environment if I wasn't gutted and chomping at the bit," he said of being visibly behind Burns.

"But, at the same time, I need to be patient and, when these opportunities come, perform and 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."

But then we return to the issue of how difficult it is to be firing on all cylinders when not getting that much exposure in a pivotal position for the side.

"Yes, once you get that game time it's about using it to the best of your ability because time in key positions such as scrum-half and fly-half is invaluable," stated McPhillips.

"I realised that at the back end of last season when 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. That's something that I'm chasing for each and every week."

And as for Burns taking over, there is no obvious animosity, just an acceptance that he has a lot of ground to make up on the man in possession of the shirt.

"He's setting the standard there," said McPhillips.

"And I've just got to push on and when I get these opportunities I've got to take them."

He reckons he got about half an hour at the RDS last January - it was McPhillips' second Ulster appearance - in another heavy defeat shipped by the visitors but is admirably gung-ho about returning there, this time with the No.10 on his back.

Ulster clearly have a plan and central to it is not taking a backward step from the off, rattling what is not the strongest-looking Leinster side and, from there, going on to, well, win their first game at the venue since 2013.

"If we get the start we're looking for this week, I've full confidence we can put a performance in that we'll be extremely proud of, so that's the aim," he said.

"It's the toughest place to go in Europe, if not world club rugby, at the minute," he said before adding a familiar refrain coming from the squad this week. "But, then again, it's a massive opportunity.

"There's no better place to test yourself than against the people who are leading the way.

"It's an exciting opportunity as well as 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 switched on from the start.

"Ultimately, especially away from home, we'll try to build pressure and build as much as we can through our defence and our attack.

"We're under no illusions this week. It's a massive task.

"There are a lot of young guys as well and we're all eager and raring to go and do ourselves justice.

"We're all fighting for each other this week and hoping for a big reaction to last week (in Connacht) with a lot more energy and a lot more intent."

As usual, the theory all sounds great. But only actions will alter the RDS experience for Ulster.

Match Verdict: Leinster

While Leinster are by no means as loaded as they might have been, this still looks a tall order for the returning Alan O'Connor who skippers an Ulster side light on experience. Only a colossal performance will see Ulster avoid yet another unrewarding visit to Dublin and dodge two straight interpro defeats. Though an upset is never an impossibility, it would appear that a bonus point of any kind will be a decent outcome.

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