Big Interview: Mike Phillips on Wales, Grand Slams and life in Dubai

He is two years retired and now living halfway across the world but there is a sense of déjà-vu that Mike Phillips just can’t shake.

He is two years retired and now living halfway across the world but there is a sense of déjà-vu that Mike Phillips just can’t shake.

The former Wales scrum-half is now living in Dubai, a land of skyscrapers and searing heat that could not be in sharper contrast to the Carmarthen farms and valleys where he grew up.

But, as he exclusively tells, there is still a familiar feeling flowing through his veins and it stems 4,500 miles away where Wales are sitting pretty in the hunt for the Guinness Six Nations trophy and the Grand Slam.

Victory against England has propelled Wales to the top of the standings and onto the back pages. Once more, they are the talk of the town.

With just two rounds to go, starting in Edinburgh and then concluding in Cardiff against Ireland, they can now dream of a first Championship success in six years.

Phillips knows better than most just what it takes. In 2008, the scrum-half was part of Warren Gatland’s first Championship squad that entered unfancied but left with both the trophy and Grand Slam.

But it is 2012 which really resonates with the current crop. The similarities are uncanny so far and Warren Gatland will hope the end result is exactly the same.

That year, Wales struck back late to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in Round One away at Ireland. Seven years on and the manner with which they saw off France was strikingly similar.

In Round Three that year, just like this, they faced England – albeit at Twickenham and not Cardiff.

England led at half-time on both occasions, 9-6 in 2012 and 10-3 in 2019. Wales left it late both times, with Scott Williams the hero in London while Cory Hill and Josh Adams struck in Cardiff to secure famous, momentum-building victories.

There might be two rounds, and two tough matches, still to go but Phillips can guess the outcome. He has seen it all before.

“It’s hard to describe what it’s like as a Welshman to chase the Grand Slam. The fans have such an emotional connection and it lifts everyone,” he said.

“But it has the same feeling we had, particularly in 2012.

“That confidence you get just builds. I remember we also played England in Round Three, although at Twickenham, and initially we did not play that well, we lacked confidence – a bit like the boys on Saturday.

“But we got through it, and they got through it, and we were away. There was no stopping us. Momentum makes such a difference, particularly to Welsh players.

“I think whenever Welsh players get confidence they become more dangerous than anyone else and those players are sky-high. It’s perhaps the best feeling they have had in their careers right now.

“They will not have felt that good before. Now, it’s Scotland away and I think they will win that – we have a good record there – and then Ireland at home.

“It’s going to be a huge couple of weeks.”

With 12 Test wins in succession, this Wales side has forgotten how to lose. Time and again they have come up with the goods late on – Australia, France and now England can testify to that.

In George North, Jonathan Davies, Justin Tipuric and captain Alun Wyn Jones they have a pool of world-class talent, backed up by an incredible strength in depth in a squad packed with quality – but also grit, determination and attitude.

However, there is a romantic undertone to their run this season. Gatland, in charge since 2007, is stepping down this year and is now preparing for his final two matches in Rugby’s Greatest Championship.

Phillips made his Wales bow in 2003 but it was under the New Zealander when he really excelled.

Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012 were joined by another Championship in 2013, albeit under interim coach Rob Howley, while he also went on two Tours with The British & Irish Lions – winning five caps in the process.

“He set the tone from day one. I will always remember he picked 13 Ospreys to play against England and that created such a stir,” he added.

“We won and that created another stir and that set the benchmark for how it was going to be. Generally, you don’t change a winning side but he dropped players for poor performances after winning at Twickenham. Few coaches are that brave to do that from the get-go.

“For me he was a huge presence too. He backed me and he liked my style of play, we got on and it worked. He was great for my career.”

Phillips’ last cap came at the 2015 World Cup aged 33 and he retired in 2017, before marrying and moving to Dubai a few months later.

As a player, he was used to life on the road and played for six clubs, including three in Wales, two in France and Sale Sharks in the English Premiership. That hardly compares to uprooting to a different continent, but Phillips has chucked himself right into the deep end.

He quickly joined up with sports provider ‘Just Play’ to introduce rugby to Dubai’s children, while he has also coached at men’s senior side the Jebel Ali Dragons.

Now with coaching badges all procured, the thought of a return home must be tempting. But the former scrum-half has other ideas.

“It is a different pace of life and we’re really enjoying it. I have a son [Elias] now and we are trying to do lots of different things and broaden horizons,” he said.

“I have my coaching badges and so that is something I am keen on. But being out here has shown me that I would much rather coach kids than adults.

“It reminds me of why I fell in love with rugby at the start. The game has given me everything and so it is nice to give something back.

“Obviously the sport is still fairly unknown over here so to see kids playing for the first time or getting into rugby and developing a passion reminds me why I do it.”

Phillips has embraced his new life and charged in with passion and commitment. Mirror that and Wales could well enjoy their own day in the sun.