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Harry McLaughlin-Phillips: 'I've got a pretty cruisy lifestyle'

By Liam Heagney
Reds and Australia U20s out-half Harry McLaughlin-Phillips takes a selfie with some fans (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Harry McLaughlin-Phillips is a rugby fanatic. Two examples. Firstly, when he sat down with RugbyPass the other day at the Junior Wallabies team hotel in Cape Town and mentioned how the 2015 Rugby World Cup final was the moment that left him hooked on the sport, he quickly referenced how Michael Cheika, the-then Test-level coach, was back in the headlines having just taken over at Leicester.

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“Probably 2015, when we were in the World Cup final staying up late at home to watch, that was pretty cool,” he said before adding, “New job. He’s back coaching club footy. Would have been nice having him at the ‘Tahs but it didn’t work out.”

Example number two illustrating his encyclopedic knowledge of the game was that as soon as the Georgia kick-off landed in his breadbasket in the 22 at Athlone last Saturday on match day one at the World Rugby U20 Championship, he called a mark, demonstrating how clued up he was about the numerous law trials that are in use at the 2024 tournament. That was encouraging to see from the fly-half who turned 20 in mid-April.

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A veteran of last year’s age-grade tournament where the Aussies placed fifth, the straight-shooting No10 has returned to South Africa as a very different proposition. Local Brisbane club rugby at Souths was as good as his CV looked in 2023 but he is now back in Cape Town as a Super Rugby Pacific player for the Reds after the arrival of Les Kiss as boss cleaned the slate and opened up selection to whoever caught the eye.

“Les and the coaching team are awesome,” enthused the youngster, making himself heard despite a piano melodically playing in the hotel lobby at the same time as he interviewed. “They came in nice and fresh, very professional in the way they all go about things.

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“Being able to have that opportunity under new coaching staff who had no, I guess, bias towards any players was good. First message? Probably just to back my instincts. Just play my game. That was very good to hear.”

Making the Reds was a big deal for McLaughlin-Phillips. He was aged seven when the family quit rural New South Wales and their switch from Gunnedah to the Sunshine Coast came with them deciding to buy memberships to follow Queensland’s shop window rugby union team, following up on an interest in the game kindled at grassroots.

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“It was always rugby for me. It was really the only sport I sort of played. I started playing when I was living in a country town, so it was either that or league. Mum and dad sponsored the union club so I just went and played union and then yeah, played ever since. It was just the game that attracted me. Dad actually didn’t play. He was a soccer player, so I just sort of picked it up.

“The move was for a different lifestyle. Being in the country, it’s a small town. It was just a lifestyle change really. I would have been around seven. I was happy to go. Much warmer weather, so it was good, and I became a massive Reds fan. When we moved up to Queensland we were season members from 2010 all the way until now.”

It’s why February 24 this year will always have a special place in his heart. A Super Rugby debut versus the Waratahs, the Reds’ fiercest rivals. Bring it. “It was awesome. Having the opportunity, especially at home at Suncorp in front of a lot of family, a lot of friends, it was pretty special to be able to do. Especially against the Waratahs, who are big rivals. It was awesome.

“Definitely nervous. Two weeks before I played, I was starting in a trial match against them. It probably allowed me to settle a little bit, but you never really know until you get out there,” he said, going on to give a shout out to one veteran for helping him to breeze through the butterflies. “James O’Connor was pretty helpful just chatting through things through the week and then it was just have some fun.”

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“It was definitely a lot more physical and a lot more quicker. They have probably been the two big differences, but the game is the same. Some bloke trying to tackle you, so you have just got to try and beat him.”

That’s the thing about McLaughlin-Phillips, he loves going past people. “It’s pretty good,” he said about the adrenalin of going past an opponent, “and then I am thinking about the next player that is coming for me.

“With the 20s definitely there are good boys like Jarrah McLeod, Kadin (Pritchard) and Shane (Wilcox) who are all players who play off instinct, play what they see in front of them so. Having them here is pretty cool and I am excited to see how we do as a team.

