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
England wing Jack Nowell is preparing to hit the road again after undergoing “almost like a big MOT” this summer.
Nowell missed England’s three-Test South Africa tour in June following a testing campaign last season when injuries hit him hard.
But after having ankle ligament surgery two months ago, the 26 times-capped Exeter back is firmly on course towards reaching maximum output.
“Last season was probably one of my worst seasons,” Nowell said.
“I felt like I didn’t really get into my stride. There were a couple of injuries, and you always feel like you are chasing.
“Hopefully, I can get into a position where I am not really chasing my fitness or chasing games, and I can just be fit for the whole thing.
“I have almost used this off-season as a real time to sit down and not just rehab my ankle, but some other niggles that I had.
“The ankle was my main thing, but I have also spent a lot of time on my shoulder, neck, knees and my leg strength. It’s almost like a big MOT.
“I was devastated to miss the South Africa tour, but sometimes in a rugby player’s career you almost need to take a step back and say ‘what’s best for my career and what’s best for my body at this time’.
“Hopefully, I will come back better, stronger and have a better season than I did last year.”
Nowell, a 2017 British & Irish Lion, has not started an England Test since the Six Nations game against Scotland at Twickenham last year.
The likes of Anthony Watson, Jonny May, Elliot Daly and Mike Brown filled England’s wing berths during last season’s Six Nations and the South Africa trip, but a fit and firing Nowell would give head coach Eddie Jones another notable selection option.
“The big thing I have always focused on is playing well for my club,” Nowell added. “If that happens, then other things can come from that.
“At the moment, I don’t have a spot in the England team, so it is for me to fight for that back, get fit for Exeter and start playing well.”
Exeter, Premiership finalists in each of the past three seasons, are likely to again feature prominently among the title challengers.
It is more than two months since the Chiefs lost to Saracens at Twickenham – a second final defeat of their title-bid triumvirate – and Nowell said: “It was one of the most gutting feelings I’ve had.
“It was twice as bad as the first time we lost (in 2016 against Saracens).
“The first year we were almost happy to be there, to have been there and done it, but then after winning it the following season and then getting to a final again and losing again, was devastating.
“You can feel the hunger in pre-season. The boys are flying, and eager for the season to start.”
*Jack Nowell was speaking at the opening of Exeter Chiefs’ new fitness analysis suite, launched in partnership with Red Bull.
Chris Ashton has revealed that homesickness as well as the determination to relaunch his England career underpinned his decision to swap Toulon for Sale.
Ashton’s stunning form in his debut season in the French Top 14 that saw him set a new try-scoring record of 24 rekindled his international ambitions with the 2019 World Cup looming.
Being named in Eddie Jones’ pre-season training squad that gathered in London over the weekend edged him closer to his goal, although it was only when added to the squad’s WhatsApp group that he knew of his selection.
Also influencing the request to end his Toulon deal with two years still to serve, however, was the desire to return to the north west of England with his wife Melissa and daughter Ava.
“Playing in France was exactly what I thought it was going to be – a different culture and environment. I’m a better person and player for experiencing it,” the former Northampton and Saracens wing said.
“It was a great experience for me and my family but we also understood how much we appreciate our families at home.
“We both have big families and going out there with a young baby and looking to have more babies we found harder than we anticipated.
“Although Toulon is not far away, it felt far away at times. We definitely feel more settled back in England.
“It means quite a lot for me to be at home and with my family. There’s no other place in England I can relate going back to like that.
“I’ve been away for 11, 12 years so I felt it was a nice time to go back and play rugby up there.”
Once Ashton had resolved to return to England, his next task was to convince temperamental Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal to grant him early release from his contract.
“Mourad would have rather I stayed, but him and the club were good for me,” Ashton said.
“I’m grateful he was understanding of the situation and allowed me to return home. The only place I really wanted to go was Sale. They were with me throughout the process.”
It was before his appearance for the Barbarians against England in June that Ashton first made his intentions public and having agreed to join Sale he became available for selection under the rules set by the Rugby Football Union.
A blistering first-half hat-trick against the team he served over 39 caps issued a timely reminder of his finishing prowess and he spoke to Jones either side of the game.
“I was just hoping to play well against England for the Barbarians. I did see it as a good opportunity to… not send a message but play well to say I am still hanging around,” the 31-year-old said.
“Playing abroad in France maybe brought the best out of me in terms of my rugby and I still felt I had a lot to offer and have a good go at playing for England again.”