Autumn Internationals: Mike Phillips enjoying Welsh support after troubled time
Scrum-half is without a club after sacking but international duty will put him in shop window
Thursday 31 October 2013
The temples are greyer, the top of the beard too. How much of that colouration has happened in the last week is uncertain but what is abundantly clear is that Mike Phillips has had a week to forget.
Accused of turning up drunk to a video analysis session, he was sacked by French club Bayonne, a side he joined from the Ospreys in 2011. The club chairman, Alain Afflelou, then stuck the knife in further, going so far as to accuse the Wales and Lions scrum-half of "treason".
Phillips has since fired back his own volley, with a plan to take legal action against the club and making a statement highlighting his disappointment at Bayonne's decision and finding out about it via an interview in a French newspaper.
Whatever the outcome of such looming litigation, it leaves the 31-year-old clubless just a few games into the new season in the wake of an extended break after the British & Irish Lions' tour of Australia. For now, at least, he has a rugby home with the Welsh national team, having met up with his countrymen on Monday and trained for the past four days.
There is no denying that his future is on his mind, and that it is a subject he is uneasy discussing. "It's frustrating the way it finished, obviously," he said just over a week before Wales take on South Africa in the first of four autumn internationals. "But I can't really talk about it for legal reasons. I'm just moving on, as a professional sportsman that's what you have to do, really.
"I'm in a situation I didn't expect to be in and I'm going to have to deal with it. My focus is purely on training well and performing well in training and making sure I'm up to speed with things. I'm feeling fit and strong. That's what I'm really thinking about."
Phillips is maybe not quite a Jekyll and Hyde character but there have been times where he appears to be a magnet for trouble off the field. He was handed a 10-day suspension in September 2012 by Bayonne after an unsanctioned night out following a match, while the previous summer there was a scuffle with a doorman in Cardiff city centre in the early hours of the morning.
In one interview during the Lions tour he even said: "Sometimes I can't work myself out." But he insists his mind is fully focused on the job in hand with Wales, namely overturning their poor record against southern hemisphere nations.
For all their success in the Six Nations and their often breathtaking play at the last World Cup, Wales under Warren Gatland have won just one out of their 22 matches against teams from the other side of the world.
The view of Gatland and his coaching staff is that the Bayonne dispute is not their problem, given that Phillips has done nothing untoward within the Welsh squad. As such, he looks a certain starter when Wales try to overturn that poor record against the Springboks a week Saturday, his performances for Wales and the Lions effectively making him one of the guarantees in the side.
Wales' assistant coach, Rob Howley, admitted Phillips had "fallen short on some occasions" in his conduct off the field but he insisted the player had the support of the Welsh set-up.
"You can only judge by how Mike is in our environment," said Howley. "Mike has had his problems but it's up to Mike to get his own house in order and focus on what he needs to focus on to prepare for the next eight or nine days. Mike is an outstanding player, he's been on two Lions tours and has experience. He's vital to our game."
That loyalty has not gone unnoticed by Phillips, who said of the Welsh camp this week: "Everyone's been fantastic: players, management, even the public. Everyone's shown their support, it's great. It means a lot."
Well everyone, that is, but Bayonne, who deem him more trouble than he is worth. It currently leaves him in the unenviable position of talking to potential suitors at a time when most British sides have already reached their salary cap for playing staff.
Asked if he would consider a return to playing regional rugby in Wales, Phillips said: "Yeah, I've experienced France. Who knows what's going to happen? There'll be numerous meetings over the next couple of weeks so we'll see how things go." Asked if there had already been approaches for his services, he simply added with a smile "maybe".
One possibility which has been mooted is that Phillips could be signed to a Welsh Rugby Union central contract, which he admitted would be among the potential discussion points with his agent.
Phillips insists he is well and truly clear of the knee injury that he picked up in his first Lions appearance of the tour, which meant it was always a battle to be properly fit for the Test matches. So physically he is in the right place but the question is whether he is ready mentally after the week he has endured.
From his point of view, his mind is no problem. "I've been a professional for 10 years, well over 10 years, I've experienced different things," he said. "I'm just focused and enjoying being back in the squad. It's a massive honour. I'm really excited to have a chance to go out there with the boys and train well and put myself up for selection next week."
Injury and keeping on the straight and narrow permitting, that selection is assured. South Africa have tended to bring out some of Phillips' finest performances. In the shop window looking for a new home after the autumn, he will be determined to prove his worth.
Phillips' follies: Off-pitch incidents
October 2008 Hospitalised after an alleged assault outside a Cardiff nightclub left him with facial injuries. Later opted to drop charges.
June 2011 Banned by Wales following an incident outside a fast-food restaurant in Cardiff city centre.
September 2012 Suspended by Bayonne for 10 days after several late-night incidents, including being seen socialising in the early hours after a heavy home loss.
October 2013 Sacked by the French side for misconduct after allegedly turning up drunk to a training session.
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