Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Six Nations: Phillips ready for Irish fire

Mike Phillips was still stewing about Wales' loss to Ireland in the Grand Slam decider more than 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 (pictured), 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.

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. 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.”

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 Tomas O'Leary, was ruled out.

He's also likely to be the Test No 9 on this year's tour to Australia.

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 professes, “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.

“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.

“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.”

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