Matt Jones talks to Mike Phillips about becoming a father, life in Dubai with Jebel Ali Dragons and his first experience of coaching
They say you can never teach an old dog new tricks, but Mike Phillips is having to get used to rather a lot of things changing at the age of 35.
Wales’ most capped No9, with 94 appearances, has just become a dad for the first time to baby boy Elias. He moved out to Dubai at the end of 2017 to set up his own rugby academy and took his first-ever coaching role with Jebel Ali Dragons two months ago.
And pre-season training in the fierce UAE summer heat has also been something different for a former player who perhaps didn’t experience 40C plus temperatures too much during his illustrious playing career.
But then, adaptability has never been much of an issue for the iconic Wales scrum-half, a burly and imposing 6ft 3in figure who started out as a flanker in his native Carmarthenshire and only switched to scrum-half in his late teens.
Sport360 caught up with Phillips at Dragons training on Wednesday night. And the former Ospreys, Scarlets and Blues nine looked remarkably fresh, considering the stifling Dubai August heat and the fact he’d been up with his new arrival since 5am.
“He looks like me which is good. Luckily for him,” said Phillips.
“He’s awesome. It’s awesome (being a dad). My first kid, he’s amazing. I was up at 5am with Elias this morning. I’m not sure if it’s Welsh (the name). I’ve heard Greek people telling me it’s Greek. My wife’s French and we have friends who are French.
“We were friendly with them in Manchester and they had a boy called Elias so we liked that and that was it. He hasn’t got any Welsh middle names, nothing like Owain Glyndwr or Dafydd. I wanted to call him Trevor after my dad but we didn’t.
“I just want to pick him up all the time but I’ve got to stop doing that. I’m putting the graft in here and at home.”
Graft is certainly being put in by Phillips, who is taking on his first coaching role having finally retired from playing – for a second time – at the end of last year.
He turned out for the Scarlets – his first professional club – in their two Pro14 matches in South Africa after being persuaded by the club’s backs coach, and his great friend and long-time half-back partner, Stephen Jones.
He was a big personality as a player and was never one to shy away from confrontation or controversy, but Phillips insists taking over at Dragons has meant he’s started on the bottom rung of the ladder once again.
“It’s about gaining the players’ respect,” said Phillips.
“It’s really enjoyable and I’m learning all the time, every session is getting better so it’s really good.”
Coaching is not something Phillips really gave much thought to during his playing days. He had too many trophies to win.
He lifted the 2008 and 2012 Six Nations Grand Slam titles with Wales, as well as being part of the squad that retained the trophy in 2013, and was part of the British & Irish Lions squads in 2009 and 2013 – winning in Australia five years ago – while also appearing at the 2007 and 2011 Rugby World Cups with Wales.
But scrum-halves possess a certain amount of leadership credentials, and Phillips feels he has plenty to offer.
“It was there in the back of my mind but when you’re playing you have to focus on being a player and nothing else,” said the Carmarthen-born player, a fluent Welsh speaker.
“As a player I was a bit of a leader, I was a nine, so you have to be. But it’s a different thing coaching, delivering drills and things. It’s a really different dynamic and a different thing altogether, and it’s great. A lot of players go in at the professional level. That’s fine but I think you’ve got to learn as a coach.
“Just because you played rugby at a high standard doesn’t mean you’re going to be a high standard coach. It does help a lot because I had coaches who never played and I found it difficult to pay attention to them, that’s just my opinion.
“It’s like anything. Why would I listen to anyone talking about the moon who’s never been to the moon telling me how to be an astronaut. You’ve got to have a certain level of playing in you and you earn more respect then.”
He has big boots to fill at Dragons. Henry Paul, another former pro, returned Jebel Ali to prominence during a two-year spell in charge of the club – leading them to Gulf rugby’s biggest prize, the West Asia Premiership crown, last season.
Paul has now left for Canada to help another former Wales international, Kingsley Jones, out as assistant coach of the Canucks, having impressed during a guest stint at the Americas Rugby Championship at the start of the year.
Even though the man who occupies joint sixth place alongside Colin Charvis on the list of highest number of caps earned in a red jersey admits to being green in terms of coaching, Dragons have him well covered.
Experienced Andy Buist and Jonny MacDonald have been part of the club’s coaching stuff for the last few seasons and are helping him settle in.
Both also played at a high level too, with Buist a former Newcastle Falcons lock and MacDonald, born and raised in Abu Dhabi, a former Arabian Gulf international who represented them at the Sevens World Cup in 2009 and also played international sevens rugby for Scotland.
Phillips added: “It’s not just me, there’s Buisty and Jonny, we have a whole management team. I’m new to it and I’m learning, and everyone’s pitching in and working hard. It’s a proper team, no-one’s bigger than anyone else. It’s a great bunch of boys.”
And despite a high caliber playing career, Phillips admits his happiest times were his early days playing at Whitland and Carmarthen when being a successful international scrum-half was nowhere near his thoughts.
“I look back on my career and the times I enjoyed the most were down at Whitland youth, some of the best times of my whole rugby career,” he added.
“It’s similar to this (at Dragons). Everyone’s here off their own backs. There’s no TVs or cameras, boys are here because they love rugby and there’s a good team spirit. It’s why you fall into rugby.”
To learn more about Phillips’ academy, visit www.mikephillipsacademy.com