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Ulster's fledgling fly-half McPhillips determined to seize opportunity of first senior start

By Jonathan Bradley

If things had worked out differently, tonight's Ulster game with Southern Kings would have heralded the debut of former All Blacks World Cup winner Stephen Donald.

The out-half, who kicked the winning penalty to bring the Webb Ellis trophy back to New Zealand in 2011, was due to arrive at Kingspan Stadium to fill the void left by Christian Leali'ifano's move back to Australia.

The deal collapsed thanks to an injury sustained in the 35-year-old's final club game for his Japanese side Toshiba Brave Lupus last month, leaving it up to former Ireland Under-20s international Johnny McPhillips to take the reins in the No.10 jersey this evening (7.35pm kick-off).

McPhillips, who has appeared off the bench in four of Ulster's last five games, isn't one for dwelling on how his big chance has come about.

"To be honest, there wasn't much of a reaction," he said of hearing the news that Donald would not be arriving to see out the season.

"My mindset is that anything that happens that I can't control, I don't think about very much. All I was focusing on was getting better week in, week out. Stuff was going on in the background with potentially someone coming in but I just put it to the back of my mind and tried to think about what I could control.

"Obviously it's going to give me an opportunity now. I've just got to focus on trying to get better and I'll take that."

Given the rather circuitous path he took to this point in his fledgling career, it should perhaps be no surprise that the serene 20-year-old adopts a whatever will be, will be attitude.

Born and raised in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the native Geordie showed early promise at football, and indeed was on the books of Newcastle United at an early age.

There, he played alongside a few of the England Under-20 squad that won the World Cup last summer, including striker Adam Armstrong.

But rugby became more and more a focus in his life as he got older and, having moved to Sedbergh school, edged out football by his mid-teens.

He would represent England at Under-18 level, but with a Waterford-born mother and his father having grown up in east Belfast, the opportunity arose for a switch to Ulster. An Under-20s berth for Ireland soon followed and, alongside Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter and James Ryan, he was part of the side that reached the World Championship final in 2016.

His path to the senior set-up may not have been as swift as those stand-outs, but he was handed an Ulster debut just before Christmas.

And while the province have been anything but, he has been impressive over the last handful of games, providing a spark in heavy inter-pro defeats to Leinster and Connacht before then banking valuable game-time on the European stage, though it will certainly be different playing in games that have yet to be decided.

"To be honest, there's always pressure when you're selected," he said of the difference between starting and subbing.

"The role won't change too much, I suppose there's an element of trying to control the game from the off rather than making an impact, so a slight change in mindset, but come match night it will be the same. There's always going to be nerves but that can be a good thing if you harness them right.

"It shows that you're respecting what you're going out there to do. It's all about trying to take the opportunity and trying to play well."

On his emotions of making those initial outings in the middle of heavy defeats, he said: "l try to take positives, especially when you're young and you're not playing a horrendous amount. On a personal level, I took confidence from what I did and now know I can come on in that environment and add value.

"At the same time it's a team sport and you're massively disappointed because it's not about you, it's about the 23 and you hurt with those boys."

While making the end-of-season play-offs should remain the expectation, silverware prospects seem remote but for players like McPhillips, the last eight games of this season figure to offer an opportunity to show he is worth a longer look moving forward.

"If you ask any of the 10s, it's everyone's goal to be the starter week in, week out," he added.

"In terms of the mindset for the next games, we focus on each game at a time. To get the best outcomes you focus on the game ahead, prepare right and hopefully deliver a good performance, build confidence and take it like that.

"Hopefully as a result of all of that, you can put in good performances that give you the best possible chance to hold on to the starting shirt week after week and that puts you in a good position for next year regardless of who is here."

Belfast Telegraph

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