Wales legend Shane Williams has backed Mike Phillips to be their Rugby World Cup saviour.
The British & Irish Lions scrum-half was drafted into Warren Gatland’s squad, along with winger Eli Walker, after scrum-half Rhys Webb (foot) and full-back Leigh Halfpenny (knee) were ruled out of the tournament.
Many were surprised when Phillips, who has 94 caps, was left out of the original 31-man squad.
But former team-mate Williams has no doubt the 33-year-old’s return will provide a massive boost at a “dire time” on the eve of the sport’s biggest competition.
“Mike will change the dynamic within the squad,” said Williams, whose 58 tries is a Welsh record.
“I know he was disappointed not to be selected in the first place, but his attitude was ‘well, I wish all the other three guys the best, and still wanted Wales to do well’.
“He will go there now and say, ‘look guys, forget about what’s happened, Mike Phillips is here and I’m here to save the day’.
“That’s his attitude. He’s such a character, popular and a big-game player. He will tell the guys ‘I’m here now, let’s go and win the World Cup with Mike Phillips’.
“Make no bones about it, he’s going to come into the camp, he’s going to train hard and train well and push for that starting position.
“He’s got the experience and the quality and he will go in and break things up too.
“Mike’s won big games on his own for Wales and the Lions. He sets such a high standard that every time he plays, people expect him to have a mark of 10.
“It doesn’t always happen, it’s international rugby. He hasn’t played poorly the last couple of years, but it’s just he hasn’t hit the form people want him to hit
because of high expectations.”
Those standards saw Phillips shine at the 2011 World Cup, scoring a try in the agonising 9-8 semi-final loss to France.
Williams, who made 87 appearances for Wales before retiring this year, believes coach Gatland will keep the squad focused on their big task.
“This will galvanise them and he will assure the squad they are still good enough to win the World Cup – and they are,” he added, speaking to Sport360 at ITV’s World Cup launch.
“It’s a dire time, but we have got the players who can do a job.
“We just won’t have the strength in depth that we would have liked, but it won’t change the mindset of this Wales team. After coming so close in 2011, they will still believe.
“Full-back Liam Williams, they have been keeping him quiet after his foot injury and he’s not match fit, of course, but he was pushing Halfpenny for a start at 15.
“Everyone was talking about him six months ago so he’s still there.
“Wales have got their strengths and it’s good to see winger George North back out playing after the concussion worries.
“Perhaps he’s a bit rusty, but his confidence will be higher after playing.
“It’s not mission impossible to win the trophy, but the hardest thing is getting through that group with England and Australia.”
Williams was among those who questioned why Halfpenny was risked against Ireland at the weekend when he had strapping on.
But Gatland said he used it for kicking and added: “He said he didn’t really need the strapping, but because he’d been using it for the last two or three weeks, he put it on.
“It was nothing to do with the injury that he picked up on the weekend.
“I know there has been some criticism about protecting players and you always question yourself about that.
“It’s just trying to get the balance right between players having enough rugby and keeping players fresh.”
Ireland are taking no chances with full-back Rob Kearney’s Rugby World Cup fitness.
Simon Zebo deputised at full-back in Saturday’s 21-13 defeat to England at Twickenham, Kearney sitting out despite being branded fit for selection.
The 29-year-old Leinster star suffered a bruised knee in training last week, but head coach Joe Schmidt said he had remained available for the game.
Instead Ireland opted to hand winger Zebo another run at full-back in preparation for the 25-year-old covering Kearney during the World Cup.
“Rob Kearney will do moderated training in the first part of this week,” an Ireland injury update statement read.
Zebo struggled positionally against England, Anthony Watson catching him out for the second of the hosts’ two first-half tries.
Ireland base much of their tactical kicking attacking game around Kearney’s prowess under the high bomb, leaving Kiwi boss Schmidt refusing to take any risks in training this week.
Ireland have confirmed scrum-half Conor Murray continues to follow the return-to-play protocols after suffering concussion against England. Schmidt is confident
Murray will be fit for Ireland’s World Cup opener against Canada in Cardiff on Saturday week.
Johnny Sexton and Zebo both limped out of the closing stages of Ireland’s defeat in England, but Schmidt revealed their only issues as cramp – and that was backed up by yesterday’s injury bulletin.
Meanwhile, Schmidt has defended Ireland’s performance, with the first-half branded by former winger Shane Horgan as “the worst 40 minutes” of the Kiwi’s time in charge of the team.
“There was plenty to be worried about,” Horgan, capped 65 times between 2000 and 2009, said. “It was probably the worst 40 minutes of the Joe Schmidt era.
Extremely passive in their line-speed, allowing mis-matches for England backs against Ireland forwards who are reaching with their arms.
“No aggression in the tackles, no desperation in the tackles. It’s very, very concerning around collision time.”
But Schmidt responded: “We came out, we were quite flat, couldn’t get access to the ball and we spent a lot of time defending. We couldn’t get out of our half
effectively, which is unusual for us.
“At the same time, if we score from the lineout or carrying ball very close to the line and go in 12-10, probably the same assessment can be made, but one small thing has changed. The fine margins are what decide games like that.”