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‘It’s not fair to be putting so many people through so much s***’

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images for Barbarians)

Nick Phipps was just finished on the World XV training ground in London when he shot the summer-time breeze with Rugby Pass, bridging a 20-month gap back to the last time he eloquently chewed the fat on this site.

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Back then, the English capital was home to the chirpy Australian. London Irish were looking for upward mobility in the Gallagher Premiership and the former Wallabies scrum-half was a rich part of the fabric in nurturing that growth.

These days the 34-year-old earns his crust in the revamped Japan League One. It hasn’t been the kindest of maiden seasons there, his NEC Green Rockets getting relegated when their campaign ground to a halt earlier this month. But at least there is great comfort in knowing what they are about won’t be affected by their change in status for the 2024 renewal.

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That’s quite the contrast to the stress and strain his old London Irish buddies are enduring. On the field, 2022/23 was a soaraway success, the club finishing in fifth, their highest in more than a decade. Off the field, though, the future is shrouded in uncertainty.

Heading into the UK bank holiday weekend, the reports were unsettling – that while the mooted takeover was said to be still happening, it won’t go through before the May 30 deadline set by the RFU for the Irish to keep their place in the 2023/24 top-flight. For Phipps, it has been the one black mark on his week-long return to England.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I know they are very nervous. It would honestly be a travesty if they let that club roll over, so hopefully it gets sorted out. The players have been told great things so hopefully that is true. It’s not fair at the moment to be putting so many people through so much s***, so hopefully it is sorted out.”

The half-back has revelled in the club’s on-field renaissance. When he exited 11 months ago, he predicted bigger and brighter things would happen given the foundation in place and he was thrilled to be proven right, Declan Kidney’s squad finishing just one place shy of the Premiership play-offs.

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I was watching all the time, all the time, I was their biggest fan,” he said about how he kept abreast of the London Irish progress despite being multiple time zones away in Japan. “I watched a lot of their games, I have still got a lot of mates back there and I was watching them with a lot of pride seeing how they have gone this year.

“That is what you want to do, you want to leave a club in a better place than you found it and to be a part of that was awesome and you can only see improvements in them. The playing squad and the coaching staff only got bigger and better.”

Japan was a brand new adventure for Phipps and his young family of three. “We have loved it,” he enthused. “We are in a quieter part of Tokyo, it’s perfect for me and my family. It’s a very relaxed way to live. We are really enjoying it. It’s so different. It’s enjoyable how different it is.

“We have adapted pretty quickly but still every day something funny is happening around the place. We are so far out of Tokyo (in the Tennoudai area), there are no foreigners there. It’s very Japanese. We have made a lot of friends because people see us as the only foreigners there.

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“We have done a fair bit of exploring in Tokyo, Harajuku and stuff. But definitely, the neighbours are inviting us around for meals, very traditional Japanese meals which have been really nice. We have definitely tried things we have never seen before but everyone has been really friendly so it has been great.

“The kids have loved it. They all still definitely miss England, we had a lot of fun over there but we settled in well. They have enjoyed the food and the people, and the language thing hasn’t bothered them too much. They are just bopping around, my wife is picking up that language quickly and they are really enjoying themselves. The quality of life there is very fun at the moment.”

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A post shared by Nick Phipps (@fangsie)

What about the rugby, though? As much as the star-studded foreign legion generate headlines around the rugby world when they are signed by Japanese clubs, the week-to-week ebb and flow of the season is much less publicised.

Give us your take, Nick, on the dynamic that exists at NEC. “We struggled for form a little bit. It just wasn’t really out year, but I’m really enjoying the rugby,” he began. “It’s so different, I just can’t begin to express how different it is.

“The level of quality across the field: you have got your foreigners and your professional Japanese players and then you have got your company Japanese players. There is a bit of adjusting and managing them through the week and trying to do your best to coach, improve and bring everyone up to a professional level.

“It’s really fun, something I never really imagined myself doing before. We didn’t have the best season results-wise but seeing the growth in the players, I’m pretty confident that next year we will be alright and hopefully bounce back up from the first division.

“The footy has been a little bit hard this year but we have all grown and enjoyed it together. Off-field has been unbelievable and we are looking forward as a club to bouncing back. There is an unbelievable set-up at the Green Rockets. We are very lucky to have their help and support and they just want to see us do well so the sky is the limit.”

Not just at the Rockets. Having sojourned at Rugby World Cup in 2011 and 2015 and seen at close quarters the emergence of Japan, Phipps has made a sit-up-and-take notice prediction about the latest finals, the France 2023 tournament where the Blossoms are pitted against England, Argentina, Samoa and Chile in their pool.

