The 94-Test veteran, who plans to launch rugby academy in Dubai, talks about his passion for cricket and his experience of playing in UAE capital
Former Wales and Lions star Mike Phillips enjoys outing with Darjeeling cricket club in Abu Dhabi
Having hosted scores of Test matches and limited-overs internationals, as well as the Indian Premier League in the past, Zayed Cricket Stadium is used to having vaunted international players treading its turf.
When Abu Dhabi Gentlemen hosted Darjeeling for a friendly in the capital on Saturday, a celebrated ex-professional of a different kind was steaming in off his long run.
Mike Phillips played 94 Test matches as a scrum-half for Wales before retiring in 2017. Shortly after, he relocated to the UAE, swapped rugby boots for cricket spikes, and has been a regular for Darjeeling, the amateur club from Dubai, for much of the time since.
Most of the part-time cricketers involved in this weekend’s fixture in Abu Dhabi might have been expected to feel a thrill at playing at the city’s international cricket stadium.
Given that Phillips’s previous career involved playing at some of the largest venues in sport, including during five Tests for the British & Irish Lions in Australia and South Africa, he might not have been feeling the same sentiment.
Not so, according to the man himself.
“Coming here today, I was bricking it,” Phillips, 35, said. “I thought: ‘What am I doing here?’ The teams we play take it very seriously. They are warming up properly, and I was like, ‘Oh, no, I’m a bit stiff, and not the bowler I was’.
“It is a good standard, and I’m stiff as hell, but it is just great to be part of a team, and they are a good bunch of boys as well.”
Phillips, who is a pace bowler, started playing cricket in primary school. He remains a long-distance member of the same club in Wales – Whitland – as Jonathan Davies, the player of the series for the Lions against New Zealand last summer.
Although he played first-team level there while still a teenager, he says a choice between professional cricket or rugby was never even a question he had to consider.
“There are three teams there now and when I was a young kid I was playing in the first team, playing fairly regularly, then rugby took over,” he said.
“It was difficult to come back and play. Some of my best friends are still part of that team, and I love going back there and seeing everyone.
“Moving over here [to Dubai last summer], I thought I would love to play cricket again and play regularly.
“It has been great to join Darjeeling. I have loved it, even net sessions. And days like today are just amazing.”
He is getting set to launch his own Mike Phillips Just Play Rugby Academy, based at Nord Anglia International School in Dubai, later this month.
He says he aspires to re-join the professional game in a coaching capacity at some point in the future, but is keen to learn the ropes at grassroots level via his academy first.
“I need to start by learning the basics of how to become a good coach,” he said.
“Just because you are a good rugby player, [it] doesn’t mean you will be a good coach. Down the line I’d love to be involved in professional rugby again, but I am going to take the right steps to do that.”
And he has confirmed his retirement is going to stay just that – despite his recent outing in the pro ranks. He answered a plea six weeks ago to help bolster the injury-hit ranks of the Scarlets, the Pro 14 champions. He even started in the No 9 shirt against the Cheetahs in South Africa a month ago.
“I was nervous, because all I had done was play cricket and golf for seven months,” he said. “Then to go back and play professional rugby, it was not really the best prep.
“But I enjoyed it, and it was great to be part of the Scarlets, who are the current champions, and are still top of the league. I hope they win the league so I get a winners’ medal.”