Controversy has often followed Mike Phillips around, one and off the pitch.
Here, in the second of our brilliant extracts from his new book ‘ Half Truths ’, the Welsh rugby legend details the infamous McDonald’s incident in the early hours of a night out in Cardiff that saw police called and him hit the front page headlines after being banned by Wales for two weeks.
Phillips details the mental turmoil he was going through at the time, including a break-up with the singer Duffy, a fallout with the Ospreys and how he had to spend a week clearing his head at a wellness centre.
READ MORE: Mike Phillips book exclusive: My bitter fall out with Warren Gatland and the email that left me appalled
The date is June 14, 2011, shortly before Wales were to head to the World Cup in New Zealand where Phillips played so brilliantly in helping them reach the semi-finals...
A bouncer is pressing my face against the floor in the centre of Cardiff and his mate has positioned himself right in the middle of my back.
There are a few different ways this could have gone but I find a moment of clarity, even after a pint or 10. The voice in my head is telling me one thing and one thing only; do not react.
The only thing that would have achieved is to escalate what I deem to be a relatively minor incident into something far worse. I manage to turn my head, scraping it across the floor.
As I look up, I find myself staring into a camera lens.
Now I’m starting to realise that the situation has taken a sinister turn for the worst. I know those pictures are not going to look good. I knew where this was heading. I don’t think I’ve hit rock bottom but I’m not far off.
I am, of course, describing the now infamous events of a night that, despite everything I achieved, will always be something that I’m remembered for.
It also took place less than a week before Wales’ preparations for the World Cup were due to begin, so the timing wasn’t the best
If you’ve read the newspaper reports, you’ll have figured out that the chap pinning me to the concrete and his mate are McDonald’s bouncers. But you only know part of the story.
In order to fully understand the events that occurred that night, we need to rewind a little bit.
Before we begin I want to make one thing clear: I’m not here to make excuses for my behaviour. I look back now and I can’t escape the stupidity of it all, arguing with a bouncer outside a fast food restaurant in the early hours of a Tuesday morning, especially so close to a huge moment in my career.
I should have been tucked up in bed. But we all make stupid decisions from time to time.
In some ways, I was a ticking time bomb. It wasn’t just an argument with a bouncer, it was a culmination of a lot of things.
Shortly before the incident I’d ended a two-year relationship with Aimee Duffy, the incredibly successful singer from Bangor.
I’d been commuting from our place in London down to Swansea to train with the Ospreys three days a week, which is a six-hour round trip and only added to the stresses I’d been wrestling with as a result of dating another person who is in the public eye.
I’m not sure how I managed to keep performing to a high level during that period, with all the travel. Things had come to a head and I decided to end it but that doesn’t mean I was in a particularly happy place mentally.
On the rugby front, my relationship with the Ospreys had completely deteriorated after some disagreements and miscommunication during contract negotiations. Things turned sour for the final few months of the season and they stopped picking me altogether. I was left looking for another club.
All the while, I was trying to put my best foot forward on the pitch because the World Cup was around the corner. I didn’t need these distractions, but they are the kind of things that I was dealing with in the background and, quite frankly, I needed to blow off some steam.
I was out that night toasting the fact I’d agreed to join French club Bayonne that very same day. Being left without a club is never a nice feeling, so to secure the move was a great moment.
During the latter stages of my relationship with Aimee, I’d stopped going out entirely to spend more time with her and now I was more than happy to celebrate some much-needed good news.
Plus, there was no rugby going on at that particular moment and I was in the middle of having some time off. So into the city I went with one of my good mates. It was nothing too wild but we enjoyed ourselves.
At the end of the night, like a lot of people, I fancied some food to take home with me so, along with my mate, I headed to McDonald’s. The incident that followed was a storm in a teacup.
I was looking forward to a nice McChicken sandwich meal, a cheeseburger and a Coke to wash it down. But the bouncer wouldn’t let me in and a few words were exchanged as a result.
He gave me a bit of stick and started having a bit of a go at the team in general, saying things like: “No wonder you boys are garbage.”
He was quite cheeky and an argument followed but I was ready to leave it. I’d actually started walking away but before I realised that the situation was about to spiral well out of control, one bouncer jumped on my back and wrestled me to the floor before two of them pinned me.
It caused a bit of a scene and somebody was snapping pictures on their phone as events unfolded.
A number of people had gathered around but nobody was interested in helping me out or backing me up, they just whipped their phones out and started snapping pictures.
I was more relieved than you might think to see the police arrive because I knew that it would de-escalate the situation.
They took me away, put me in the back of the van and I just said to them: “Boys, check the CCTV. I’ve done nothing.”
At that point, they just took me home. Which was obviously for the best. When you’re in that position, face to the floor, people all around you taking pictures, knowing the damage it could do to your reputation, the impact it will have on your loved ones and how it all looks, you feel pretty helpless.
But I don’t blame anyone apart from myself. I put myself in that situation and I should have been smarter and more aware. I don’t blame the bouncers or anything like that.
Then Wales got in touch, which I guess was inevitable really.
Our training camp was due to start the following week. However, I would not be there.
I got a message from team manager Alan Phillips to say that I was suspended from the squad for two weeks. That was it. We didn’t speak on the phone and I didn’t really have any more detail than that, although I figured they’d be looking into the matter to establish exactly what had happened.