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A post shared by Nick Phipps (@fangsie)

“It’s only going to get bigger and bigger and bigger, and the quality of players across the board is just getting bigger and better as well,” he reckoned about the scene on the ground in Japan. “It’s funny, the international players sort of nullify themselves out across the competition because there is just three from each team, but the quality of the Japanese players is frightening.

“The first time I played them, it was the Sunwolves (in Super Rugby) and the quality of their players compared to now, there are better coaches, better systems, better structures, they are all improving so I would definitely not be surprised to see Japan doing really well in the World Cup this year.

“They are a little bit like England, they have got something like 18 professional teams there so every week there are 18 nines playing, 18 tighthead props so they get a lot of players and see a lot of players and they are all improving across the board so that will be very good.”

Japan’s potential isn’t the only thing exiting Phipps ahead of the World Cup. Having been part of the Wallabies set-up under Michael Cheika until 2019, he is enthused that Eddie Jones, this Sunday’s Barbarians coach, is now at the helm after the baton was unceremoniously taken from Dave Rennie at the start of the year.

“I was pumped, to be honest,” he said, recalling how he reacted in January when the news broke that Jones was the new Wallabies boss. “He is exactly what Australia need. He is going to bring that hard edge. He is going to demand the best from people and he is going to have high expectations of people and that is exactly what Australia needs.

“I like the way that he carries himself, I like the way that he challenges players. He demands the best out of players and at the end of the day, it is up to the players to come up to his level or not get picked.

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A post shared by Nick Phipps (@fangsie)

“That is what the team needs, you want to see competition for spots, you want to see people performing their best and the way he talks about playing for the Wallabies and Australia and the gold jersey, it’s something that is very admirable. He talks about the Aussie spirit all the time and I love that and if I’m a fan, that is exactly what I want to see.”

The calibre of this Sunday’s two invitational sides at Twickenham is exceptional, with stardust glittering everywhere. Phipps can’t wait to play his part under Steve Hansen who is looking to get one over on Baa-Baas boss Jones, an adversary from his All Blacks days.

“I’m very excited to be playing against him [Jones]. Hopefully, we can do a good job as the World XV and give him a few grey hairs. Two fantastic coaches going head-to-head, it is going to be really exciting.

“It [the fixture] is awesome. I got told a couple of months ago and I have been really excited. From our first meeting this week with Steve, we saw he is just so into it. There is no surprise he has won every tournament there is…

“He is a fantastic guy, a great speaker and he spoke really importantly about the responsibility we have to put on a good performance on the weekend and entertain the crowd and bring the buzz back and get people really excited about a big year of rugby for the world.

“When I met Semi, I called him Mr Radradra. Him and Charles Piutau are going to be exciting but we have got a forward pack of really hard workers, smart and hard spoilers who will be dangerous all around the field and then our backline is obviously very special. I’m excited to be coached by Steve for the week and I’m also looking forward to building those combinations with the boys.

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“It’s so important the Baa-Baas concept and even the World XV concept. It’s been disappointing how in the past different competitions haven’t really supported the Baa-Baas and what they are trying to achieve. Honestly, it’s the purest form of the game. I’m playing with blokes I have played against for years and it’s so exciting to be playing with them – that is essentially what is so great about rugby.

“Hopefully, in the future, more competitions can get behind it and you won’t be hearing organisations saying, ‘No, we are not releasing our players’. For a player, it is such an important step in their career, an important milestone that they would love to be a part of. We should be trying to do everything we can to keep something like that going.”

It isn’t until September when Phipps is due to report back at the Rockets for the second season of his two-year deal, a lengthy break that affords him plenty of time at home in Oz. It won’t go to waste. “It is a long break but there is also a lot of emphasis on the player to make sure he is right when he gets back.

“We’re required back on September 4 so I’ll go back to Australia with my family and see friends and family for a while, pop away and try and do a few little trips, but I will be making sure back in Australia that I’m ready to go for another big season for the mighty Rockets.”

When the time eventually comes to relocate to Australia for good, Phipps has his post-playing career all planned. “I want to be a builder when I finish up, back in Sydney. I want to manage sites around residential stuff. That is what I studying at the moment,” he explained.

“I have just got to get my on-site experience. Hopefully, I won’t be doing that for a few more years, but in world rugby at the moment there is so much uncertainty. Even in Prem rugby, there are 120 players without a job this year. It’s important that people plan and are ready to go just in case the worst happens.”

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