Mike Phillips: ‘I don’t think I’m a loose cannon’

The Wales scrum-half admits to ‘the odd mistake’ but is now behaving himself at Racing Métro. Matt Majendie enjoys his company in Paris

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The Independent Online

There are some blots on Mike Phillips’ copybook that he may never truly erase.

That photograph of him being sat on by a bouncer outside a Cardiff McDonald’s at 3am three years ago, or the news this time last year that he had been sacked by Bayonne for reportedly turning up drunk to a video analysis session.

But it is not a persona in keeping with the less high-profile stories of Phillips. His Racing Métro and Wales team-mate Jamie Roberts talks of him being a lifeblood of every team with which he has been involved but, more importantly, “being a thoroughly decent bloke”.

Then there is the under-the-radar work he does for the small charity Follow Your Dreams, which helps children and young people with learning disabilities.

Members of the charity admit that they too had their own preconceived ideas of Phillips when he came on board as a patron. But they wax lyrical about his humility and tireless work for the charity, ranging from organising a ball next month to dropping everything one weekend to come to the aid of a youngster who had been threatening suicide.

So who is the real Mike Phillips? He admits he has made mistakes. A recent tweet said simply: “Sometimes the wrong choices bring you to the right places.”

A year on from his Bayonne sacking, it is an apt phrase from Wales’s most capped scrum-half, who contrary to reports is enjoying life in Paris and insists he has no idea where rumours surfaced of his imminent departure and return to Wales along with Roberts and Dan Lydiate earlier this week.

He is also genuinely bemused by some of the negative headlines over the years. “I don’t think I’m a troublemaker,” he said. What about suggestions he might be a loose cannon? “I don’t know. I think sometimes rugby for Wales is an environment with a lot of pressure and you don’t realise how much pressure that’s put on you and that you put on yourself to perform to the best.

“A couple of beers is a chance to release. It’s not necessarily the best option at times and unfortunately I’ve had to learn the hard way sometimes but I’ve never done anything too bad.

“Everything you do now, even if doing nothing wrong, it can be interpreted any way you want with a picture. That thing with the bouncer, that was nothing. It was blown up really by that picture. Without that, it would have been nothing.

“But that’s the way life is. I can go around visiting every hospital and no one’s going to put that in a newspaper. As soon as you mess up for 30 seconds, people want to hear about it. That’s life, a sad way of life. I’ve always been sensible, I’ve never been a bad person. I’ve just made the odd mistake.”

Phillips has definitely been burnt by the negative headlines in the past and does not want any more. He just wants to be liked, loved even, and, in conversation, it has to be said he is great entertainment.

He believes he has been unfairly singled out in the past and if given the chance again he says, poking fun at Roberts: “I’d make sure I’d tell everyone I’m doing a doctor’s degree and take 12 years to do it and everyone will just think I’m amazing!”

His last real brush with off-field negativity was his mysterious sacking by Bayonne, a blessing on reflection that led him to happier times at Racing Métro.

His new president, Jacky Lorenzetti, made light of his critics when they sharpened the knife over Phillips’ imminent arrival.

Lorenzetti, who made his fortune in real estate, said: “In Bayonne they said he liked to drink. If you can win 80 caps for Wales, five for the Lions and win two Grand Slams, if that’s what happens when you drink then I will put all my players in a barrel of alcohol from morning to night.”

It is an appraisal that gets a wry grin from Phillips, whose own take on that acrimonious and sudden departure – as he speaks about it publicly for the first time – is as follows: “It was very disappointing the way it finished, a weird one. Three months before that the [Bayonne] president [Alain Afflelou] wanted me to re-sign. All of a sudden we had a bad start and were second from bottom and something’s got to give.

“It was annoying the way things happened there. I knew I didn’t do anything. It was three of us, and three of us got treated differently for apparently doing the same thing, which was a bit stupid.

“The main thing about all this is the fact that I took them on legally afterwards and basically they pulled out of it and I won. That says everything.”

In the French capital, life has proved more settled as part of a Welsh enclave at the club that includes Roberts, Lydiate and Luke Charteris.

Phillips has immersed himself in Parisian life from a recent visit to the city’s catacombs to taking in Treve’s win at the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, and he has had his ups and downs with mastering the language.

Racing Métro have had a mixed start to the season, currently lying seventh in the Top 14 table. They host Premiership leaders Northampton in their opening European Rugby Cup encounter on Saturday. Can the Parisians, like so many French sides awash with a multitude of international stars, dream to win the tournament as a whole?

“If you look at teams like Munster and Leinster, it takes a while to win as it’s a tough competition,” he said. “We need to improve on last year where we were disappointed not to even get out of the pool.”

Phillips, who has started the majority of away games, looks likely to begin from the bench against Saints with Maxime Machenaud, the France international, wearing the  No 9 jersey for most of the home games.

There is conjecture about who will wear the Wales No 9 jersey that so long has been Phillips’s, with the in-form duo of Rhys Webb or Gareth Davies threatening to take it away from him.

Phillips is in regular contact with Wales assistant coach Rob Howley about the requirements to stay in the international fold and he will certainly be a part of the squad for the autumn Tests.

Further into the future is the ambition to make a World Cup swansong next year, hopefully ending with the Webb Ellis Trophy in his hands.

“It’s a big, big year for Wales,” he says. “There’s no reason why we can’t win the World Cup. I know we’ve struggled against the southern hemisphere nations and we have to get over that. But there’s no point going into a World Cup not believing you can win it. If we do that, we’re in the wrong job.”

Does Phillips ever allow himself to dwell on his achievements for Wales and the British & Irish Lions? He jokes: “I remind the boys every day!”

However, his career achievements are a far cry from the son of a farmer who grew up simply trying to catch up with his older brothers – seven and eight years his senior – in the surrounding fields, which he calls “my Cardiff Arms Park”.

Growing up, he pretended to be Joost van der Westhuizen, currently battling with motor neurone disease. The pair met for a second time during the summer tour of South Africa. “It’s devastating to see a hero like that but what an inspiration,” he says. “He had some nice things to say about me and I was thrilled to bits with that.”

While Van der Westhuizen remains an inspiration, so too are the children from Follow Your Dreams. A return to international duty will coincide with a chance to revisit the charity just down the road from Wales’s training base.

“I feel my dreams came true but these kids are so unfortunate to have a bad start, but there’s no need to take their dreams away,” he says. “It’s amazing how full of life these kids are. It’s great to be a part of such an amazing charity.”

These kids only know one Mike Phillips, not the hellraiser previously portrayed, for many of them not even a rugby player. Just someone who is there for them.