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Conor Phillips relishing AIL journey with Terenure after Munster dream ends

Winger says departure from province after nearly three years was ‘fairly soul-destroying’ but ‘there’s no bad blood’

In February last year, Graham Rowntree told Conor Phillips there would be nothing for him at Munster this season. The winger had done his three years, more 2½ really, in the Munster academy but that was it. He’d played two games for his province but his dreams of a professional career with them were over.

“I remember Wig [Rowntree] told me that he thought I was a cracking player but that I would be holding a tackle bag if I stuck around the next season, and he didn’t want to see that. So that was it really.”

There were still more than three months of the season remaining. Early gym sessions. Staying on for extras. But Phillips was marking time.

“It’s fairly soul-destroying, hearing contract news of guys coming in and I didn’t have anything else lined up. Whereas a lot of people maybe do, I had nothing. I was going into a land that I didn’t know. I was always in the Munster bubble and protected by it. I didn’t know what I was going to do, where I was going to live, who I wanted to play for.


“But it matured me a lot as a person because I’d never really had any big challenges in my life. I’ve had a really good life thanks to my mother. I grew up in Dooradoyle, I went to Crescent College down the road, I went to UL, I played for Young Munster . . . ”

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That led to Munster underage sides, the Ireland under-20s, the Ireland Sevens, his 2½ seasons in the Munster academy and his two Munster caps.

“Suddenly I was at a crossroads,” admits the 24-year-old with typical candour.

With a degree in exercise and health fitness in UL, he considered packing in rugby altogether.

“It was a crazy summer for me. One day I am standing in front of Lions players, Irish internationals and seasoned Munster players, saying a goodbye speech and eight or nine days later I’m in a high-viz driving a truck delivering packages for Fastway [couriers]. Whatever ego you had before was quickly gone.”

When Phillips graduated from school, Seán Skehan had asked him to join Garryowen. Nothing had transpired from that but Phillips knew of Skehan’s work at Glenstal through Ben Healy and others, and also at Garryowen and Terenure College. He contacted Skehan and Terenure helped him with a new life in Dublin.

“I’ve loved every second of it. Last Saturday was one of my best days ever playing rugby,” says Phillips of Terenure’s dramatic 31-28 semi-final win against Lansdowne in what was reckoned to be the biggest crowd ever, 4,000-4,500, at Lakelands Park, so setting up next Sunday’s final against Cork Constitution at the Aviva Stadium (4pm).

He played for Young Munster in last year’s semi-finals when they were beaten 13-12 by Clontarf in Castle Avenue. A Limerick lad, he’s grown up listening to stories of AIL deeds, not least the Cookies of 1993.

“I’ve played with guys whose fathers, uncles and grandparents have won AILs and they still talk about it. It would be massive for the team, the club and also Terenure as a parish. To see all the work that goes into days like last Saturday, it would all be worth it if we brought home the cup on Sunday.”

Phillips lives in Templeogue and last January began working with DigitalWell, and he is finishing the season strongly, scoring tries and creating others with his pace, elusiveness and skill, while his aerial strength was a telling factor in last week’s win over Lansdowne.

Fittingly, Phillips’s mother, Trish, will be in the Aviva on Sunday, as he really does owe it all to her.

“I still speak to my dad, but I haven’t seen him since 2012. Most people that know me know that. My parents met in London and I was born there but they split before I was born and then my mum moved back to Limerick when I was two. My mother is a massive Munster fan. She brought me to my first game under her jacket when I was only a few years old.”

She also brought him to the Heineken Cup finals of 2006, ‘07, ‘08 and ‘09.

“That’s why it was such a massive achievement for me to play for Munster, because I knew how proud she would have been. She would have been at the game whether I was playing or not.”

Phillips played for Crescent when James Taylor, the Cork Con outhalf in Sunday’s final, kicked three penalties to earn CBC a 9-8 win in the 2016 Munster Schools Senior Cup final at Musgrave Park. They were also Munster under-18 team-mates along with the Terenure centre Peter Sylvester. Phillips made the Munster sub-academy and the Ireland under-20s 2019 Grand Slam-winning team, but playing with Munster “A” against Leinster in Boston in the one-off Cara Cup he tore his ACL.

Munster took care of his rehab but didn’t offer a place in their academy. He didn’t play a game between April 2019 and December 2020 but despite missing almost two prime development years, he earned an academy place in January 2021.

There was also a segue with the Sevens, “one of my favourite teams to have been a part of”, before he returned to 15s in February 2022 and faced into his final academy year last season.

He made a promising debut against Zebre in Musgrave Park.

“I was looking at social media, walking the clouds and loving it. The next week I got a harsh reality check. I was marking Mack Hansen in the Sportsground. We lost and I didn’t have a good game.”

The nasty direct texts followed. He blocked his name off Twitter and “unfollowed” an array of rugby pages.

“But that was it with Munster. I felt a bit hard done by. But there’s no bad blood. I know that is just professional sport. I’m sure I got the rub of the green plenty of times when other fellas didn’t.”

He has two pieces of advice for young players aspiring to make a career in rugby.

“Firstly, I would say to not take yourself too seriously and remember to enjoy it. People are so caught up in working hard and trying to impress that they forget to enjoy it. You’ve got to enjoy the journey.

“Also, and everyone has probably heard this before: ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’. You see guys coming through with all the talent in the world and it doesn’t materialise, and guys who weren’t as highly talked about are Irish internationals now. Sticking at it and listening to what you’re told works.”

But Phillips is heartening proof that if something doesn’t break you, it can make you.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times