Phillips’ Welsh career is over!

Fraser Watson takes a look at the brilliant international career of Wales and British Lions scrum half Mike Phillips, a controversial figure on and off the pitch!
Phillips’ Welsh career is over!
He was a player that divided opinion to the very end of his Welsh career.

Phenomenal, sluggish, confident, brash, physical, temperamental, experienced, liability, legend, unpopular – it’s fair to say that for every superlative used to describe Mike Phillips during his international tenure, there was an alternative view to counter it.

And yet, when the 33-year-old opted to step down from Welsh duty on Tuesday afternoon, one judgement in particular was unanimous.

The career of one of Wales’ greatest ever No 9’s, was over.

Fascinating player

We live in an era where there is perhaps too much obsession with player statistics. But Phillips’ cap tally of 94 for his country (a record for a Welsh scrum half) over a 12 year period, and five for the British Lions, reflect an individual who, in a time where the shelf life of a professional player is decreasing, cut it at the very top level for more than a decade.

Phillips has always been a fascinating player to analyse, ever since he truly announced himself on the international stage with a man of the match display against France in the 2006 Six Nations.

A scrum half with a difference

In terms of stature or style, he is anything but the stereotypical version of a scrum half that youngsters are often asked to replicate. 

Over six feet tall and more than 15 stone in weight, he has always possessed the physicality to threaten a back row in both defence and attack. His tendency to step across before passing, as opposed to the slick ‘off the floor’ service of scrum halves before him, often frustrated many. And yet, it was a characteristic which would always keep an opposition pack honest.

Indeed, the amount of half or clean breaks, and penalties won for his country when attacking the fringes, has long been understated.

Wild boy of Welsh rugby

Amongst his detractors, were those who felt his aggressive style bordered on stupidity, and seeing Phillips in another fracas or scrape with an opponent prompted much eye rolling. Of course, certain off-field alcohol related misdemeanours, such as the incidents that led him being arrested outside McDonald’s in Cardiff and being sacked from his first French club, Bayonne, did not help matters.

And yet, the arrogance that Phillips was often accused of possessing was perhaps, indirectly at least, his greatest asset.

Indeed, what has always made him such a priceless commodity, is his ability to produce his best when it matters most. No occasion has ever phased him, no amount of pressure has ever been too overwhelming to handle. Had a long-term New Zealand, South African, or Australian scrum half possessed Phillips’ personality, his arrogance would be perceived as a winning mentality.

Enjoyed playing in adversity

It is no coincidence his most notable displays in a Wales shirt came in adversity. His remarkable contribution and try during the 2011 World Cup semi-final against France, where he played behind a seven man pack for the majority of the game following Sam Warburton’s early red card, was one that few other international scrum halves could have matched in such circumstances.

And of course, the blood and thunder of Wales’ 30-3 win over England to claim the 2013 Six Nations, another of his standout performances, was right up his street.

A true Lion and Welshman

His legacy however, extends beyond his country. His displays for the Lions in the 2009 test series against South Africa, where at one point he switched to the centre as his side got decimated by injuries, were as courageous as they were memorable. Four years later, it was of little surprise when Warren Gatland recalled him to the Lions’ side for the pivotal series decider against Australia, following an injury plagued performance by Phillips in the first test.
Eventually, his international career did not end on the high note he would have liked.

But for a man so often criticised for supposed self-absorbance, his refusal to publicly lament his omission from Gatland’s original 2015 World Cup squad, ultimately saw him recalled for the tournament after Rhys Webb was injured.

Adam Jones in particular, may well have learnt a lot from that.

Furthermore, his decision to bow out on 99 international caps, and not hang on for the magical three figures, is not in-keeping with someone driven by ego.

Personal memory

And while many will have their own memories of Phillips, the majority more positive than negative, I can offer a personal one which became synonymous with the remainder of his career.

I was fortunate enough to be part of the Llanelli Under 21’s squad that travelled to play Pontypridd Under 21’s in Llantwit Fardre one freezing January night in 2003 – it what turned out to be a virtual league title decider.

As per usual, the Pontypridd crowd, not to mention players, were baying for blood. And at No 9 and already on the brink of the Llanelli RFC first team squad, Phillips was an obvious target.

He left the field that night with no collar left on his shirt, his sleeve ripped, and his face bleeding. All this, following a phenomenal individual display where he relished the hostile atmosphere and physical exchanges.

Little did I know at the time, those 80 minutes would eventually provide a perfect symmetry to his senior career.

When the going got tough, and his team needed him most, the warrior came to the fore.
And only now he’s gone, will we truly appreciate that quality.