Rugby Union: Rees the molehill who can move mountains

David Rees has worked his way so stealthily up the blind side of the England rankings that the touring Wallabies have spent all week asking "David who?" Chris Hewett sheds some light on an elusive newcomer as he prepares for the biggest match of his life.
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England's right wing has seen more comings and goings than Clapham Junction over the last decade, with new arrivals steaming in at the rate of more than one a season and, generally speaking, steaming straight back out again with the word "passenger" stamped indelibly between their shoulder blades.

You need a station announcer's memory just to recall the names: Harrison, Bentley, Evans, Harriman, Halliday, Heslop, Hopley, Hunter, Sleightholme. Oh yes, and a couple of Underwoods, too.

Successive coaches have tied themselves in knots attempting to fill the unfillable since John Carleton finally hit the buffers against Andrew Slack and his irresistible Grand Slam Wallabies in 1984, so it is by strange coincidence that David Rees, the latest in a long line of hopeful contenders, finds himself making his initial pitch against the same opponents at Twickenham this afternoon. Will the 23-year-old student from Sale give the No 14 shirt some substance, or are the emperor's new clothes still in vogue?

Rugby fashion is not something that unduly exercises the new boy's mind. Unlike his England colleagues, he is not a full-time professional - "I've got two-thirds of a three-year course in graphic design under my belt and it's important to me that I finish the course" - so he trains alone, either first thing in the morning or at lunchtime, before attending evening squad sessions at Sale.

In that sense, at least, Rees is a throwback to the good old, bad old days of shamateurism. Can he possibly enjoy burning the candle at both ends in the knowledge that his compatriots are sleeping their way through endless hours of quality rest?

"I'm one of a dying breed, I know, but I've put a lot of work into my studies and I intend to graduate. My flatmates have been brilliant, actually. Very often, one of them will come to the gym and work out, just to keep me company. There are a few "stoodies" coming down from Manchester for the match and I'm pleased they're making the trip. They've helped a lot."

On the subject of trend-bucking, Rees' physical dimensions fly directly in the face of modern selectorial orthodoxy. Compare his 5ft 9in, 12st 6lb frame with that of Joe Roff, the 6ft 2in, 15st 9lb Wallaby specimen he confronts today, and you begin to get the drift. If rugby is a game for big men who are getting bigger all the time, Clive Woodward and the rest of the England top table are not so much ignoring current wisdom as poking fun at it.

"Every international coach has his preference and it's undeniable that most of them have gone for size as well as pace in recent years," Rees admits. "It started quite some time ago but Jonah Lomu's performances in the '95 World Cup give the Big is Best theory some real momentum. Suddenly, everyone wanted a fast-moving mountain on each wing and started scouring the earth for them.

"I can't pretend I offer that sort of physical presence but there is more to wing play than pure muscle. You need the full range of skills to play the game as it stands today and you need agility, too. The big- hit stuff has never worried me in the past. I love tackling, absolutely love it; after all, I've spent a lot of time in the centre and that's a position where you really do have to tackle your weight."

Born in London, where his father turned out in the back row for Saracens, Rees spent his schooldays up north. Not in Yorkshire, where a breathless early enthusiasm for rugby might easily have channelled him towards league, but in Newcastle, where he attended Gosforth High and the Royal Grammar School.

He was quick enough to land himself a Northumberland schools sprint title, was distinctly handy at soccer and better still at tennis, playing to county level in his mid-teens. At 16, though, he settled on the game that ran in the family bloodstream. "Basically, the rest went out of the window," he says.

"I played my early representative rugby in midfield" - the hoary old adjective "nuggety" might have been coined for Rees - "but I was fairly small for a centre and I began to get the message that I didn't quite fit the bill. Once I made the decision to move to the wing, things started to take off. Sale saw me at county level, had a quiet word and off I went to Heywood Road."

After two seasons of living on his wits under the exhaustingly offbeat Paul Turner, he quickly hardened up his mental approach under the current coach, John "Serious Attitude" Mitchell. The unforgiving New Zealander's appointment as Woodward's senior backroom henchman did Rees' cause no harm at all and although summer surgery to correct a double hernia threatened to impede his rapid progress, a flurry of try-scoring activity on his return last month was enough to earn him a shot at the Australians.

"Oddly enough, I think people first started noticing me in a match I really shouldn't have been playing in. We were up against Richmond in the Pilkington Cup last Christmas and there was an unusual amount of interest in the game, which was more to do with them than us. They'd spent a lot of money on some famous names - Ben Clarke, Brian Moore and so on - and there was a lot of nonsense flying around about the southern rich kids coming to give us hard-up northerners a good seeing to.

"I'd been struggling with my hernia problem and had no real chance of playing, but I was called up to the bench at the last minute because we'd run out of backs. I got on late in the game, scored a decent try in front of the television cameras and suddenly, people started talking about me. It's a funny old world, isn't it?"

It will be more amusing still if Mr Roff and the rest of a dangerous- looking Wallaby back division allow Rees to give them the slip this afternoon. Does he rate these Wallabies, or are they every bit as mixed up as their gruesomely psychedelic shirts? "No comment," says Rees, emphasising once again that unconventional streak of his. In an age of rampant rugby hyperbole, England have unearthed a player who prefers to play a good game rather than talk one.