Sunday 25 September 2016

Former flier ready to hit the heights in world of coaching

Dubliner relishing assistant attack job after building profile with schools and analysis roles

Daragh Small

Published 11/09/2015 | 02:30

Conor McPhillips, pictured in action for Connacht in 2005, credits his athletics background for helping his rugby career
Conor McPhillips, pictured in action for Connacht in 2005, credits his athletics background for helping his rugby career

Conor McPhillips eats, sleeps and breathes rugby - he has been involved in it for 21 years now, and has loved every second of the journey.

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The five years he spent at Connacht between 2003-08 were the highlight. He scored 32 tries in 120 appearances and it became part of his identity.

He hails from Templeogue in Dublin. Not traditionally a rugby stronghold, but home to the likes of former Ireland great Malcolm O'Kelly and Connacht star Dave McSharry.

McPhillips (34) has just set out on his maiden season as assistant attack coach with Connacht, but he has years of experience in similar roles.

It all began at Templeogue College, where he kept up his athletics but traded in football and Gaelic games for rugby.

"I only took up rugby when I was 13. There was no mini-rugby, I just played soccer and Gaelic before that," he says.

"First year was my first taste of it, and I went on to play six years of rugby in the school.

"I never played any representative stuff - the Leinster Schools system is fairly full-on. But when I finished school I went St Mary's and played U-20s there.

"I got a bit of game-time with the Ireland U-21s in my last year and I had been playing with the Ireland Sevens as well. I went to the Sevens World Cup in 2002 in Argentina."

In the meantime, McPhillips had already kicked his coaching career into gear at St Mary's and was involved in a famous Leinster Senior Cup win when a certain Johnny Sexton slotted the winning drop-goal as they beat Belvedere 10-6.

It was the culmination of a lot of hard work for backs coach McPhillips, but he was rugby-mad, and used athletics to further his skills on the pitch.

"I was bitten by it as soon as I played it. When I went into Templeogue I wasn't sure if I wanted to play rugby, but I gave everything up, except for the athletics," he recalls.

"Basically I loved it from the first time I picked up the ball, and the athletics really helped as well.

"You would do rugby from September to February and then I would be doing athletics from February to August.

"I ran 100m hurdles for Ireland at U-18 level and I was sprinter as well. I represented Ireland in that. I set a couple of indoor records at 60m over the years too.

Complement

"A lot of the kids these day concentrate on the one sport. But if you can find a couple that complement each other, it normally works out well."

Off the field, the coaching was coming along well and McPhillips spread his wings into different clubs and roles throughout the province.

"After St Mary's won the cup I coached Templeogue College's Senior Cup team and they won the senior league," he says.

"I coached in Naas CBS and they had a bit of success there as well. They had never played rugby in the school before then.

"I coached Newbridge later in my career. I was director of rugby there for two years, after Connacht. I also played and coached with St Mary's in the AIL at the time - I just wanted to do as much coaching as I could."

It would stand to him in the end, and Connacht seemed the inevitable destination where he would hone his senior coaching skills, after his five-year stay.

He had been a revelation in Galway: playing at scrum-half or on the wing, he notched 12 tries in his debut season, 2003-04, and it took off from there.

"I got picked up by Gerry Kelly after a good season with St Mary's in 2002 - I just wanted to try and be a professional so I got a chance of a one-year contract and I bit their hand off," he says.

"My first year was probably my most fruitful. I went on to play with Ireland in the Churchill Cup, I played for Ireland A against France A, and I toured Japan in 2005 with the senior team.

"I finished up in Galway seven years ago and went back to Dublin to play and coach for a while.

"Then Eric (Elwood) called me back as a performance analyst. I had no background in that but I had played with him and he had coached me.

"He knew I had passion and a good rugby brain. He took a punt, it was the first time Connacht had an analyst and it worked out really well over the past few years.

"When Pat Lam came in I felt I had to prove myself again, but I managed to earn his trust pretty early and proved to him that I had that I had what it took.

"It wasn't long before he gave me a lot of on-pitch time in training with the lads. I was still a performance analyst, but it was a great experience for me."

McPhillips had proven himself as a player and an analyst and became the fifth member of the Connacht coaching staff last week.

"With my new role, I will have ideas but the all of the coaches will sit down and if I have an idea that could change just from everyone's input. We all put our own spin on it," he explains.

"Pat is big on giving guys a chance, especially young Irish. And it shows Connacht is growing.

"I'm loving it here - my wife, Niamh, and our kids live in Galway and my kids support Connacht. Niamh is from Dublin as well, but she lives and works down here with me now. This is my home from home."

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