Llanelli Star - - RUGBY - MATTHEW SOUTHCOMBE Rugby Cor­re­spon­dent [email protected]­line.co.uk

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.

PIC­TURE: Richard Wil­liams.

Mike Phillips pictured look­ing fit and re­laxed in Pe­narth this week... a world away from his new life in Dubai

PIC­TURE: Mike Phillips/ In­sta­gram.

MIke Phillips is aim­ing to men­tor young play­ers and grow the game in Dubai in his Rugby Academy.

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