Tough act for Mike Phillips to follow as new Jebel Ali Dragons coach

Former Wales scrum-half begins training West Asia Premiership champions after taking over from Henry Paul

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , JULY 30 – 2018 :- Mike Phillips , coach of JA Dragons ( center ) interacting with the players during his first training session held on the rugby ground at Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National )  For Sports. Story by Paul Radley

Given the prevailing weather conditions, domestic rugby players might have been forgiven for wanting to skip Monday night training this week.

There was the dust cloud still hanging around for a second day, the high humidity, and the stifling heat of summer in the Middle East.

Rarely, though, will the first official day of pre-season have been welcomed with quite the level of anticipation as at Jebel Ali Dragons.

After all, Mike Phillips, the 99-cap former Wales scrum-half, was directing operations in his new role as coach of West Asia’s reigning No 1 team.

The Dragons players have been running through light training sessions for the past couple of weeks at their home at JA Centre of Excellence, under the eye of their high-profile new coach.

This was the first time, though, that Phillips had run focused drills designed to ready the side for the start of the season, at the end of September.

“We have been going for a couple of weeks now, keeping it light-hearted, and this is a new thing for me,” Phillips, 35, said.

“As I first said when I met the boys, I will be doing more learning than anyone. It is great to be back in rugby, and this is a great way for me to start off in management and coaching, and to see if it fits with me.

“I am obviously passionate about rugby, so this a great opportunity for me.”

Dubai, March 23, 2018: Henry Paul, Head Coach, Jebel Ali Dragons during the West Asia Cup  Semi Finals at the Jebel Ali Centre of excellence grounds in Dubai. Satish Kumar for the National/ Story by Paul Radley

As a former Wales and British & Irish Lions star, he might have an unrivalled profile in the game here.

But Phillips does, in fact, have a tough act to follow. The side he has inherited won the West Asia Premiership last season, the leading competition in Middle East rugby.

And his predecessor was hardly an unknown, either. Henry Paul, the former dual-code international, stepped down from the role earlier this summer after landing a job on the coaching staff of Canada’s national team.

Such celebrated succession plans are not exactly the norm in Arabian Gulf rugby. Phillips, though, says he did not presume any knowledge of his standing in the game when he first introduced himself to his new charges.

“I was pretty nervous, to be honest,” he said. “Some of them may know me, some of them may not. I know my character, and hope my personality will come through.

“I am a fairly relaxed guy. I am here win. I totally understand the boys are here off their own back, and I want to make it as much fun as possible.

“There is a real spirit here, the boys have been very successful, and it is great to be part of this group.”

For Phillips, who also runs a coaching academy for junior players independent of his involvement with the Dragons, it is the next step on a journey he hopes might one day lead back to the professional game as a coach.


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“Obviously, a lot of top players go straight into coaching [directly after playing], and that’s fine,” said Phillips, who retired from playing in 2017.

“For me, it is important to learn dealing with people, managing people. I think I can be good at that.

“Graham Henry [the former New Zealand World Cup-winning coach] was here last year for a speech, and it resonated with me that he coached at school for 15 years or more before he became a professional coach.

“He did alright, didn’t he? You have to learn your trade. It is about treating everyone individually, and motivating people in different ways.”