MIKE PHILLIPS ON HIS NEW LIFE, BEING A DAD ... AND DEALING WITH SPORTING FAME
DRIVING rain batters the window of a coffee shop on Penarth Pier and the realisation hits... we’re a long way from Dubai.
That’s where former Wales scrumhalf Mike Phillips currently resides, having started a family and set up his own business, a rugby academy.
He got married a week after retiring from the game in 2017, after earning 94 Wales caps and making five Test appearances for the Lions. Phillips promptly upped sticks and moved to the Middle East.
Ever since, his goal has been to help grow the game in Dubai through the Mike Phillips Academy.
“I’m just trying to make it happen in my life after rugby,” he says as he sits down for a coffee with WalesOnline.
“A lot of players struggle (when they retire).
“You’re kept in a bubble, your dream is to play for Wales and then when you achieve that, what do you do next?
“It is difficult for some players, but you have to keep busy. I’m trying to do lots of things and see which one I want to do next.”
There are worse places to try to make something of yourself.
Dubai is, of course, an affluent place, the largest city of those that make up the United Arab Emirates and regarded as the business hub of the Middle East. At its coldest, it’s around 20 degrees and there is a growing ex-pat community.
Phillips lives in a flat with his wife and 10-month old son, Elias, in the trunk of The Palm, a vast expanse of man-made islands in the shape of a palm tree, protruding out into the Arabian Gulf.
“We love it. It’s so friendly, everyone gets on,” he explains.
“The people that go there are the type that want to make something of themselves. You go there and you have to make it happen for yourself.
“People are friendly, it’s very safe and the schools are fantastic.”
The 36-year-old insists he’s still the same person he always was, suggesting that public perception of him at times didn’t align with reality.
And he beams as he reveals that having a child ‘is the best thing that ever happened to me’.
The identity of his wife remains a mystery.
“She prefers the quiet life,” he explains.
Though Phillips did divulge how the pair met during his time at Racing 92.
“It was just a night out in Paris,” he smiled.
“Jamie (Roberts) started a club before he left that was basically for foreign players to catch up during the week and go to a different restaurant.
“It was quite a good idea from him, which meant we would all get together, tour Paris and explore.
“Different players would pick the restaurant and we carried it on after Jamie left.
“On one of those nights, me and my wife just happened to bump into each other.”
Phillips is back in Wales to put on similar rugby camps to the ones he provides in Dubai.
He’s in the middle of a mini-tour of rugby clubs across the country as he looks to try to promote and grow the game back where it all began for him.
As he speaks, a sense of duty becomes evident.
The boy who started as a sevenyear-old at St Clears RFC feels like he owes it to the sport that made him famous.
“What it comes down to is that rugby gave me everything,” he explains.
“I think the values that you learn in rugby as a kid are second to none.
“It disheartens me when I see stories about grassroots rugby failing back home.
“I got involved, partly, to try to promote the game and get kids into the game.
“That’s what I’m doing in Wales now. A lot of clubs are finding it difficult and it’s a sad thing.”
When he looks back on his career, the overwhelming emotion is pride.
He played at two World Cups, went on two British and Irish Lions tours, won the French Top 14 and is generally regarded as one of best Welsh scrum-halves to have played the game.
His career really soared between the two Lions tours in 2009 and 2013.
On that South Africa tour, he was one of those who led the resistance to the Springbok physicality. A man who appeared to thrive on walking into the cauldron and fighting fire with fire.
From that point, he became a talisman for Wales and the public adored him.
He was confrontational, the kind of player you’d love to have on your team and hate to play against.
If two teams ever came together for a bit of pushing and shoving, Phillips was usually in the thick of it.
But it was a facade.
“I was going into games and Shaun Edwards would say that our aggression comes from our No. 9,” he said.
“I had to live up to that and I’m not that person in day-to-day life.
“Don’t get me wrong, I loved winning.
“But you’re built up to be this superman, a gladiator. I accepted that, I loved it.
“I put a massive amount of pressure on myself, I used to get down on myself after one mistake because I knew if I delivered, we were going to win.
“I knew I could do what a scrum
half needed to do, but that I’d add so much to the team physically.”
He added: “I used to finish games and think ‘Oh my god, nobody likes me’ and at times I didn’t even like myself.
“But I was just trying to win. I’d do anything to win.
“It’s funny looking back because you just want to be a success, you just want to win for Wales.”
The celebrity status that came with Phillips’ rise to stardom saw him put under the microscope off the field as well as on it.
A series of indiscretions ensued, the most famous of which saw him suspended from the 2011 World Cup squad after becoming involved in a late-night altercation outside a McDonald’s in Cardiff.
Phillips hints that he wasn’t quite sure how to handle his fame.
“I think it was me perhaps not dealing with the pressure that I put on myself and the pressure that came from coaches and external stuff,” he said.
“People make mistakes and I made a few bad decisions.
“You only have to make a small bad decision, but when you’re in the spotlight it gets magnified.
“Obviously, I’d love to go back and change some things but I’d always protect my family, myself and my team-mates.
“Sometimes I should have just walked away, but that’s the way it is.”
After that World Cup, which ended with Wales going out in the semi-final to France – a defeat that still rankles with Phillips – he moved to the French league.
Stints with Bayonne and Racing 92 followed and he won the Top 14 with the Paris club before a final year at Sale Sharks.
In 2015, he was originally cut from the World Cup squad before being recalled as an injury replacement for Rhys Webb, though he never featured in the tournament.
It left him marooned on 99 Test caps when he retired from international rugby after the global showpiece.
“I probably shouldn’t have been capped towards the end,” he admits.
“I felt that I could have started those games, but I didn’t see any point in me being on the bench at that stage. Generally, you’d put a younger player who might be a bit sharper on the bench.
“I thought I deserved more caps earlier in my career as opposed to the end.
“The whole 100 caps thing doesn’t really bother me.
“It would have been nice, but it’s not really an issue.
“Everybody has a shelf-life. You have your time, I had a long old stretch, so I can’t complain.
“I didn’t like being told by email that I wasn’t in the World Cup squad. I think you should be called in and told when it’s come to an end, but that’s the way it goes.”
So, what does the future hold for the former scrum-half who has set up a new life in the desert?
“I’d like to continue being a link between the kids in Dubai and setting them on a road to professional rugby,” he insists.
“That’s what I’m trying to drive now, building partnerships with different schools.
“I get a massive buzz out of seeing kids get into rugby and seeing them develop as players, so maybe that will be the way I’ll go.
“We’ll see if that leads to something in senior rugby, we’ll see if those opportunities present themselves.
“I’d be like Jurgen Klopp, I think. All about the passion, firm with some players but have a softer touch with others.
“Have I got a definite goal yet? “No. But that’s what I’m working on.”
Mike Phillips celebrates Wales’ Six Nations Championship in 2013.
Mike Phillips pictured looking fit and relaxed in Penarth this week... a world away from his new life in Dubai
MIke Phillips is aiming to mentor young players and grow the game in Dubai in his Rugby Academy.