Rugby Union: Wayward Wasps look to Mr Reliable

Tim Glover meets the Canadian full-back determined to find a way past Brive
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The Independent Online
Gareth Rees had just finished another hard slog of weights and sprint training. In the old days he might have answered the thirst with a couple of pints. Instead he ordered a coffee, and this in the Henry VI public house in Eton High Street.

Perhaps the coffee was meant to keep him awake. It was 4pm and he was yawning. "A lot of the guys fall asleep in the afternoons," Rees said. "It's a bad habit." Especially on match day.

Wasps looked as though they were sleep-walking when they were outplayed by Sale at Loftus Road last Sunday, their third loss in a row in the Premiership. And today the north London club that so deservedly won the championship last season, play Brive in the quarter-finals of the Heineken European Cup.

Having watched videos of the cup holders' epic series against Pontypridd, Rees said: "They're not that amazing." Brive could say the same of Wasps, with somewhat more conviction.

For the first time in his relentless rise, Lawrence Dallaglio, the Wasps and England captain, seems to have run into a brick wall. Last Sunday Dallaglio missed more tackles than he had on the entire Lions tour of South Africa. "Of all the Lions he was still performing to the highest level," Rees said, "but this has been a difficult time for him. He is so committed to the club, so much a Wasp that he was devastated to get the England captaincy on the back of defeats. He told us that he would rather have had three league wins than the honour of leading England."

Rees is one of the few Wasps who has resumed normal service, scoring more than 100 points this season. The club wouldn't have won the title without him and is now relying on him more than ever.

"We have lost matches we would have won last year but the league is more competitive and there's not a great deal wrong with us," Rees said. "We have been a bit stale and predictable. We have made handling mistakes and missed tackles, and these are all fixable. We've taken a good look at ourselves and although the coaches have shaken us up they have not been yelling for the sake of yelling. It's been very constructive. Against Brive we've got to bring some passion to the stage."

Rees is probably the most rounded full-back in the game, and that is not a reference to the fact that he is also, at 16st, one of the heaviest. For somebody born in a place called Duncan, on Vancouver Island, he has been to some half decent schools.

His father Alan, who was born in Llantrisant and who played for London Welsh, emigrated to Canada in 1962. "I was encouraged to play all sports," Rees said. "But I was particularly keen on baseball. Unfortunately there was the classic American scene of parents yelling at kids so I switched to rugby."

On an exchange he went to Harrow School, where Roger Uttley was teaching. Uttley, the England manager who played for Wasps, introduced him to the club and Rees, at the age of 18, played in the 1986 Pilkington Cup final against Bath. "It was a brilliant time. Harrow first XV were unbeaten and I was the only uncapped player in the Wasps backline." Later that year he made his debut for Canada at fly-half against the US.

Rees took a masters degree in history at Oxford University and had a spell teaching in France before joining the staff at Eton College where he taught modern history. "Last year I was a semi-professional and I was running around like crazy, marking papers in between training and playing. I'd always done something other than rugby and the decision to become a full-time professional was a difficult one. The life tends to become one-dimensional and you've got to fight against that."

In fact, he has retained his links with Eton, working at the college a couple of days a week. "I'm an assistant housemaster and I do some counselling and pastoral work," Rees said. He also helps out with the rugby coaching and Prince William is an enthusiastic, if not quite a natural, centre.

Despite his ancestry, Rees took great pride in kicking the winning penalty in Canada's 26-24 win over Wales at Cardiff in 1993. "I'm a Canadian kid," he said and to prove it he rolled down the sock on his right leg to reveal a red maple leaf tattooed on his ankle. "People think I learnt my rugby here. I didn't. I learnt it in Canada. We have a great spirit there. We don't play to get rich or to get recognised in the street."

Should Canada qualify for the 1999 World Cup and should Rees, who is 30 and the Canadian captain, still be wearing the maple leaf, he will be having a footnote in history. He will become the only man to play in all four World Cups if Sean Fitzpatrick, the All Blacks captain, fails to last the course. "I'd be proud of that," Rees said, before providing more proof of his North American pedigree by adding: "It would be kind of neat."

Even neater than his achievement in gaining not only rugby blues at Oxford, but also in athletics: the shot putt. "I suppose I could lose a few pounds," Rees, who is aware of crowd comments like, "Reesy your dinner's ready", said: "But I have never been fitter or stronger. Perhaps I don't have the pure pace of some of the Brive players who are fresh from the French Olympic team but I've got other strengths I can bring to the game. That is one of the great things about rugby."