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Interview With Mike Phillips

24th September 2006

Mike Phillips's character is as spiky as his hairstyle. On the pitch, he likes to play an aggressive game and, aided by his size and strength, he's a constant thorn - or should that be spike - in the side of the opposition, troubling them with his surging breaks and impressive range of passes.

Off the pitch, he's not one to mince his words, getting straight to the point. During this interview, he admits he is "not close friends" with Dwayne Peel, his main rival for the Wales No 9 jersey and the man who kept him out of the Llanelli Scarlets side for so long that he decided to head east to Cardiff Blues last summer, and that last season's Heineken Cup defeat at Leeds was "embarrassing".

More of Cardiff's European travails later. First, let's focus on Phillips's role at the Arms Park. The scrum-half has been made to feel welcome at the Blues and has no regrets about leaving Stradey Park.

"I'm a first-team player so I feel much more a part of it here," he says. "I got on with the boys down there [at Llanelli], but I wasn't a part of the main team at all. I'm more of a figure at the Blues, an important one as well."

That last statement cannot be disputed. Phillips was crucial to the Blues' performances last season. Without him, it's unlikely they would have finished fourth in the Celtic League and thus been the best of all the Welsh regions. He has developed a strong partnership at half-back with Nicky Robinson and when those two are on song they get the Blues' back-line firing.

Over the past 12 months, everyone has been heaping praise on the 24-year-old Phillips and Dai Young must believe he made one of the most astute signings of his career when he pounced for the player when his Scarlets contract was up for renewal. In fact, Young was so confident in Phillips's abilities that this summer he released Ryan Powell, who had been playing second fiddle to his younger rival, and brought in 22-year-old Wayne Evans from the academy as scrum-half back-up.

Rob Howley, one of Young's assistant coaches at Cardiff and someone who knows more than a thing or two about scrum-half play given his impressive Wales career, describes Phillips as "a special player" while Blues captain Xavier Rush says the No 9 was the player who most impressed him last term.

Phillips admits he likes playing a decisive part in the Blues side, but he dismisses the suggestion that his performance determines whether the team play to their abilities. "I do feel I play an important role in the team and that brings the best out of me - it switches me on for games. But I don't think it's true that if I don't play well the team doesn't play well. There are lots of big characters in the team and there are really good players throughout the squad, although nine and ten are key roles."

Phillips and Robinson will be crucial to the Blues' Heineken Cup hopes this season. They face a huge challenge with reigning European champions Munster, two-time winners Leicester and French outfit Bourgoin in their pool.
And considering they floundered so badly in their last campaign when they had a far easier pool - Calvisano, Leeds and Perpignan - they need to make considerable improvements if they're to have any chance of making the last eight. Phillips knows they let themselves down last term, the nadir coming in their final two pool games when they lost 21-3 at home to Perpignan and 48-3 at Leeds, but he's confident they can draw on the experience.

"Perpignan at home was the killer," he says. "We had a great chance and a big crowd who were geared up, but we just didn't turn up on the day. We let ourselves down big time there. We didn't turn up for the Leeds game either, which wasn't really professional. It was embarrassing and really gutting.

"A lot of the boys were really young last year. They're still young but we can learn from it and move on this year. We had a good chance last year, with a bit of a weak group and we should have done better. This year all the games will be tough. Last year everyone expected us to do well, this year no one expects us to do much, so there's less pressure on us."

The Blues kick off their Heineken Cup campaign in Bourgoin on Saturday 21 October, but the head-to-head Phillips is particularly looking forward to comes the following weekend when he faces England scrum-half Harry Ellis and his Leicester Tigers side. "Harry Ellis is a really good player and is at home in a big team. I'm looking forward to playing against him - he's one of the best. He's scored some really great tries and is a top performer, with a good team around him as well. I enjoy playing against the best - it helps me improve."

If Phillips is to retain the No 9 jersey he wore in Argentina - a big task given that his former Llanelli boss Gareth Jenkins, who always preferred Peel when it came to picking the Scarlets team, is now in charge of Wales - he knows he "will have to play a lot better than I did last time on tour".

Performing well in the Heineken Cup will certainly help his cause, particularly given the calibre of opponents he will come up against. And there is no need to worry about Phillips taking a backward step this season, whether he is playing for club or country.

"I just want to win. I want to play well for the team and myself, and do well in life. I want to be a winner."

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