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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Jebel Ali Dragons coach Mike Phillips makes winning return to action at the Dubai Rugby Sevens

The retired Wales scrum-half helps his side's second team prevail on opening day of action on Thursday

Mike Phillips in action for the Jebel Ali Dragons second team at the Dubai Rugby Sevens. Antonie Robertson / The National
Mike Phillips in action for the Jebel Ali Dragons second team at the Dubai Rugby Sevens. Antonie Robertson / The National

Eighteen months after retiring from a professional career that brought him 99 international caps and two British & Irish Lions tours, Mike Phillips made a return to the playing field for Jebel Ali Dragons’ seconds at the Dubai Rugby Sevens.

The former Wales scrum-half was appointed as coach of the Dubai-based club in the summer. He had hinted back then that he might make a comeback if ever the side were short.

When a space opened up to play for the second-string in the Gulf Men’s Open at this weekend's Sevens, he was happy to oblige.

“The boys were short, so I thought I’d stick my name down and help out,” Phillips, 36, said.

“We couldn’t get numbers for the team. A lot of the boys are playing for other invitational teams, and that is fine. I am delighted, it was cool to play.

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“I need to get some fitness in, I’ve been feeling a bit podgy round the waist, so this was a good excuse to run around.

"It was good, because it is good to play with good people, and there are some talented youngsters coming through as well.”

Few people around a buzzing Pitch 2 were aware that Phillips was lining up in the Dragons side - even the opposition.

Dragons were comfortable winners in their opening game, against a Saudi select side made up of Saudi nationals and expatriates based in the Kingdom.

They won 36-7. Phillips played the final pass for a number of the six tries, and kicked a conversion, but it was his defence which caught the eye most – as the opposition attested.

“We had no idea we’d be playing against him,” Ali Dajani, one of three Saudi nationals in the side, said.

“Knowing that he played the level he did, it was interesting. My job in the team is to plough through, and normally it doesn’t take one guy to take me down. When someone knows how to hit, I know about it.”

Playing at Dubai Rugby Sevens is a neat bookend to Phillips’ playing days. He had played at the old Exiles ground in Al Awir with Wales sevens in 2002 when he was making his way in the game.

“It was at the old stadium, and I loved it,” Phillips, who also runs a coaching academy in Dubai, said.

“It was the start of my professional career, really. This can be the end of it as well.”

With Phillips fulfilling playing duties, the job of overseeing the Dragons first-team in the Gulf Men’s League competition has been left to his assistant, Jonny Macdonald.

And Macdonald is also serving a player-coaching capacity. The Abu Dhabi-born former Scotland sevens player is making a comeback of his own, having been forced into retirement by concussion four years ago.

It means he has been reunited in the same team as James Love, who was a teammate of Macdonald’s when the Arabian Gulf played at the World Cup Sevens at this stadium nearly 10 years ago.

“Lovey and I played together years ago for the Arabian Gulf and we have been best mates since,” Macdonald said.

“It is nice to finally play with him again. When we decided on it, he joked that we should get the old team back together.

“It was cleared last year by medical professionals, and I have been wanting to do it for a while – in the lighter form of the game, sevens.

“There are no issues on that side. We weren’t short, but there was a spot open, and I wasn’t taking anyone’s place, so we thought, why not? I am just back up for the weekend.”