Former England sevens captain Ollie Phillips is not someone who shirks a challenge.

During a successful career on the pitch, Phillips was named World Rugby International Sevens Player of the Year in 2009 and the best overseas 15s player in France two years later.

Since hanging up his boots, he has carved out a prosperous career as a director at PwC, set up his own company, worked as a media pundit and embarked on several charity adventures and successful world record attempts.

It should come as little surprise then that following the birth of his second child, Nia, in January Phillips has decided now is the time to forge a new path in rugby.

Phillips has been tasked with leading the Wales women's sevens programme into a new era, and having started working with the squad in November his appointment was confirmed by the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) last month.

“It’s great to be back involved in international rugby and elite sport,” he told World Rugby.

“I’ve missed it and equally when it’s part of your blood and you’ve done it for such a long time, it’s brilliant to be back involved and at such an exciting time in the women’s game and certainly in the women’s game in Wales.”

According to Phillips there is a “general sentiment across the WRU” that sevens could be the ideal tool through which to professionalise the women’s game in Wales.

Setting ambitious targets

His initial task at the National Centre of Excellence (NCE) is to work with the existing amateur set-up in order to produce a competitive sevens national side, while ensuring there is a strong support structure in place.

Phillips, who hopes to call on the coaching experience of his former England team-mate Chris Cracknell, believes that infrastructure could eventually include a national sevens league and links with Welsh universities.

Given Phillips, who is currently on paternity leave from PwC, is part-time at the WRU those would seem ambitious targets. But the 37-year-old is used to achieving feats others would balk at.

“Our objectives are lofty ones but we want to qualify for Rugby Europe this summer, which sounds fair, and then qualify for the world series,” Phillips added. 

“They’re the targets and then we’re really starting to get the game motoring over in Wales.”

Lofty targets, indeed, but Phillips has been impressed with the level of footballing ability he has encountered on Tuesday and Thursday nights spent on the NCE training pitches in Hensol.

Asked where HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series qualification with Wales would rank in his personal list of achievements, Phillips added: “It would be right up there but for me, to be honest, I wouldn’t be that satisfied until we won a tournament. 

“So, my own personal ambitions for the squad are that we can actually get onto the series as a minimum and we start winning tournaments and start challenging for tournaments, trying to win things like Commonwealth [Games] medals and getting players into the Olympic squad and all that kind of stuff. 

“How feasible that is? I think it’s really achievable. I think we’ve under-performed in the past and we are where we are because of that.

“But now I’m hoping there’s not a repeat performance, that’s what I’ve come in for.”

Building fitness

Phillips, who says he is enjoying working in a “seriously passionate rugby heartland”, has identified fitness as one area where he can help close the gap to the best teams in the world.

However, that does not mean that the former England captain will be introducing the ‘Death Zone’ sessions he experienced as a player to his training regime in Wales any time soon.

“I don’t know how many people I’d lose from the dressing room if I just turned up and within a month said ‘Right, let’s get to the Death Zone!’,” Phillips joked. 

“The dramatic nature of it on its own coupled with the fact then that it’s a pretty grim place to be, I just don’t know how many of them would thank me for it. 

“But they are the levels that we need to be getting to at some point and we’re not there yet but that’s a good thing. 

Long-term ambitions

“We’re a competitive side and we’ve got so much more to come both on the fitness side, which to be honest with you is the easier side of it. It’s basically about hard work whereas the one thing that’s pleasing is that actually they can play football. 

“They can catch, they can pass, they can execute their skills better than I thought. So as a result of that, OK, obviously you’ve got to invest time but they’ve got a good foundation.”

Phillips credits his time at PwC with giving him the skills with which to implement a new strategic plan with the Wales programme.

He currently has no plans to walk away from the multinational corporation at the end of his paternity leave but it is clear that a full-time career in high performance sport does appeal.

“I’m just enjoying it for the time being and seeing what happens over these next five, six months while I’m off on paternity leave,” Phillips said. 

“But obviously I love the sport, I love the game and my long-term ambitions would be to certainly be involved in sport. 

“Probably not exclusively in a coaching capacity, more in a strategic, DoR [director of rugby] capacity where you get touch-points into the game and into the players and into the coaching but equally you’re involved with the board as well around how are we changing the landscape for us as a team, as an organisation, as a sport?”