Throughout a glittering playing career, Mike Phillips rarely shied away from confrontation or controversy. In fact, he thrived on it.
But in his first foray into coaching since hanging up his boots, a player renowned for getting under the skin of opposition players has been praised for his humility and work ethic.
Phillips’ trophy cabinet and record of achievement is plentiful, including two Six Nations Grand Slam titles and 94 caps (joint sixth) with Wales, as well as five more and a series win in Australia with the British & Irish Lions.
But following retirement in November he’s been living in the UAE and has decided to start on the bottom rung of the coaching ladder, establishing his own rugby academy and also taking the reins at Jebel Ali Dragons.
Having hit so many highs on the field, you might expect Phillips to approach his post-playing career with a certain degree of superiority. But Dragons skipper Ross Samson revealed the Welshman has been brilliant in his early weeks in charge.
“I think he’s surprised everyone with how understated he is, how humble,” said Scotsman Samson, the scrum-half who played a huge role as Dragons won the coveted West Asia Premiership last season, a first trophy in four years.
“When he talks about rugby he comes alive and I think the boys buzz off that. It’s new and exciting for him and I think as long as he and we all get something out of it, that’s the key.”
Even as an ex-pro of such high standing, Phillips has big shoes to fill at Dragons. They returned to prominence in 2017/18 after a few barren years, fighting back under the tutelage of another former star, ex-New Zealand league and England union star Henry Paul.
Phillips will be aided by Andy Buist, a former Newcastle Falcons player, and Jonny MacDonald, the Scottish former Arabian Gulf international, both of whom have been an integral part of the Dragons coaching set-up for a few years.
“It’s a learning thing for everyone. Mike’s not coached before and he’s pretty honest about it,” added Samson.
“He’s come in and just got stuck in, helping Buisty, J Mac and they’re a good team. They feed off each other.
“I think a lot of players when they finish might feel a bit lost. He’s got his rugby academy and I think it’s nice for him to have a focal point and something to help develop his coaching career.
“There’s a great bunch of lads behind him on the coaching staff and hopefully he enjoys it and gets a lot out of it. So far he’s buzzing off it, he’s on the WhatsApp groups throwing banter about, while we all celebrated the birth of the little one.”
Phillips became a father for the first time at the start of the month, to baby son Elias. But he hasn’t used that as an excuse to slack off during the hard yards put in during pre-season amid the stifling Dubai heat.
“It’s surprised everyone how many people are here. Everyone’s keen,” said Samson, who has seen upwards of 40 players regularly down at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence for pre-season training since mid-July.
“And it’s not just down to the fact Mike’s here. There’s a big buzz about it obviously and he’s been here since day one. He’s had a baby and missed just one session because of that so that’s class and the boys buy into that even more.”
And despite a brilliant run to the West Asia title last term, Samson insists there is no pressure on the Wales legend.
“We’re not holding a gun to his head saying ‘here’s the benchmark’ after last season, ‘you have to be coach of the year’,” added the former Glasgow and Newcastle player.
“We’re not expecting him to come in and be Warren Gatland overnight. He’s been coached by some of the best coaches in the world and played with some of the best players and clubs.
“Anything the boys can learn from him and he can learn by coaching us and help him get settled and set up, it’ll be brilliant.”
Last season could have been even better for Dragons. They lost in the final of the Dubai Sevens to an inspired Dubai Exiles performance and generally threatened in all competitions.
But Samson knows all too well the feeling of falling away from the elite. And he insists Dragons must aim high again this season. They can’t let Phillips’ appointment be the highlight.
“No-one’s resting on their laurels because we’ve recruited well in the summer, got some healthy competition,” added the 30-year-old.
“We recruited a few lads playing a very good level in the UK, so I think the boys who were a shoe-in last year have thought ‘I need to get down here and show my face’, do well in the fitness tests and not rest.
“We had a good year last year but it doesn’t really count for anything if we fail to build on it this year. The teams that come good are the teams that keep that energy for the duration of the season.
