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Ulster v Glasgow: Fans will give us extra edge: McPhillips

 

By Jonathan Bradley

The last home game of a season that is likely best put in the past, there remains plenty to play for as Glasgow come to town for a rearranged Guinness PRO14 contest this evening (6.05pm kick-off).

The visitors may have their home semi-final in the league assured, but Ulster's own ambitions are less clear.

They still have a slim hope of sneaking their way into the end-of-season round robin should they bank maximum points and Edinburgh none over the next two weekends, while they still require one victory to consolidate fourth place and a probable place in a Champions Cup play-off game.

That aside, for Paul Marshall and Tommy Bowe it will be a last game at what was called Ravenhill when both emerged on the scene, while even mascot Sparky is hanging up the boots after one last 80 minutes.

All in all, it's as big a game as there's been in Belfast this season.

With so much negativity swirling round though, there had been mooted shows of discontent among the fan base, although the Ulster Rugby Supporters' Club this week revealed that a poll of their members returned a vote in favour of no mass demonstrations.

After much discord, unity moving forward seems to be the desired course of action, with young out-half Johnny McPhillips believing that a Kingspan Stadium in usual voice will be a boon to the squad.

"I have always found playing at home is massive," said the Ulster Academy product.

"Playing at Kingspan, you know the crowd is behind you and it does spur you on. It gives you something extra and an energy.

"When you do something good it reinforces it and brings the team together."

With back-to-back wins prior to the game, the side have some momentum moving into the crucial next weeks, even if a top-three finish now seems remote.

"Obviously it's been positive results the past couple of weeks and some good performances to go along with the results," said McPhillips. "It's nice to see what we are working on in training is coming through in the games. The mood is positive and we are excited by the challenge of Glasgow.

"They have secured that home semi-final already and during the season they have been the best side in the PRO14.

"To challenge ourselves against a quality side like that is good for us."

Having overcome Edinburgh away - having not previously won in the league outside of Kingspan since November - and beaten an in-form Ospreys, Ulster's upturn in fortunes was as out of the blue as it was timely, with McPhillips firmly believing that the effort was always there.

"Leading up to that (Edinburgh win), there had been a couple of performances and results that hadn't gone our way. But the main thing was we had faith. It wasn't through a lack of effort, more things were going wrong for us defensively or in attack," he said.

"We just needed to knuckle down and meet with the management and draw a line in the sand, putting a marker down for the rest of the season. What we were doing in training, we needed to make sure that effort was being transferred into results."

On a personal level, McPhillips is fully fit to take his place in the Ulster No.10 jersey this evening after departing the win over the Ospreys in the first half. Having been the undisputed out-half since Christian Leali'ifano departed, and Stephen Donald's short-term move to the province fell through, his ascension to the starting role has not been easy but, often surrounded by equally young talent, there have been numerous glimpses of his talents.

Given his lack of frontline experience, having John Cooney close by at scrum-half has been a real positive as he traverses the learning curve.

"It's massive (as) No.9 and No.10 are integral to pretty much any team," he said. "There is a good chemistry and a good combination there. To have someone alongside you that is playing so well and is so full of confidence and knows what he is doing is nice.

"As a No.10, especially as a young No.10, you can take confidence from that, he is a shoulder to lean on if you ever need anything.

"I have learned a huge amount, not only as a 10, but as a professional rugby player, being in that environment. It's not just about going out and playing at the weekend, it's about how you plan your week, how you control the week, getting through your individuals and getting the team right at the same time.

"No.10 is a key position, so having the responsibility and opportunity to spend time with the team and get invaluable experience is crucial."

Glasgow will provide another challenge, but he is looking forward to a head-to-head with the talented Finn Russell.

"It's going to be a difficult game, everyone knows that because they possess massive quality, but at the same time it is unbelievably exciting as a young player, the opportunity to play against the likes of Finn Russell and to challenge yourself against them is not an opportunity that many get," he added. "To get it at home, the last home game of the season it is a massive chance to go out and perform."

Bradley's verdict: Ulster

An emotional day given it could be a last Belfast game for Tommy Bowe, Paul Marshall, Charles Piutau and Jono Gibbes but there is more than sentiment at play here. While Ulster are playing a talented Glasgow side who have been enjoying a strong domestic season, the hosts will have to hope that their greater need sees them through.

Belfast Telegraph

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