It will be the first time the tournament has been held in Asia, but one man in the Wales camp was actually part of the first ever Rugby World Cup, and his preparations then were far from thorough. Thirty-two years ago, current team manager Alan ‘Thumper’ Phillips was a late call-up to Clive Rowlands’s squad, and his story reflects the spirit of the era.
The former hooker recalls: “I was in my local nightspot in Porthcawl with my wife on a Friday night, and my mother-in law, who was babysitting for us, rang the club to say, ‘You better come home now: [WRU secretary] Ray Williams is ringing you in half an hour’. I legged it home and Ray told me I’d been called up due to Billy James injuring his knee, and they wanted me to fly out as soon as they could.
“I’d been due to go with Cardiff on tour to Benidorm, so that’s all I’d been thinking of up to that point. We had a massive beer kitty thanks to a lot of fundraising, and we got kitted out by Peacocks in Cardiff with some casual clothes. Next thing you know, I’m getting measured up for a World Cup blazer. ”
Phillips, whose impressive seventeen-year tenure as Wales team manager has encompassed a haul of four Grand Slams, was flown out to New Zealand two days later. At that point in his career he was captain of Cardiff and approaching his mid-thirties. He hadn’t played for Wales in over five years. “The panic button went. I didn’t think I was going to be fit enough for international rugby, although I trained pretty hard for the amateur days. The flight took 29 hours, so all I was doing was sit-ups and press-ups on the plane.”
Named on the bench two days later against Ireland, he found himself imploring Wales’ starting hooker, namesake Kevin, not to come off – the long-haul flight having taken its toll. Not that he’d missed much by way of squad preparation for the tournament: Wales had only been together a week before the World Cup started.
Phillips played close to fifty games in one season during the eighties; unthinkable today, but it meant he and his teammates were battle-hardened for the World Cup. (“Your body got used to it,” as Phillips puts it. “We were playing Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday.”) Indeed, Wales went on to beat the likes of England and Australia to finish third overall.
His life in rugby, first as a player and now as team manager, has allowed him to witness first-hand the improvements in players’ physical conditioning. “Back in my day, we worked hard with the knowledge we had,” says Phillips. “We were blissfully ignorant. We did lots of running, thinking that if you ran further you’d be fitter than everybody, which we now know is not the case. Warm-up was four or six laps of the pitch, and we seemed to train for two hours, sometimes longer. Nowhere near what it is today.”
Living in Porthcawl, Phillips made the most of what was right there on his doorstep. “I lived near the sea, so all my pre-season was in sand dunes, running on the beach, being in the water. You didn’t know you were training that hard because the environment was fantastic. The coach would tear his hair out because I’d say ‘I’m not driving all the way to Cardiff to train for an hour and a half, then driving all the way back’, especially when I had a beach near my house.”
This being the amateur days of the game, training had to fit in around his construction job, meaning Phillips would often train early mornings or late evenings. “I always made sure when I turned up at Cardiff at the start of the season that I was one of the fittest there,” he says.
Where his predecessors in Wales management had only a week prior to the 1987 World Cup to sort logistics, planning for the 2019 edition started a whole two years ago. “I’ve been over to Japan three times already,” Phillips says. “Everything is so much better organised now. In ’87, I flew over to the World Cup in ‘cattle class’, as we called it. No comfort there, let me tell you. The players are looked after much better now.”
There are also lightyears between the pre-season long runs of yesteryear and what the Wales players will undergo in their upcoming World Cup training camps in Switzerland and Turkey. “The players made excellent gains when we we went to Fiesch in 2015,” says Phillips, referring to the mountainous region of Switzerland. “It’s a beautiful place, but the squad trains unbelievably hard. They’ll be up and down in cable cars a few times a day, training in the valley. It’ll be a tough two weeks, but hugely worthwhile.”
VIDEO: Click here to watch Wales training in Switzerland in 2015.
The next two months represent a unique opportunity for the international teams competing at the World Cup, says Phillips. “Every four years, they get a proper pre-season where they can really go at it. Training is so efficient these days – usually completed in an hour – and we’ve got our various departments working together brilliantly to make sure these 40-odd players are in optimal shape.
“We’re in a good place already, but now we’ll be taking it to the next level.”