From hero to zero and back

HIS temperamental streak and general abrasive image has sometimes made Mike Phillips the face of Welsh indiscipline.

He was at the centre of controversy again on Saturday, receiving a yellow card in first half injury time, an indiscretion that cost Wales three easy points.

However, before being dispatched to the bin, a regular occurrence in his chequered career, the scrumhalf was lauded for a last ditch tackle on Shane Horgan. The number nine managed to force Horgan to drop the ball before the line, and the TV match official Dudley Phillips could not award a try.

“I someone managed to slow him down and all I had to do was scrag him,” remembers Phillips. “There are moments in games and that was a big moment. I instinctively knew I had got there and knew he (Horgan) hadn’t got there. You could see it clearly on the TV as well — it was quite clear it wasn’t a try.”

Though Warren Gatland likes to keep every player guessing in terms of team selection, Phillips has established himself as Wales’ first choice scrumhalf under the New Zealander. There was also no changing of the guard at nine — except when Shane Williams moved there for 10 minutes — with the multi-capped Dwayne Peel left kicking his heels on the bench. “You’ve got to impress and got to play well to keep your spot,” says Phillips. “And no matter who you are, if you don’t play well you could be on the sidelines.”

However Phillips’ moment of first- half madness that cost Wales valuable points might not be looked upon too kindly by Gatland. He maintains that instilling discipline is top of his brief in his quest to turn the Principality into world-beaters.

Late in the first half Phillips was spotted by the touch judge dropping a knee into the back of Marcus Horan, and Wayne Barnes had no hesitation in producing the yellow card. However, the Ospreys scrumhalf maintains that Horan over-reacted. “I thought the Irish player made a huge meal of it. I was just trying to get the ball off him; he was holding onto it. That’s a penalty in itself. I hardly touched him really.

“I apologised to the boys, but, while I was off Wales won that 10-minute period 3-0. That was a big factor in the game really and we came through that patch unscathed.”

Asked whether Gatland had admonished him for his indiscipline, Phillips said: “Afterwards, as we did the lap of honour, he came up to me and made a little joke about it. It was one of those silly things really — the guy (Horan) made a meal of it. Loads of things go on a rugby field — there are a hundred things you can give a yellow card for. Still, half-time was uncomfortable for me. Nobody said anything to me and I was just anxious to get back on the field.”

Delighted to have won the Triple Crown, what pleased the one-time flanker was the manner of the Welsh performance.

“I thought we were outstanding. Our defence was really good. And I thought we went through the phases well. We should have scored a few more tries and finished the Irish off really in the first half. One or two bad passes let us down and we could have had an easier second half. We went down to 14 men twice but the boys did incredibly well after both yellow cards and showed great character.”

And he had some complimentary things to say about Croke Park too.

“Wales haven’t done too well here over the years. To win in Croke Park was something special too. It’s an outstanding arena in which to play. We were looking forward to coming to this arena for Gaelic games and enjoyed it out there, but we are beginning to enjoy every match we play.”

Less complimentary was he towards the one-dimensional Irish, whose game-plan, he felt, was ultra-conservative.

“Ireland picked and went a lot, and O’Gara kicked the corners.

“We found a way to counter their pick and go tactics. I thought they didn’t show much else really.”

Wales now stand on the cusp of a second Grand Slam in four seasons with the new management team helping repair the hurt of two seasons of disappointment and a dreadful World Cup. “They’ve (management) brought a hard edge and a professionalism to the training. It’s well-known at this stage that training is short and sharp and very intense. We’ve shown in the second half of all our matches how we can lift the intensity — that’s down to the training where they recreate in the intensity of match situations.”

He added: “It’s great to go into the last one with a chance of winning the Grand Slam. We need a big week in training. It’s in our hands now. We’re playing at home and it’s going to be a fantastic day. It was a great day the last time against Ireland. We all remember that one and hopefully we can do the same.”

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