“There is probably not a single player I have styled my game on. There are a lot of players I take things from such as Finn Russell, his ability to use different things within the game to beat teams. And someone like Dan Carter or Jonny Wilkinson, strong in defence. Just little things I can pick up from different players has been helpful. I just love watching footy, I watch as much as I can.”

Kicking has been his biggest education in becoming a first-team Super Rugby player. “That has probably been the main work-on for me this year. Just at the high level, there is a lot more control in a game. Your kicking is a lot more needed for the team. I have probably been more of a running 10 prior to this year, so looking to get better than that.”

Sell the often maligned kicking to us. “Yeah, it can sometimes have a boring look but I guess it just allows you to control teams and squeeze teams. If you put them under pressure with kicking, they can’t exit, they’re stuck in their end, they turn over the ball. Easy points. There are plenty styles of playing in a game but it’s just finding the balance between kicking and running.

“It’s exciting. At the Reds there are a lot of good 10s at the minute so I have just got to put my head down and get plenty of work done and play good footy. I don’t look too far in the future. I just look pretty short ahead and do what I can to put myself on the best footing.

“I’m in the full-time squad now and it’s pretty awesome. Chatting to a few of my friends who are working normally and at uni and stuff, I have got a pretty cruisy lifestyle. Not that it’s not putting hard work in but in terms of the hours and stuff, it’s pretty awesome.”

That hard work ethic is important. For whatever reason, Junior Wallabies No10s only seldom progress to their country’s Test team. “I read something about it sometime but yeah, hopefully I can change that,” suggested McLaughlin-Phillips.

“It’s pretty tough (to make it as a 10). There is a lot of knowledge you need to have. But it is also good to have the ability to lead the team around and be in control and have that trust from other players is pretty good. I’m not a shouter. I’m more of a quiet talker in getting my point across. I’m good mates with my nines,” he said before addressing whether or not he is a competent two-footed kicker.

“Ah, I wouldn’t say that. I try my hardest but I wouldn’t say that I am two-footed. In the last couple of club games, I have been trying with two feet but no, I would not say I am two-footed.”

Australia finished bottom of the pile at the recent inaugural U20s Rugby Championship on the Gold Coast. McLaughlin-Phillips’ Super Rugby commitments meant he was only selected for the final match. Still, he accepts where they finished on the table and is energised by the desire to do much better at the World Rugby U20 Championship, a tournament that the Junior Wallabies have never won.

“I was only involved in the last game against New Zealand, that was probably a game we could have won but they were just better than us in the entirety of the game so I’d say, we took a lot of learning from it. So we’d say we got the results we deserved and will be better from it.

“This is massive. Being able to win this, Australia have never won it. It would be huge for us as a group and for everyone back home. It is really important. It’s a good, very energetic group. Everyone is pretty well connected. Junior Alatini leads the way vocally but it’s a great team environment.

“There is a bit of cricket getting round, a bit of massage ball on the foam roller sort of cricket in the team room. It’s been the highlight of the entertainment so far. Who’s the star? Harvey Cordukes, the big, tall second row. I try my best.”

McLaughlin-Phillips will have his parents in town this week with Australia knuckling down for their match day two game versus Italy in Athlone having had to fly in four post-round one injury replacements from Sydney. Away from the 20s, it’s a massive time for rugby in the promising No10’s homeland.

Joe Schmidt’s first Test series in charge begins this weekend against Wales, and the incoming 2025 British and Irish Lions tour as well as the hosting of the 2027 Rugby World Cup should provide every chance for the sport to try and nurture its popularity back to 2003 levels.

“It’s awesome. With Joe coming in, it’s a clean slate from the performance of the last couple of years. It’s exciting as a fan and hopefully as a player in that group sometime. Very exciting. I’d hope to say that rugby would be back up there competing with a lot of the other sports in the country but who knows, who knows. We’ll see what happens.”

  • Click here to sign up to RugbyPass TV for free live coverage of matches from the 2024 World Rugby U20 Championship in countries that don’t have an exclusive local host broadcaster deal

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