‘It helps that it’s Ireland first up – you know that there’s no room for error’ -- Mike Phillips
Welsh scrum-half Phillips desperate to heal wounds of November defeat to Wallabies – and settle an old score with Irish legend O’Gara in process
Published 31/01/2013 | 05:00
MIKE PHILLIPS was still stewing about Wales' loss to Ireland in the Grand Slam decider over two months later when he reported for Lions duty in 2009.
It wasn't the fact that Wales had lost the game that annoyed him, it was that he hadn't knocked Ronan O'Gara's head off during the teams' warm-ups at the Millennium Stadium that afternoon.
He and the Ireland out-half had exchanged words and Phillips was still steaming.
"I was practising some kicking before the game and the ball bounced into the Irish half," recalled Phillips.
"I jogged over to get it and crossed by O'Gara, who was also practising his kicking. As I went past him, we exchanged words – he made a remark and I responded with something just as polite.
"I went back into the dressing-room and told the boys. He got a bit of mouth during the game, but he's a player who loves those exchanges. And he had the last say too, in fairness."
Defeats stay with Phillips long after the final whistle and it was a loss he was still bothered by when he reported for Lions duty at the end of May that year.
"When I reported to the hotel, I was given my room number and went to dump my bags. I opened the door and guess who my room-mate was? O'Gara!"
It's always been that way with Phillips. He takes losses personally. The scrum-half cannot stand being beaten, by anyone, at anything.
Chris Rowe first came across Phillips when the pair joined the Llanelli academy as 16-year-olds. Rowe, a second-row currently plying his trade with Cork All-Ireland League side Dolphin, talks of a teenager who just wanted to be the best at everything when he remembers Phillips from those days,
"And he hasn't changed," said Rowe. "If it's tiddly-winks, he wants to beat you. He's hugely competitive.
"You can see that in the way he plays the game. On the field he's a menace. But, once the game is over, that's it. It's all about the contest and being the best."
Australia's Kurtley Beale ruined Christmas for Phillips. In fact, the Wales scrum-half is still pretty distraught at the memory of that game at the end of the November series of internationals.
Wales' defence had to hold out for just 30 more seconds and victory would have been theirs. Thirty seconds doesn't seem like a long time. Relatively speaking, it isn't a long time.
But at the end of an international rugby match against a side as potent as Australia, it can feel like a lifetime.
It stings even more when it's remembered that Wales were in control at that juncture having been awarded a line-out inside the Australia '22'. All they had to do was win the ball and let the clock do its job.
They blew it, Mitchell broke and after the defence repelled Australia's initial thrust, Dave Dennis exploited an overlap to put Beale over in the right corner.
"It still hurts now," recalled Phillips recently. "That was a ball-breaker of a result. There is no other way to describe it, a right kick in the you-know-whats. We had played all the rugby in that game, were in control and in Australia's '22' and we somehow ended up losing the game.
"You can't call it bad luck, really. If ever there was a lesson about the need to concentrate for the 80-plus minutes of international rugby that was it. We weren't concentrating in the final 30 seconds and got stuffed as a result."
Mike Phillips divides opinions. As a player there are few scrum-halves his equal. He was the undisputed choice as Lions scrum-half in 2009 once his only real competition for the jersey, Tomas O'Leary, was ruled out.
He's also likely to be the Test No 9 on this year's tour to Australia.
As a player, according to Rowe, Phillips always had the look of someone who was going to make it at the highest level. "He always had that edge that you see in the way he plays now," said Rowe. "He is a competitive animal. He trains the way he plays, on the edge and in your face. He always had the commitment and determination, even as a 16-year-old."
Off the pitch Phillips has been in a couple of scrapes, most notably when he was briefly suspended from the Wales training squad before the 2011 World Cup. He was also suspended by his Bayonne club president Alain Afflelou in 2012.
He maintains his move to France, even allowing for the much-publicised suspension, is the best decision he has ever made career-wise. And, he isn't afraid to profess, "aside from the rugby, French women are lovely!"
Life with Wales hasn't been as idyllic. Their defeat to Australia was their seventh successive Test match loss. It is an astonishingly bad record given they are the defending Six Nations Grand Slam champions.
"I think we possibly weren't as hungry in the autumn after our relative successes in the World Cup and Six Nations. We didn't have that edge to our game that we showed in those competitions and paid the price during November," admitted Phillips.
Wales are limping into the defence of their Grand Slam this week. The squad have been hit hard by injuries and will be without Warren Gatland as coach because of his Lions commitments. Phillips is confident that the squad won't be unduly affected, though.
"Warren is a major presence, but his not being with us will cause minimal disruption because of the structures he has in place. And Rob (Howley) is more than capable of stepping into the breach. We will be well prepared.
"We know we have to improve and we will be better as a result of the November experiences. We'll have that hunger back for the Six Nations. We have to. It's as simple as that."
It's a peculiarity with Wales that they don't have a middle ground when it comes to the national team. In any season they can either win the Grand Slam or finish the season in ignominy.
Which Wales side is pitching up for the championship is invariably determined in the first game. "You build momentum from that first game," Phillips added. "Traditionally we are a side that likes to entertain and sometimes that can be our undoing in matches. It helps that it's Ireland first up because games between us are usually close affairs.
"You know there is no room for error and there are not that many weaknesses about Ireland.
"This will be an interesting Six Nations for Wales, because we are still a team that is improving all the time.
"We will know a lot about how our season will be after the Ireland game and I am sure it will be very much the same for Ireland."
Phillips pleads ignorance when queried about Ireland's new generation who started to make their mark during the autumn internationals – "I don't have Sky Sports in France, I haven't seen them in the Heineken Cup either" – but it's obvious this is a game the Principality are not taking lightly, even though they have beaten Ireland in their last three meetings.
"You can't take anything for granted with Ireland. Look at their players. When a team has Brian O'Driscoll in their line-up, you know they're going to be dangerous.
"It's the first game for both us, so there is a bit of an unknown dimension to it. We'll just have to wait and see what happens come 1.30 on Saturday."