Did I think I’d blown my chances of going to the World Cup? To be truthful, I didn’t care. At that point in time, the last place I wanted to be was in a Wales squad going to a World Cup and I was ready to tell the management just that.
I hope that doesn’t come across as ungrateful because I cherish every cap I won for my country but I’d had enough.
Mentally, I was at a real low point and it just felt like there was always some issue that I had to deal with in Wales. A lot of the time people would make stuff up and there always seemed to be a complaint or a problem.
There was constant aggravation following me everywhere I went. Looking back, I brought a lot of it on myself but I was under a lot of stress.
I decided to get on the phone to Christian Gaijan. He was director of rugby at Bayonne and he’d just signed me less than 24 hours before I ended up hitting the headlines.
I got a lot of stuff off my chest to him. I’d had enough of Welsh rugby, a total gut-full.
When I made that phone call, I had no intention of going to the World Cup, even if Wales wanted me back. I just felt like the whole thing was totally ridiculous. How could something so small be blown up into this massive incident?
To his credit, he said: “Mike, you have to go to the World Cup, it’s a massive opportunity and you’ll regret it if you don’t go. Then, when it is over, you can come to France.”
He’d have been well within his rights to give me an earful as well because I was his latest big signing and within a matter of hours I was getting involved in this rubbish.
It frustrated the heck out of me as well because I didn’t think it was that bad. The pictures made it look horrendous and people were putting two and two together and getting five.
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Warren Gatland was great in fairness and he did reach out after the initial message came through from Thumper. He didn’t say a lot but he just told me: “Get yourself sorted and be ready to come back in a few weeks.”
I hadn’t hurt anyone. I think they did a bit of digging and probably found that out for themselves. I still wasn’t entirely convinced that I wanted to go to New Zealand but, luckily, I hadn’t let that slip to any of the management.
Soon after the incident, my ex-girlfriend Aimee got in touch.
Our break-up had played a part in my behaviour at the time and, whether she knew that or not, she reached out after seeing my name – and the pictures – in the newspapers. I think she figured that I was in a pretty rough spot mentally and she wanted to check in on me.
It was Aimee who talked me into going to a wellness centre in Kent, where I spent a week following the incident.
She sold it to me as this place where successful people – from celebrities to business people – go in order to gain that one or two percent that can make all the difference.
It wasn’t a rehabilitation facility and I wasn’t dealing with those sorts of demons. But she thought it would be good for me to sort my head out a little bit because it was clear to those closest to me that I wasn’t coping.
Obviously, I disagreed. I wasn’t convinced that I needed to spend time at some wellness centre but there was plenty of upside.
It would give me a chance to shut off from the world a little bit, which was going to be necessary because I knew I would be in for a fair bit of flak in the coming days.
Phillips didn't know what to expect being among a group of strangers, but like others he sat around and spoke about stress and how to deal with it. He found the week worthwhile
Being able to open up like that, speak freely and discuss what was going on in my head was really quite beneficial. It felt like a weight was being lifted off my shoulders.
That week in the wellness centre helped get my mind right and process everything that was going on. It also gave me a real appreciation of the benefits of focusing on your mental health.
By the time I was done in Kent, I felt recharged and was ready to throw myself into the World Cup campaign.
I went on to play some of the best rugby of my career at the World Cup, so the trip to the centre must have had some impact.
Publicly, the Welsh Rugby Union had said that I was suspended ‘indefinitely’, which made it look like they’d taken a strong stance against what had happened. They also said there had been some meeting with the WRU’s top brass. That never happened.
I didn’t get fined for it, which may come as a surprise to some. I think they just realised that it was really much ado about nothing and that the two weeks were sufficient.
Also, at the end of the day, I hadn’t punched anyone and it’s not a crime to have an argument.
Before I could get to the training field, I had to face my team-mates. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of standing in a room full of players and pouring my heart out to them. I’m a pretty reserved bloke who likes to keep things to himself but Gats pulled me to one side and pushed for it.
Gats wanted me to say to the squad that I had issues but I was like: “Hang on now! I haven’t got issues!” There was no way I was going to stand there and say that but I knew I had to look them in the eye and let them know that I held myself accountable for what happened.
I stood up at a meeting, just after breakfast, in front of the entire squad. That scenario is pretty much my worst nightmare, to be stood in front of everyone, explaining myself.
I was dreading it but I had to do it. I said the bare minimum to get through it as quickly as I possibly could. And behind it all, I didn’t really feel like I deserved to be going through all this. I didn’t hit anyone, I walked away from an argument.
But here I was, standing in front of the team. I said: “Sorry for what I’ve done and for letting you boys down. I’m determined to put it right and will make it up to you.”
I told them I’d been in a bad place, changed my attitude and I vaguely alluded to the fact I’d been to the wellness centre, which was a huge deal for me. It was only 2011 but there was still a significant stigma attached to mental health, particularly in an environment bursting with testosterone, like rugby.
Meeting over. Nobody really spoke after me, we just got on with it. Which was exactly what I was hoping for.
Mike Phillips: Half Truths, published by Reach Sport, is on sale Thursday. Save 25% from reachsportshop.com
Mike's book tour includes Waterstones Swansea 21st at 12pm, Waterstones Carmarthen 27th at 12pm and Waterstones Cardiff 30th at 11am.
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