Wales and Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips on life as a professional rugby player
Ex-Lions and Wales Rugby player Mike Phillips is now based in Dubai and runs a children's rugby academy. He's currently in Japan for the opening ceremony of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and he sat down with Esquire Middle East to answer a few important questions on what it was like playing for a Rugby World Cup team.
ESQ: What was it like being a professional rugby player and repping your country?
Mike Phillips: Being a professional athlete is just amazing. It's kind of difficult though because more often than not athletes are competitive and headstrong, it's all about the next game.Life doesn’t get any more planned than that and future macro-planning often takes a back seat. You're just so focused on the next performance and, you're 100% driven by results. If I lost on a Saturday, I used to get down for the next couple of days and sometimes I was too harsh on myself. But you've gotta be harsh on yourself to be successful. You’re jetsetting around the world doing what you love at the prime of your life.
ESQ: So for those who don't know much about rugby, you played as a scrum-half. What exactly does that position involve?
MP: Bakc in the day the scrum-half position was reserved for the smallest person on the team. So generally, under six foot and his job is literally to pass the ball away from every situation that arises in the game and you have to be quick and sharp and athletic and keep away form any contact. But when I came along, I'm six foot three, and there hadn't been a six foot three scrum-half before, so it kind of changed the whole landscape of that position.
ESQ: Was there a lot of push back from people when you wanted to try out for the position?
MP: When I chose the position, everyone told me at the start, 'you're going to be too tall, you're too big for the position,' which is quite ironic really in rugby, which is a game all about size and power. But I was just headstrong and made it clear that it was the position I wanted to play. I didn't listen to those people telling me that I was too tall and I needed to change my position. I knew that I could influence the game by being bigger and stronger and, and also having the skill set to be able to pass the ball quickly away from the contact areas.
ESQ: But when athletes play under such intense media scrutiny on a global stage can they truly be hapy with their performance in every game?
MP: I played over 90 odd times for weeks on end and I can honestly say when I walked off the pitch, I was probably only happy with five or six performances because I knew that I was just striving to get better and better all the time.
ESQ: Really? that few?
MP: The minute to stop and think, "oh this is great, we're flying out to Australia, or to New Zealand." But it's not about that, you're just so focused and determined and my mother would always say "you're so lucky you're travelling all over the world". But it's not a holiday. It's hard work and you have to be so focused to remain at the top of your game. When you see the likes of Tiger Woods making a comeback even today he's got to be really headstrong to be able to do that.
ESQ: Was there a lot of pressure on you when you were playing for Wales?
MP: Massive pressure. Rugby is bigger than football in Wales. And I think, luckily as a professional, you're kept in a little bit of a bubble, which is great. But whenever you're walking down the streets, everybody's got a comment to make on your performance. In Wales, everybody thinks they're the best rugby players in the world and it's difficult at times when things are not going so well to concentrate on your role in the team and to be positive. It's really tough, [because] it's like a religion in Wales. The whole country stops when Wales plays rugby and everybody watches it on the telly. But that's the beauty of it and the great thing about the sport. It's a lot of pressure, but it's important to thrive on that pressure.
ESQ: Yeah? Did you thrive under that kind of pressure?
MP: Rugby is big all over the world. When we would travel internationally, people would tarvel all over the world to watch us play and the'd come up to me when we were in Thailand or even in the street. It does grab everyone's attention when you're Welsh and you sort of grown up with it really.
ESQ: Playing for the national team does involve quite a few glitzy events. What was it like having your whereabouts reports in the page three sections?
MP: It's hard I like being pictured or whatever at certain times in my career. It was nice. But, you have to stay so much more focused. I had a high profile relationship once and part of me didn't like it because I didn't want to be known for that. I wanted to be known as a top rugby player. But there's a part of me that liked the attention, everyone does, but you want it for the right reasons and you want it because you've performed well on a Saturday or you've won a tournament or a grand slam. You don't want it for any other reason really.
ESQ: So what was your regular training routine like when you were playing professionally?
MP: When my wife goes to the gym she comes abck home and tells me "oh you know I watched a great movie at the gym", and you know, as a professional, you can't go to the gym and watch films. It's not a place where you go to enjoy Railey's a policereally. You go to really push yourself to the limit and everyone's there trying to be competitive and looking for that extra 1%. At the highest level, that's what it's about. You win and lose a game, we lost the World Cup semifinal games by a matter of inches, you know, and, that's the difference of being in the gym and sticking it out for another 10 seconds or whatever it is you're doing. Now it's much nicer, I can go to the gym and just enjoy it. When you're playing you're trying to get better every time you go into a gym or onto the rugby field. So I don't miss that side of it at all.
ESQ:You stopped playing professionally a couple of years ago and what's the transition been like?
MP: You just think you're there forever. Sometimes the world is on your shoulders and sometimes you're on top of the world and you go through such an emotional rollercoaster. But, all of a sudden, when all the globetrotting and living for the next game comes to a halt and athletes are thrown into the real world, many professional athletes realise that they have to now fend for themselves. It's tough. I guess my whole life I've had one goal and that was to play rugby, and to be the very best at it. And now, I guess I'm trying to find different goals. Now I've started my own rugby academy in Dubai for children and that's extrememly rewarding.
ESQ: Was it hard when you woke up the day after you quit professional sports and did you wonder 'what am I going to do with all my time?'
MP: No, it wasn't hard because at the end when you wake up, you can honestly feel your body hurt. When you wake up, you take a few hours to warm up, and everything's hurting in your body. Your back's tight and you walk with a limp and, I needed a hip operation for example. So everything's hurting and I know that I gave everything on the field, so I know that that stage of my life has come and gone. And I appreciated it so much and I loved it and I'm proud of what I did. But it's about the next chapter now and it's exciting really. You don't have to do all that training, which is nice, but you can do other things and it's just exciting really.