Matthew Rees: 'The Boks were under pressure – we had them'

Lions hooker Matthew Rees had the game of his life in the last Test. He tells Chris Hewett about eye-gouging, those uncontested scrums and why victory today will ease the pain from Pretoria
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The Independent Online

Twenty-four hours after the sporting cataclysm of Loftus Versfeld, a group of Lions tourists headed north to the game reserve of Entabeni – the Place of the Mountain – for a spot of rest and recuperation among the elephants and water buffalo.

Matthew Rees? He stayed in bed, figuring he had seen quite enough bloody big animals for one weekend. When a man spends 80 minutes at the epicentre of a contest so ridiculously tempestuous, against a pack of forwards as powerful as the Springbok eight, a day and a half under the duvet tends to be more inviting than a three-hour drive to the middle of nowhere, however interesting a nowhere it might be.

"Quite a few of us stayed behind in the end," says the hooker from Tonyrefail, an old mining village situated at the head of the Ely Valley, just south of the Rhondda. "The safari idea was nice enough, but like some of the other players, all I really wanted was a lie-in. I was pretty spent after the second Test – physically battered, mentally tired. And, of course, it had been a tough few hours emotionally, what with going so close to winning and then losing the series to the last kick. All international matches are intense, but last weekend was a step up even from the first Test in Durban, which had been quite hard enough."

It was Bryce Lawrence, the official from New Zealand who had penalised the Lions clean off King's Park in the opening match of the series and then, while serving as a touch judge in Pretoria, decided against recommending a red card for Schalk Burger despite witnessing the Springbok flanker's ugly attack on the eyes of Luke Fitzgerald, who described the decisive Test as "twice as intense" as any he had previously witnessed. It is most unlikely that Rees will ever accept Lawrence's take on the Burger incident, but he is happy to agree with him on the level of competitiveness at Loftus Versfeld.

"I could smell it in the air as soon as I took the field," he recalls. "And yes, we knew what had happened to Luke at that first ruck, were very aware the gravity of the offence. But the thing that really hurt us was the move to uncontested scrums early in the second half. We had the Boks under a lot of pressure at the set piece: basically, we had them. Uncontested scrums always spoil a game, but in Pretoria it was the crucial element of the match. It cost us, that's for sure."

In those early "Beast-taming" scrums – Tendai Mtawarira, the Zimbabwean-born prop who had made such a mess of Phil Vickery in Durban, could be seen both buckling and corkscrewing under the pressure – Rees worked in perfect harmony with his props, Gethin Jenkins and Adams Jones. Indeed, it was a red-letter day all round. Together, the trio made up the first all-Welsh front row to play in a Lions Test for well over half a century – Billy Williams and the two Merediths, hooker Bryn and tight-head specialist Courtney, had faced the Boks in 1955 – while for Rees and Jones, neither of whom had travelled as No 1 choice in his position, it was the match of their lives.

"Gethin was always going to be the No 1 loose-head prop here," Rees says. "He's quite a player. But I was particularly pleased for Adam, because he'd worked so hard on his game while taking a lot of criticism. Did I think I'd feature in the Tests myself? That's what I came here to achieve for myself, but there was a point early in the tour where I wasn't where I wanted to be and Lee Mears beat me to the starting place in Durban. It wasn't easy, sitting on the bench, but at least there was a chance of being involved, and when I went on for the last half-hour, things happened to go my way. Mind you, it's much easier to make an impact off the bench than doing it from the start. By the time I went on at King's Park, I'd had a good look at how the game was unfolding. Also, I was fresh. It was a matter of taking my opportunity against people who'd already been at it for the best part of an hour. I think I did that."

He did it again in the first half at Loftus Versfeld, especially at the set piece. Early in the second quarter, Fitzgerald was forced to ground the ball over his own goal-line, thereby conceding a five-metre scrum to the Boks. Here was the acid test. After the scrummaging calamities of Durban, could the Lions possibly deny a South African pack with the scent of a pushover try in their nostrils? The answer was emphatic. Rees and his fellow tight forwards timed their engagement to perfection, poured on the heat as Fourie du Preez fed the ball and forced the Boks upwards into the thin air of the veld. Result? A penalty to the Lions and a mighty shift in the psychology of the forward contest.

