Tuesday 26 September 2017

Chasing his dream after years given to beloved green cause

The Big Interview: Conor McPhillips

Conor McPhillips says he doesn’t want to ‘die wondering'. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor McPhillips says he doesn’t want to ‘die wondering'. Photo: Sportsfile

Daragh Small

Conor McPhillips began his Connacht career as a player way back in 2003-04 and this weekend he coaches his final Guinness Pro12 league game at Thomond Park.

It's been a long journey full of highs and lows, from Connacht almost being shut-down, to winning a Pro12 title in Murrayfield, and the 36-year-old has loved every minute of it.

McPhillips played 120 times and scored 32 tries for the province between the Pro12 and Europe, and although he guided his team through the Champions Cup from a coaching perspective in recent years, he never once played in that competition.

But now as Connacht's 2016-'17 season draws to a close, and both McPhillips and head coach Pat Lam head for Bristol, they have one more job to take care of before they set up shop at Ashton Gate.

But Connacht still hope to secure victory and bring one more game back to the Sportsground this season. A Champions Cup play-off final victory in Galway would be the ideal swansong, but things don't always work out that way.

"It could hit me suddenly, and I could be a blubbering mess. Still every so often I think how many meetings will I have upstairs?" says McPhillips.

"Then when I am talking to guys who I have worked with for so many years, guys like Ronan Loughney, John Muldoon and Andrew Browne. I'm just thinking it's like a mini-family.

"You know no different. You nearly spend more time with the people you work with than your family in this business. Every second weekend you are in Wales, Scotland, places in the UK or Italy. You're sharing rooms with these guys and with them 24-7.

"It'll be a massive change but it's not like I am going into a whole different environment. When I go away it will be the same type of environment, just with different people."

The Templeogue native spent five years playing rugby at Connacht between 2003 and '08, but his career began when he was 13, and a student at Templeogue College in Dublin. From there he went to St Mary's and played three years with the Leinster U-21s while featuring with the Irish U-21s and the Ireland Sevens team.

McPhillips was already learning the trade as a coach at St Mary's at the time, before helping out with Templeogue, and then Naas CBS.

He came west after starring for St Mary's in 2002, and never looked back when Gerry Kelly came calling in the first place.

"Tim Allnutt was here a couple of years before me, I think he's here about 17 years. He's married to a Galway girl and his kids were born in Galway. Like myself he's not from Galway or Connacht but this is his home now and he has embraced it," McPhillips says.

Different

"So much has changed visually, so many people have come and gone, players, coaches, there's a different style of rugby. We have seen rough days where Connacht has nearly shut down and then you win the Pro12.

"You see guys playing for Ireland. Then you have Robbie Henshaw going off with the Lions. We have a massive investment into that.

"There's so much good stuff happening. It's a roller-coaster of emotions coming from that. The good days outweigh the bad.

"Where the mentality of the province and organisation is now, Connacht don't just take the odd scalp. They are definitely a top-six team. That's where the mindset is as a whole organisation."

McPhillips departs for pastures new at the end of the current campaign, but his heart will always be in the Sportsground, and with Connacht Rugby.

He left Galway after retiring in 2008, was director of rugby at Newbridge CBS for two years, and played for a while with St Mary's again.

But the lure of coaching his favourite team drew him back to Galway once again and McPhillips will miss the place when he leaves this time around.

"In a professional rugby career you see yourself anywhere in the world. John Muldoon had chances to leave and he didn't. But he fulfilled his goals, playing for Ireland and winning the Pro12 with Connacht.

"There are guys who go away and have more success. And then other guys might leave Connacht and realise they have made a mistake. It can be so different for each individual.

"As soon as I went down the route of being a professional coach, I sat down with my wife and we came to the agreement that I could be anywhere over the next 15 years, or I could have no job. But the one thing was that no matter what happens we will all go together as a family. Performance is your currency in this game and you don't know where your next job is going to be. If you want to be a professional you have to be willing to go anywhere in the world to fulfil that dream. It's the same with coaching.

"If Pat didn't go there, Bristol probably wouldn't have come looking for me. But he knows me inside outside out and I know him inside out. We have each other's trust. For me, I am a young coach, so I believe that if I can go away and come back a better coach it will be better in the long run. That's the main decision.

"It's exciting and it's daunting as well. But it's like a risk. If you don't get the success when you are away people will say it was the wrong decision but if I didn't take this decision it might have been a 'what if' for the rest of my life. You can't die wondering."

Irish Independent

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