Rugby Union: England count on rise of Rees

Paul Trow studies the Sale wing whose pace has taken him to the head of the finishing school
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The Independent Online
David Rees was adamant. "I don't want to talk about the England squad or my playing strengths. It just wouldn't be right." Typically for a wing, he was sidestepping the key questions before they had even been asked. But following his brace of tries for Sale in their victory over the champions, Wasps, at Loftus Road last weekend, the 23-year-old graphic design student has an excellent chance of making his senior debut during the next month - if not against Australia on Saturday, then perhaps in one of the forthcoming games with New Zealand and South Africa.

He has been part of the squad despite spending most of the season recovering from a double-hernia operation and his touchdowns against Wasps demonstrated why the England coach, Clive Woodward, and his assistant, John Mitchell, who just happens to be Sale's player-coach, show so much faith in him. "I enjoyed the tries against Wasps as it was my first game in eight weeks. That's the best I've felt for a long time," said Rees, who has an opportunity to reproduce this form for the Heywood Road faithful, and impress Woodward even further, when Sale entertain Bristol in the Allied Dunbar Premiership this afternoon.

Unusually for one knocking on the door of international rugby, Rees is only on a part-time contract with Sale while he completes his final year at Manchester Metropolitan University. "I'll make a decision whether to go full time and put my career on hold when I finish my studies in June." Apart from his natural modesty, Rees is also charmingly vague when he talks about himself. "I made my debut two years ago against Gloucester, or was it three years ago? Anyway, I'm fairly sure I got a try that day." The match in question took place exactly two years ago, at home, Sale won 21-13 and, yes, Rees did score a try.

The youngest of three children, he was born into a Tyneside sporting family - his father Peter was a flanker who played for North Wales and Saracens during the 1960s, his brother Ceri is a former British Schools cross-country runner and his sister Katy is also an athlete.

But his own skills were by no means confined to rugby. Indeed, coming from such a football-mad region it is little short of astonishing that, after being selected for Newcastle Boys, he opted instead for rugby. "By the time I was 16 it was too difficult to juggle soccer and rugby. In the end you've got to go for the sport you enjoy the most." In his spare time, he was also a county tennis player, nationally ranked table tennis junior and, inevitably, Northumberland schools sprint champion. On the rugby front, Rees has represented the county since he was 11, and international honours followed soon after. "I was a centre when I was in the England Under-16s, but by the time I played for the Under-21s I was a wing," he noted.

He was also a member of the England squad which underachieved at the Students World Cup the summer before last. "It was very disappointing. We didn't even get to the quarter-finals."

Then came the 1996-97 season during which Sale confounded their traditional status as also-rans only to stumble at the death, finishing fifth in the Courage League, a point away from a Heineken Cup place, and losing a grim Pilkington Cup final. "We felt we were robbed last season because we played some excellent rugby but didn't have anything to show for it," he said.

In Rees's case that assessment is not strictly accurate. His own displays earned him a place in England's Lions-shorn squad for the summer tour to Argentina and he made two appearances before popping a rib cartilage which took six weeks to heal.

During his brief career, Rees has benefited from the experience of two of rugby's finest mentors - Mitchell and his predecessor Paul Turner who left Sale in controversial circumstances 18 months ago. "Turner was an excellent tactician. He was a wizard at getting players running for him. But as far as coaching is concerned, well ... I'd rather not say." Rees's voice tails off. Mitchell, needless to say, has been "a big influence on the club. When he came along he got everyone pulling together and gelling. We all needed his leadership."

Now Rees eagerly awaits tomorrow's England squad announcement and admits: "I'm keeping my fingers crossed. These are exciting times. I'm really enjoying my rugby."

Ah-ha, is he daydreaming at last, getting ahead of himself, maybe? Alas, reality soon resurfaces. "Last weekend it was great to play again as you've obviously got to cement yourself in your club side. There is so much competition at club level." With the New Zealander Chris Yates, a fellow young English wing, Tom Beim, and the former Wales international Adrian Hadley also on the books, Rees undoubtedly does face healthy competition for his place at Sale. But it is the England place we are all interested in. So, how about one last dummy? "What does your father, a Welshman, think about you possibly playing for England?"

"He's over the moon."

The wide boys: Four who are waiting in the wings for England

Adedayo Adebayo

The 26-year-old Nigerian-born wing has been restricted to just three caps largely due to injuries. But he looks likely to increase this number before the end of the month after impressive form for Bath this season. His ability to score spectacular tries marks him out as a dangerous opponent.

John Bentley

One of the Lions heroes, this 31-year- old Newcastle wing is back in the international fold after winning his first cap in 1988 and spending the next eight years in rugby league. Despite his electrifying running, there are doubts about his defence and he has not been an automatic club selection this season.

Nick Beal

Selected for the Lions tour for his versatility, Beal, 26, was originally a fly-half with High Wycombe, but became an attacking full-back when he joined Northampton. He made several appearances for the Lions as a wing and could line up in this position for England if Tim Stimpson plays at full-back.

Austin Healey

The 24-year-old, capped twice by both England and the Lions this year, is better known as a scrum-half after starting as a wing. This season Leicester have used him in both positions. His speed and corner tackling make him a natural wing, and he provides cover for both positions from the bench.

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