“We did that last year and we’ve got a better club, better squad and better organisation because of it. That was the benchmark and we have to make sure we pass that again.”
Two days after Cipriani pleaded guilty to common assault and resisting arrest following a nightclub brawl, Ashton is facing a possible ban for punching Rory Kockott in Sale’s pre-season friendly victory over Castres on Friday night.
Both players were sent off after clashing in a fiery match in Saint Affrique and although the game was staged in France, normal Rugby Football Union procedures apply.
Referee Romain Poite’s report is expected to be delivered to the RFU by Monday and given that video footage shows Ashton throwing a left hook, the dual code international could be summoned before a disciplinary hearing next week.
The entry-point sanction for punching is two weeks, but this climbs to four if it is deemed the intended target was Kockott’s head with the top end opening with an eight-week ban.
Counting against him at any hearing would be the total of 23 weeks he missed in 2016 after being found guilty of biting and making contact with the eye area of an opponent.
Those suspensions influenced his decision to join Toulon for the 2017/18 season and contributed to him failing to win a cap under Eddie Jones.
Having set a new Top 14 try-scoring record in his first year, however, Ashton left the Cote d’Azur for Sale this summer in the hope of reigniting his England career while addressing some family issues.
The prospect of adding to his 39 caps this autumn rose with his selection in Jones’ pre-season squad that met two weeks ago but a significant ban could rule him out of the next camp, which is being held in Bristol towards the end of the month.
Jones has a pragmatic approach to dealing with disciplinary issues but that would be tested if Ashton were to miss the opening rounds of Sale’s season, which begins at Harlequins on September 1.
Cipriani is another player whose disciplinary lapses will be trying the patience of the England head coach.
The Gloucester playmaker faces an independent disciplinary hearing next week after being charged with conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game by the RFU and could face a fine and/or ban if the complaint is upheld.
He was fined £2,000 by a magistrates’ court after pleading guilty to charges of common assault and resisting arrest following an incident that took place on his club’s pre-season tour to Jersey.
It comes two months after he had made his first England start in a decade – in the third Test against South Africa in June – and his international future is now in the hands of Jones.
Both Ashton and Cipriani are no strangers to the headlines and have yet to play a competitive match for their teams having arrived as marquee signings over the summer.
Australia prop Adam Coleman insists going into the belly of the beast to try and gain redemption after being humbled by the All Blacks at home in their Bledisloe Cup opener provides the nation with great motivation.
The Wallabies are hurting after being humbled on their home turf and want redemption, but winning at Eden Park for the first time in more than 30 years would be the perfect response.
Coleman said they were disappointed to let a 6-5 half-time lead slip by squandering possession and failing at the set piece, with world champions New Zealand eventually sauntering to a 38-13 triumph in Sydney following a superb second half spectacle in which they ran in six tries.
But Coleman believes Australia could improve in the second match of the three-Test series on Saturday.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in our boys,” he told reporters at the team’s remote island base on Monday.
“What a challenge to come to Eden Park and respond here in New Zealand. It’s great motivation for the squad.”
Michael Cheika’s men have retreated to Waiheke Island, 20 kilometres off the Auckland coast, to plot vengeance for their drubbing in the first Bledisloe Cup Test, which also doubled up as the opening Rugby Championship clash.
A favourite weekend getaway for Aucklanders visiting its upmarket vineyards, the island this week hosts an Aussie team desperate to stop the All Blacks claiming the Bledisloe for the 16th straight year.
Coleman, 26, was not born the last time the Wallabies beat the All Blacks at Eden Park in 1986.
But he said the Australians were relishing the opportunity to challenge the Auckland venue’s intimidating history.
“We laugh about it but we’re here to do a job,” he said.
“The boys are hurting at the moment and to come here and play at Eden Park is something we’re looking forward to.
“We get to turn around a performance that we’re not really proud of. I think we let down people on our home turf and it hurts.”