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In-Depth: Conor McPhillips on family, philosophy and finding a way

Assistant coach Conor McPhillips talks family, philosophy and finding a way, in our latest In-Depth feature.

‘To hell or Connacht’ was the choice Oliver Cromwell gave the Irish in the 17th century, meaning they would either be killed or sent to Galway where survival was fraught with difficulty.

But for Conor McPhillips – and despite being born and bred in Dublin – the sea air and rolling hills of Ireland’s West Coast are where he feels most comfortable – and after leaving ‘home’ to join Pat Lam’s revolution in Bristol, the 36-year-old is keen to absorb himself in the culture and history of his new surroundings.

“A really important thing for me is if I’m working somewhere and living somewhere, I want to feel part of it,” he says.

“It’s up to the individual to go and do that – I had fifteen years on and off with Connacht and although it wasn’t my birthplace, I made it my home and I felt a part of it, which is why I consider it my home.

“The people there made me feel welcome and you felt part of something, through the good and bad times. But you always knew what the people before you had been through and achieved.

“The thing for me now, in moving to Bristol is that I don’t want to just be here, work 9-5, go home and pick up a pay cheque - I want to feel a part of the place and that’s down to me to get to know the history, the city, the people, the players and the staff.

“The thing for me now, in moving to Bristol is that I don’t want to just be here, work 9-5, go home and pick up a pay cheque - I want to feel a part of the place and that’s down to me to get to know the history, the city, the people, the players and the staff."

Conor McPhillips

“A big part of my philosophy is that rugby is like a family – if everyone feels part of something, you’re willing to give a little bit more and your best and worst times are with your family, because you can trust them. Your highs and lows and probably your biggest arguments are with your family because you love them.

“It’s important that everyone knows the history of Bristol and why we’re doing things.

“There’s a massive passion for sport and rugby in Bristol, there’s people wishing you well all over the place, whether you’re in the gym or at the shops, walking in the streets, there’s a lot of good will but also expectation.

“Obviously Bristol have had some tough times - which I can relate to at Connacht – but the key thing is, there is so much support around, they’re just yearning for success and something to grab on to.

“With our vision now, it’s important that Bristol people feel part of it – and if we get some success, the city will be buzzing.”

Understanding what makes a city tick and what has gone before it is a focal point of both McPhillips’ and Pat Lam’s vision for success – and the assistant coach is keen to instil that at his new club.

“It’s about understanding what rugby means to people in Bristol – and quite clearly, it means so much. We’ve seen already during pre-season, the lads engaging with the community off their own backs with the litter pick, this is so important to our vision and what we’re trying to achieve here.

“What Connacht was really good at was getting out to the different places in the province, so we’d go and stay out in places like the Aran Islands, which is basically next stop New York and you can see the history there.

“But I think that was the key thing – throughout my time there we were always in touch with the history of Connacht.

“There are places there which are just rock and it’s the hardest place to farm or to live, but people have found a way. People from that area are quite tough because they’ve had a lot of hardship, but the key thing was that anyone who came into Connacht took time to learn the history, which was really important.

“That’s what we want from the players at Bristol, they need to know who they are representing and why – and that’s all part of our culture.”

“It’s about understanding what rugby means to people in Bristol – and quite clearly, it means so much. This is so important to our vision and what we’re trying to achieve here."

Conor McPhillips

The concept of ‘finding a way’ also transcends into McPhillips’ coaching philosophy, developing players who can thrive regardless of factors outside of their control.

The Irishman wants problem solvers and says his training methods are geared towards creating them.

“A big thing in how I coach is about finding a way – trying to cater for everything: weather, referees, opposition. But I’m very big on creating scenarios in training, whether that be as a backs group or a whole team – so you want guys to feel uncomfortable at training so what they face at the weekend is easier or they’ve been there before.

“But at the weekend, I need the Bristol players on the pitch to be able to adapt to what’s in front of them. So, if we’re playing a side that we expected to, for example, defend a certain way and they don’t, I can’t change that directly and that’s where the players have to come together and work it out and adapt.

“Obviously they’re very different examples: finding a way to live - like the farmers in Galway - and finding a way to beat a defence, but that’s the business we’re in.”

Prior to his playing career - which saw him grow up in the Leinster setup before moving west to Connacht – Conor McPhillips was an athlete of some distinction and still holds a number of national age group records in both the 100m and 110m hurdles.

“As the hurdles grew, I didn’t,” he chuckles. “But I’m pretty sure I still hold those records and I was national champion from about the age of 13 to 18. Rugby was always my main passion though.”

The move from the West Coast of Ireland to the West Country was a significant one, not just for McPhillips but also for his young family. His wife, Niamh and twin sons Nathan and Dylan are due to arrive in the coming weeks – and there’s no shortage of appreciation for sacrifices that have allowed him to chase his ambition.

“My wife Niamh and my boys Nathan and Dylan are really excited about getting here. It was important that they finished their school year and this enabled me to get settled here and to do all of the admin I needed to do.

“It’ll be about six or seven weeks before they get here, but when they do, it’s just about getting them settled.

“Niamh just drops everything for me, she knows I’m ambitious and what I want to do.

“She’s left loads of different jobs for me as we went from Galway to Dublin and Dublin to Galway – and now to Bristol. So, she’s been really patient and really supportive and I’m so grateful for that.”

In time, McPhillips is confident that both he and his family will feel a part of Bristol and all that the city stands for on and off the pitch – a home away from home.

But the boy from Leinster, who found contentment in Galway, is now out to inspire Bristol and satisfy its vast yearning for rugby success.