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Rugby Union: Why Rees fears he is an endangered species

As Wasps' Gareth Rees prepares for tomorrow's Tetley's Bitter Cup final Chris Hewett finds him hankering after bygone days
WHEN Gareth Rees first shambled scruffily onto the Wasps training pitch in 1985, the club coach took one look at him and unveiled a tailor- made, scientifically designed three-point plan for instant self-improvement. "If you pull your socks up, get yourself a haircut and take a stone off your middle, you might be all right," said Derek Arnold brusquely. Up came the socks, off went the hair and although the stone flatly refused to budge, the Canadian schoolboy played his first cup final just six months later.

A dozen years on from that initial Twickenham showpiece, Gareth Rees looks every inch the thoroughly modern, full-time professional sportsman - close-cropped, track-suited and accompanied by a garishly-decorated bottle of isotonic mouthwash placed neatly inside one of his smart new go-faster trainers. It is only in conversation that he emerges in his true and vivid light as one of the game's endangered species, a picaresque rugby wanderer who has never hesitated to swap kitbag for rucksack in hungry pursuit of the unfamiliar.

Rees may relish the physical benefits of professionalism, but he is not at all comfortable with its wider implications. "The camaraderie is drifting away, the characters are being weeded out," he says. "There are things I regret and I'm going to regret them more as time goes on. We're forgetting who we are and where we come from, the things that make us different. Rugby is a special game and the people who play it are special. I can't understand for the life of me this urge to be more like footballers. We'll never be footballers. Rugby players have always had more to offer somehow, but the way things are going, the youngsters will be denied the opportunity to develop other areas of their lives."

If that sounds like the autumnal lament of a sentimentalist in the advanced stages of terminal Luddism, think again. Some of the sniffier, more exclusive aspects of rugby's ultra-traditional freemasonry have always rubbed Rees up the wrong way and he is not the sort to toe the line if he considers the line to be badly drawn. But he makes it his business to defend what he calls "the special spirit" with a passion bordering on the devotional.

For Rees, the game is the thing. After tomorrow's Tetley's Bitter Cup final with Wasps and the Allied Dunbar Premiership finale against Bath on Sunday week, he will fly home to Canada at his own expense to lead his country in the remainder of the Pacific Rim series. Not only will he play for free, as he has done throughout his 12-year Test career, but he will dip into his pocket to insure himself against injury. He will then continue to raid his bank account to help the Canucks through a tough World Cup qualification tournament in August. Fellow professionals blink at him in astonishment - after all, few of them would get out of bed for less than a grand a week.

"In some ways, it's not a very professional decision to go and do all this," he admits. "I suppose the bright thing to do would be to look after my career in England by taking a summer's rest. I've got another year here at Wasps and if I'm going to keep my place in the first team next season, I'll have to compete successfully with guys like Paul Sampson and Jon Ufton, who are a whole lot younger and run like the wind. It's going to be a tough call.

"To be frank, I was close to packing in the international stuff when we lost in Ireland before Christmas. I just didn't think we were playing the game on a level field. I'd gone into it from a fully professional environment while a lot of my colleagues came from a background that didn't give them a tracksuit to warm up in. But I'm a good Canadian and that means I'm used to coping with the obstacles life puts in front of me."

Typically, he recalls his first cup final, a 25-17 defeat at the hands of a vintage Bath side, in glorious technicolor. "Mark Rigby, our flanker, picked me up from Harrow School and drove me to Twickenham. I'd have driven myself - I passed my test in Canada at 16 - but being a mere sixth-former, my funds didn't run to a car. I took a real 'Welcome to Twickers' kicking from the Bath forwards early on and I remember asking myself: 'Do I stay down or get up?' I got up, played on and made it to the final whistle.

"Those were the days. A few weeks before, I'd gone back-packing in Devon with a mate. I knew we were playing at Nottingham in the cup quarter-final on the Saturday but for one reason or another, I didn't get back to London until four in the morning. I went up to the Wasps ground at Sudbury, unrolled my sleeping bag and kipped under the stand. We won, too, but only just. The game was played on a mudheap and with a few minutes left, I managed to give Rob Andrew the slip and slide a kick through to the corner. It just sat there in the sludge, totally still, and Mark Bailey won the race to the touchdown. It was 13-13 and we went through on tries."

Born in Duncan, on Vancouver Island - "a mill town famous for totem poles, believe it or not" - Rees has enjoyed two stints at Wasps as well as spells with his home club, Castaways, the Merignac club in France and, most recently, Newport. He is an Oxford Blue into the bargain and is one of a very select band to have competed at all three World Cup finals.

"Provided I'm fit and able to contribute, I'll be there next year for the fourth World Cup," he says. "But I can't see myself going beyond that. I'll be 31 when the tournament comes around and I hope for Canada's sake that they won't have to consider a 35-year-old as their stand-off for the 2003 competition. As it is, I get far more nervous before big games now than I used to. I'd be a wreck.

"My decision to come back to Wasps has worked far better than I could have imagined, though. I'm enjoying life at full-back - the positional switch gave me something new to bite on, a fresh challenge - and after winning the league last season, it would be wonderful to say to the supporters and everyone who has put money and effort into the club: 'Look, we've got the cup now. This is for you. Thanks a million.'"

Assuming Rees uses the 1999 World Cup as his farewell stage, he may well return to Eton to teach modern history. (He was on the staff until agreeing terms with Wasps). On the other hand, he might re-pack his rucksack and head for pastures new. As Saracens may discover to their cost tomorrow, he is a difficult character to pin down.