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Former Ulster out-half Johnny McPhillips has no regrets after his move to France in search of game time

After almost a full season in France, Johnny McPhillips hasn’t quite gone native yet.

quarter of an hour before our interview is due to start, a message arrives to say he’s running a touch late…he’s five minutes behind schedule owing to some required physio treatment.

Such meticulous attention to time-keeping isn’t always a given in promotion-chasing US Carcassonne.

“A lot of the stereotypes that you hear are probably true,” chuckles the former Ulster out-half, in his first year at the club after two seasons spent with Leicester Tigers. “It’s a very different culture.

“Coming from Ulster and Leicester, if a meeting starts at nine, everyone is there at ten to and the meeting probably starts at 8.55 in reality.

“I remember in my first week, it was nine o’clock and I was the only one there, sitting there with my pen and my notebook.

“The coach comes in, handshakes all round, kisses on both cheeks of every player, and the meeting doesn’t get going until twenty past nine.

“You’ll be given a plan for the day and everything is delayed before you’ve really even got started.

“One of the boys I played with at Leicester who’d been over in France told me, whatever you do, don’t fight it. It’ll take more out of yourself and you’ll get frustrated.

“The culture is very different. There’s a lot more emphasis on doing things as a team, not that it isn’t there in England or Ireland, but the club really wants you to enjoy your time together.

“I’ve found that really good, especially coming from overseas and having that instant support network. It feels quite natural, it’s not forced or anything.

“The more I’m here, the more I’m enjoying it. I feel very lucky and privileged to get to experience it.”

On the field, things are going well too. Carcassonne are reported to have the lowest budget in the French second tier but, after Thursday night’s victory over Bayonne, they are set to take part in the promotion play-offs for the first time.

The fifth game on the spin for McPhillips after spending six months on the sidelines through sustained injury in October, the 25-year-old is finally getting what he’s long craved – time on the pitch.

Having left Leicester just at the moment when he was getting his most regular run in the side – six of his last seven outings for the Welford Road side were starts – it was a bold move to take the plunge when he did but, just as when he departed Ulster in 2019, he believed he knew what he needed to progress his career.

“I was getting a fair bit of time but prior to that I hadn’t been playing that much, I’d been on the bench a few times without getting on. It was weird.

“I sat down and I thought ‘where am I in my career at my age?’ I was 24 at the time and I felt like I’d had decent exposure to that point. I’d played almost 30 times for Leicester and the same with Ulster. I’d had these stops and starts and I wanted to go and play a season, play 20 games a year.

“I’d been in these great environments, played with these great players, and I felt that all that was missing was consistency. I’d played games here and there, experienced squad rotation, and I just thought if I could go away and play 20 games a season I could really show my worth and what I’d learned in those environments that I’d been in.

“The offer came round quite late and I’d the option to stay at Leicester for another year. I loved it there, absolutely loved it. But I sat down with Steve Borthwick (Leicester Tigers head coach), it was really difficult but I saw George Ford there who was going to be number one and has obviously been quality this season.

“Freddie Burns was coming in. The LV wasn’t there, the Prem Cup wasn’t confirmed, and I looked at it and thought ‘where am I going to get my minutes?’

“I said to Steve that my goal and my aim was to go away and prove my worth.

“It was all quite a spur of the moment stuff but looking back now, if I’d stayed at Leicester, George has been fit all year, he didn’t play for England during the November series and Freddie Burns has played well too.

“It’s not to say that I wouldn’t have backed myself to maybe get in there but, where I’m at now, I think it was the right decision at the time.”

McPhillips, a former Irish under-20s international of the same vintage as Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan, Andrew Porter and Hugo Keenan, saw plenty of similarities between Ulster and the Tigers. A native to the north-east of England – he was Irish qualified through his parents of him – he quickly felt at home at both clubs.

And with the Tigers set to take on Leinster at Welford Road this afternoon in what will be the two-time champions first European quarter-final since 2016, McPhillips believes the signs of this success were there during his time.

“The contrast in the two years I was there was massive,” he says.

“When Steve came in, the place changed. Him and (Head of Physical Performance) Aled Walters are serious operators. The standards and the detail and the training, there was no way the team was going to be poor.

“In Steve’s first day, there was a chat in the stadium where he said not about where we were but where we were but where we were going. From that day there’s not been a backwards step at the club. This season, I think they‘re reaping the rewards.”

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