A player renowned for getting under the skin of opposition players has been praised for his humility and work ethic
Throughout a glittering playing career, Mike Phillips rarely shied away from confrontation or controversy. In fact, he thrived on it.
But in his first foray into coaching since hanging up his boots, a player renowned for getting under the skin of opposition players has been praised for his humility and work ethic.
Phillips’ trophy cabinet and record of achievement is plentiful, including two Six Nations Grand Slam titles and 94 caps (joint sixth) with Wales, as well as five more and a series win in Australia with the British & Irish Lions.
But following retirement in November he’s been living in the UAE and has decided to start on the bottom rung of the coaching ladder, establishing his own rugby academy and also taking the reins at Jebel Ali Dragons.
Having hit so many highs on the field, you might expect Phillips to approach his post-playing career with a certain degree of superiority. But Dragons skipper Ross Samson revealed the Welshman has been brilliant in his early weeks in charge.
“I think he’s surprised everyone with how understated he is, how humble,” said Scotsman Samson, the scrum-half who played a huge role as Dragons won the coveted West Asia Premiership last season, a first trophy in four years.
“When he talks about rugby he comes alive and I think the boys buzz off that. It’s new and exciting for him and I think as long as he and we all get something out of it, that’s the key.”
Even as an ex-pro of such high standing, Phillips has big shoes to fill at Dragons. They returned to prominence in 2017/18 after a few barren years, fighting back under the tutelage of another former star, ex-New Zealand league and England union star Henry Paul.
Phillips will be aided by Andy Buist, a former Newcastle Falcons player, and Jonny MacDonald, the Scottish former Arabian Gulf international, both of whom have been an integral part of the Dragons coaching set-up for a few years.
“It’s a learning thing for everyone. Mike’s not coached before and he’s pretty honest about it,” added Samson.
“He’s come in and just got stuck in, helping Buisty, J Mac and they’re a good team. They feed off each other.
“I think a lot of players when they finish might feel a bit lost. He’s got his rugby academy and I think it’s nice for him to have a focal point and something to help develop his coaching career.
“There’s a great bunch of lads behind him on the coaching staff and hopefully he enjoys it and gets a lot out of it. So far he’s buzzing off it, he’s on the WhatsApp groups throwing banter about, while we all celebrated the birth of the little one.”
Phillips became a father for the first time at the start of the month, to baby son Elias. But he hasn’t used that as an excuse to slack off during the hard yards put in during pre-season amid the stifling Dubai heat.
“It’s surprised everyone how many people are here. Everyone’s keen,” said Samson, who has seen upwards of 40 players regularly down at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence for pre-season training since mid-July.
“And it’s not just down to the fact Mike’s here. There’s a big buzz about it obviously and he’s been here since day one. He’s had a baby and missed just one session because of that so that’s class and the boys buy into that even more.”
And despite a brilliant run to the West Asia title last term, Samson insists there is no pressure on the Wales legend.
“We’re not holding a gun to his head saying ‘here’s the benchmark’ after last season, ‘you have to be coach of the year’,” added the former Glasgow and Newcastle player.
“We’re not expecting him to come in and be Warren Gatland overnight. He’s been coached by some of the best coaches in the world and played with some of the best players and clubs.
“Anything the boys can learn from him and he can learn by coaching us and help him get settled and set up, it’ll be brilliant.”
Last season could have been even better for Dragons. They lost in the final of the Dubai Sevens to an inspired Dubai Exiles performance and generally threatened in all competitions.
But Samson knows all too well the feeling of falling away from the elite. And he insists Dragons must aim high again this season. They can’t let Phillips’ appointment be the highlight.
“No-one’s resting on their laurels because we’ve recruited well in the summer, got some healthy competition,” added the 30-year-old.
“We recruited a few lads playing a very good level in the UK, so I think the boys who were a shoe-in last year have thought ‘I need to get down here and show my face’, do well in the fitness tests and not rest.
“We had a good year last year but it doesn’t really count for anything if we fail to build on it this year. The teams that come good are the teams that keep that energy for the duration of the season.
“We did that last year and we’ve got a better club, better squad and better organisation because of it. That was the benchmark and we have to make sure we pass that again.”