Mike Phillips: 'Go on Strictly Come Dancing? No thanks'
The Brian Viner Interview: The Wales scrum-half (aka 'Mr Duffy') has the celebrity partner and lifestyle. But don't label him as another Gavin Henson
Friday 08 October 2010
Mike Phillips turned down the chance to go to the Ryder Cup and is kicking himself, or at least gently berating himself; a kick from Mike Phillips would hurt too much. But seriously, it was just up the M4 in Newport, and of course he and his Ospreys team-mates were glued to the television coverage of Monday's extraordinary denouement.
No doubt they also enjoyed the closing ceremony, which was introduced by Gareth Edwards, a Welsh scrum-half whose fame transcends rugby and Wales. The current occupant of the hallowed No 9 jersey – almost as hallowed as the Welsh No 10 jersey – is not quite there yet, but Edwards would be the first to admit that the boy is better-looking than he was. Moreover, Phillips has a celebrity girlfriend, the singer Duffy (pictured inset), and, even more significantly, enough talent, in the view of many observers, to become the finest scrum-half in the modern game. He's a marketing man's dream.
We meet on the terrace of a swanky hotel overlooking Cardiff Bay, just along from where he and Duffy live. Indeed, he has a speedboat, which he sometimes takes for a spin around the bay, although he hasn't "got the guts" to stick it in the pay-and-display boat park lest anyone mistake him for a proper nautical type.
It's not often that Phillips exhibits a lack of guts. Leading rugby union internationals are not exactly known for shirking physical confrontation, but Phillips stands out for his fearlessness. Typical was his thunderous hit on a rampaging Keven Mealamu for Wales against the All Blacks this summer. Then there was his try against England at Twickenham in the 2008 Six Nations, the score that clinched a famous 26-19 win and set the Red Dragonhood on the road to the Grand Slam. Welsh backs coach Shaun Edwards, no slouch himself in the confrontation department, was quick to explain to anyone who would listen that most players would at least have closed their eyes in charging down Iain Balshaw's attempted clearance "because you can be hit in the kisser. Mike's eyes were open."
By contrast with his on-field persona, and his off-field reputation too, because Phillips is not known as a quiet half-a-shandy merchant, the man across the table from me is softly spoken and seems almost humble. When I ask him to identify his favourite part of the game, he says: "There's no better feeling than making a break. But I also love putting a big tackle in. I put in a good hit on the hooker for New Zealand in the summer, Mooli or whatever his name was."
That would be Mealamu, and the hit was as if the 16-and-a-half stone forward had suddenly collided with a parked truck. A dazzling smile, the smile that won Duffy's heart. "Yeah, I enjoy tackling forwards. I suppose it's a bit of cockiness, saying to them 'you've just been smashed by a No 9'. But I've calmed down a lot. When I was younger I was quite excitable, but I don't tend to say too much now. I'd get too excited, then after the game think 'what an idiot I am'. It happened with the Lions a few times."
Phillips played in all three Tests for the Lions against the Springboks last year, and was one of the stars of the tour, even slotting in seamlessly at centre when Riki Flutey was injured. Ospreys fans were not surprised. They also know that they will need an injury-free Phillips, not a luxury they enjoyed last season, if Ospreys are to get through a formidably tough group and reach the Heineken Cup final, which happens to be at the Millennium Stadium, next May. The campaign starts tomorrow in Toulon.
"Last year we had such a good start at Leicester," Phillips recalls, "but we ended up drawing. Hopefully, this time we can start with victory. I've never played Toulon before. Obviously we're similar teams. They're known for buying all the star players, and some people think that of Ospreys as well." Toulon's star player nombre un, of course, is one Jonny Wilkinson. "Yeah, and he's playing really well for them. He can control any game."
One game Wilkinson signally failed to control, however, was that 2008 encounter at Twickenham, the first time for two decades that Wales had beaten the old enemy at HQ, and also Warren Gatland's first match as coach. For Phillips, the tough little Kiwi was a godsend. "He gave me the opportunity to start, and he believed in me. When I came into the Welsh squad I wasn't given any confidence. Some coaches wouldn't even bother saying my name in team meetings. But Gats told me after that game that I could become one of the best scrum-halves in the world. And Shaun, Shaun just loves the fact that I'm physical. To make Shaun happy you just have to make big hits."