"We'd been disappointed with our scrummaging in the first Test, and rightly so," Rees concedes. "We felt we hadn't come all this way to South Africa just to be driven back at the set piece and give away penalties, so when the Boks were awarded that five-metre scrum, we said to ourselves: 'Right, this is what it's all about.' We knew they'd come at us right there, and we were determined to fight fire with fire. That's where the familiarity and the trust kicked in. The three of us in the front row had played a lot of rugby together and we knew we'd all give it everything. We made a very specific call on how we'd approach the scrum, won the 'hit' and turned them over. It was a good moment, ahead of the bad moments."

To lose one prop to injury – Jenkins, as it happened – was unfortunate. To lose the other virtually simultaneously was calamitous. Jones, playing every bit as well in Pretoria as he had in the second half at King's Park, was comprehensively smithereened by the ultra-aggressive Bakkies Botha while occupying a "sitting duck" position at a ruck. Smashed backwards, he dislocated his shoulder so badly that the Lions medical team could find no way of putting it back in place. It was a hospital job, followed by an early flight home.

Rees agrees that players now run a serious risk of injury at ruck time. "It's the static element," he explains. "I think there's some research out there that shows some rugby collisions to be the equivalent of a car crash. Players are getting stronger and more powerful with every passing season, so it stands to reason that the physical effects are greater. If you're putting your body on the line to that extent and you happen to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time ... yes, of course it's dangerous.

"Old-style rucking, where there were a few boots on bodies, was more dynamic: players stayed on their feet and went past the ball. Nowadays, everything stops at the ball, and it leaves people in a vulnerable position. You can be off your guard, not expecting a hit, when suddenly you get a 19st lock coming at you and wiping you out. I think it should be looked at again. There's nothing wrong with a few boots at the ruck. It's probably a lot safer than the situation we have now."

At 28, the proud product of valleys rugby still has a good five years of professional activity left in him. This is just as well from the point of view of his current club, the Llanelli-based Scarlets, who have fallen on hard times and appear to be slipping off the pace set by neighbouring Ospreys and, travelling east along the M4, Cardiff Blues. Just as Rees draws on the know-how of his one fellow Scarlet in this party, the outside-half Stephen Jones, so the younger players in the set-up will draw from his experiences on this trip.

"What will I take back with me? Attitude and understanding," he says. "The attitude that says 'Today, there will be no mistakes in training' and the understanding of how to react at key moments in a game. When I've felt the need to talk through something on this tour, I've always had Stephen to turn to. He's such a great person to have around. When I return to Llanelli, it will be for me to set the example in the way he's set it for me.

"But the important thing now is to win this last Test. We've come close to beating the Boks twice, but it hasn't quite happened. I'd like to see us turn it round for the supporters, who have been brilliant. The atmosphere in Pretoria was awesome, and I'd love to send them home with a victory to celebrate."

Matthew Rees: Life and times

Born 9 December 1980 in Tonyrefail, Wales.

*1.88m (6ft 2in).

*108kg (238lb).

*Previous clubs: Pontypridd; Celtic Warriors.

*The hooker joined the Lllanelli Scarlets in 2004 and has since made 120 appearances for the Celtic League side.

*He made his Test debut for Wales on the summer tour to North America in 2005, against the US, but had to wait until the following summer, 2006, to earn his second cap against Argentina.

*Has now won 30 caps for Wales.

*Rees scored his first international try in the Invesco Perpetual Series in 2006 against Canada in a 61-26 win.

*Made three appearances for Wales at the Rugby World Cup 2007. Started against Canada, Australia and Fiji.

*Rees made his Lions debut as a replacement for Lee Mears in the first Test in Durban, South Africa on 20 June 2009.

*For the second Test against in Pretoria last Saturday, he formed a Welsh front row of with Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones – the first in a Lions Test side since the tour of South Africa in 1955.