His physicality, he thinks, stems from his childhood on a dairy farm near Carmarthen. He was the youngest of three brothers, and the middle brother Mark, seven years his senior, became Welsh amateur light-heavyweight boxing champion, so it's hardly surprising that he learnt early on how to stick up for himself. "My brothers were constantly winding me up," he says, chuckling. "But I was also taught by my father never to give up. And I learnt a lot just from his attitude to life, that hard-working ethos. I learnt to do the grafting as well as the fancy stuff, and that's what fans like to see."
It is surely no coincidence that a disproportionate number of rugby players, particularly if you consider the southern hemisphere nations, come from farming backgrounds. "That's probably true. It gives you a great start, working the muscles without you even realising it, getting up early in the morning, mucking in." A pause. "I hated it all, really," he adds, with perfect comic timing, and explodes with laughter. "At 13 or 14 I just wanted to be cool, and I didn't think farming was cool. But I don't want to come across like a proper farmer. I'm pleased now that I grew up with those values, but my brothers would say that I spent more time in the house than helping out. I wasn't passionate about it, which you need to be. You can't be half-hearted about farming. Like rugby, really."
Rugby has loomed large in his life for as long as he can remember. "I love my cricket too. I played a lot as a kid. I loved it at 14 or 15, playing village cricket with the men. You have a beer with them and you think that's great. But rugby was the main thing. My older brother played, so I used to go and watch him. And international days were a big deal, putting the Wales kit on to watch it on TV."
He joined his brother's club, Whitland RFC, and played as a scrum-half, driven to succeed by all the people who said, week after week, that he was too tall to play at No 9. Before his time, Terry Holmes had blazed a trail for big Welsh scrum-halves, but for Phillips, the main inspiration was the tall South African, Joost van der Westhuizen. "He was a big hero of mine. I remember watching him in the 1995 World Cup, tackling Jonah Lomu. He was everything I wanted to be."
Does it irk him, having become no less than Van der Westhuizen the embodiment of the new breed of No 9, that it is No 10s who are most idolised in Wales, the fly-half factory and all that? "No, because the greatest player of all time was a scrum-half – Gareth Edwards. There have been some tremendous scrum-halves in Wales, and there's good competition right now. It's a great position. Maybe 10 or 15 years ago there was only one role, to pass the ball out, but now you have to be able to multitask. You can influence the game as much as a 10 sometimes."
A good example is Justin Marshall, an All-Black for a decade, and the first-choice scrum-half at Ospreys when Phillips moved there in 2007, having earlier gone from Whitland to Llanelli and then to Cardiff Blues. Did Marshall take him under his wing? Hardly.
"It's a funny one, really. It's fair to say that he wouldn't pass too many words of wisdom my way, but then I learnt from him that he hadn't got 80-odd caps for New Zealand by giving young bucks a helping hand."
He can laugh about it now, now that he's master of his domain. But let's finally explore another area of that domain. I have been asked by his agent to sidestep "Gavin and Charlotte" but my sidestep never was any good. Does the example of Charlotte Church and his (erstwhile?) Wales and Ospreys team-mate Gavin Henson, a marriage of rugby and showbiz that soured, represent a salutary lesson to him?
"Ermmmm," he says, suddenly inarticulate. "Yeah, maybe. You've got to be careful how you put yourself out there. You can put yourself as much as you want in the public eye but the main thing for me is rugby."
In other words, albeit my other words, he's not about to sign up for Strictly Come Dancing, like Henson did? "No, that's not my ticket. My goals are all on the rugby field." Nevertheless, good looks, abundant talent and a famous girlfriend surely add up to huge commercial opportunities. "I dunno. Maybe. It's a bit strange, really. You can't help who you fall in love with. But I've never been as happy as this, ever. I feel very lucky to have the dream job, and the dream girl as well."
What was his response to the Welsh Rugby Union's facile decision to use the self-exiled Henson to promote the new kit? "I just sort of laughed. That's the first thing I did. I didn't think any more about it than that. That's Gav, isn't it? It didn't bother me. That's just him. I like Gav. I wouldn't say a bad word about the boy. He's an immense rugby talent, he's made his choices, and hopefully one day he'll come back."
And that's that, almost. We shake hands, then talk about his speedboat, then shake hands again. And then, just before we part, he suddenly looks anxious. "Are you going to mention much about the Gav thing?" he asks. He's not the only rugby man in Wales to want "the Gav thing" to go away.
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