Tom Rees: 'I thought I might not play again'

Tipped to be England captain until he broke his shoulder a year ago, Tom Rees could once again be the missing piece of Martin Johnson's jigsaw.

He looked every inch an England captain in waiting, although he may be an inch or two shorter now he has taken a pair of scissors to his hair.

"I always said I wouldn't cut it until I played again," explains the Wasps flanker Tom Rees, whose virtuoso performance at Northampton last weekend marked the end of an 11-month spell of orthopaedic misery. "Now I've played, I've cut it. Simple as that. It's not a fashion statement and it has nothing to do with the fact that someone accused me of looking like Noddy Holder."

When Wasps meet their Thames Valley neighbours London Irish on important Guinness Premiership business tomorrow afternoon, those present at Adams Park will quickly discover whether the 25-year-old Londoner's brush with the short-back-and-sides brigade has had any negative effect on his physical prowess. There are worrying precedents, Samson of old being the one that springs most easily to mind, and if anyone is equipped to expose any sudden weakness in Rees' make-up, Steffon Armitage is the man – not least because he is burning with righteous indignation at his treatment by the England coaches and would very much like to take it out on someone with international ambitions of his own.

However, it says something for Rees' extraordinary capacity to hit the ground sprinting after so lengthy a lay-off that Armitage will have to perform better than he did in winning the man-of-the-match award against Sale six days ago just to stay with him. If Wasps lost at Franklin's Gardens, it was not in the way many people expected them to lose against the form side in the country. Thanks in large part to Rees' contribution, not only as a back-row hunter-gatherer but also as a quick thinking and decisive leader, they pressed the Midlanders to within an inch of their lives and announced themselves as strong play-off candidates into the bargain.

"It left me pretty sore," Rees confesses, "but I expected that. The thing that did surprise me was playing the full 80 minutes, although the penny dropped when I saw Serge Betsen come on to replace Joe Worsley instead of me. When I got home, I barely moved from the sofa. I raised myself once to answer the door, thinking it was the pizza delivery man. It turned out to be the drug-test people." Oh, the glamour of top-flight rugby: an afternoon spent mixing it with an opponent as intimidating as the wild-eyed Neil Best, followed by an evening peeing into a pot.

Rees had last played at Bristol in the penultimate round of last season's Premiership, performing brilliantly for 20 minutes before smashing his shoulder so badly that the next six months were declared a write-off. Then, in October, his specialist informed him that a second operation would be necessary. "I wondered at that point whether I'd bother playing again," he admits. "When you're injured, you spend more time in the gym, not less, and when you're struggling to do 10 press-ups when the rest of the blokes are throwing weights all over the place, it's not great for the ego. I don't dislike training, but it's a means to an end: ultimately, I'm in this to play rugby, not train for it. So I sat on the bed for five minutes, feeling sorry for myself, and then asked the specialist whether a second op would finish me off. He told me it wouldn't, so I decided then to give it another go."

That decision may well come to be seen as a turning point in England's fortunes in the Test arena, although Rees is entirely wrapped up in Wasps' affairs and is most unlikely to unwrap himself before the end of May. "I've played one game, and ecstatic as I am to be back on the field, there's no point thinking about anything else," he says, not unreasonably. "I'd be lying if I sat here and pretended that I haven't been frustrated at not playing for England. I want to be an international player on a regular basis. But any involvement I've had with England has been because of the things I've done at Wasps. If I ever forget that, I'll pay a price."

All the same, his reappearance in the thick of it is enough to make Martin Johnson throw a party, complete with free drinks and fireworks. England are far from settled on the open-side flanker front: Lewis Moody may be a world-class operator without the ball, but it is impossible to mistake him for a footballing genius; Armitage, energetically rumbustious as he may be, is a little too off-piste for Johnson's taste; Worsley's destructive powers are approximately 100 per cent greater than his constructive ones. Rees, on the other hand, is the full package.

He is also the most natural of leaders, a fact that must also interest Johnson, given the continuing debate over Steve Borthwick's captaincy credentials – a subject further complicated by the fact that the Saracens lock now has injury hassles of his own. Tony Hanks, the director of rugby at Wasps, weighed his options for something less than a nanosecond before asking Rees to captain the side on his return and was rewarded for his faith. "He gave the team a massive lift in so many ways: his performance, the way he was in the dressing room, the way he spoke after the game..." he says. "It would have been easy for him to get carried away just by being out there again after so long away, but that isn't him. Not that he found it easy. It was a tough old game and he was looking to the sidelines after 20 minutes or so. Every time he did it, I looked the other way. He was staying on as far as I was concerned."

Did Rees himself have any qualms about taking over the captaincy the moment he returned to the side? "Not really," he replies. "Tony and I talked it over briefly: if I had a concern it was that some guys would say, 'Hey, we're the ones who have been doing the hard work all season long, and you just come wandering in...' But I think they were mindful of how hard I'd worked getting back to fitness and, from my point of view, maybe it was the best thing for me to get on with it straight away."

With a little luck – and Rees has had enough of the rotten variety – he will feature in every one of Wasps' remaining matches, which may be five or as many as nine. "If I told him he was being rested after 11 months out, I'd have a mutiny on my hands," Hanks says with a knowing smile. Better than anyone, he understands how desperately his captain wants to tour Australia with England in June.

The very fact he is a Wasp should help Rees in this respect. "We're incredibly well looked after here," Rees says. "The attritional nature of modern rugby is well known, but every year we perform well at the business end of a season. Everything is geared towards us being at our best at this time of year, and if that means sacrificing a little sharpness at other times, we'll live with it."

So too will Johnson and his coaching staff. To have Rees fit and firing in Wallaby country will significantly ease their back-row problems – England had bad Six Nations days in this department against Ireland and Scotland – and give connoisseurs of loose-forward play a tantalising preview of next year's World Cup across the Tasman in New Zealand. On one side of the halfway line, the sensational David Pocock: born in Zimbabwe, raised in Brisbane, nicknamed "Bam Bam" and a breakaway forward of limitless potential. On the other, the player around whom England might build a half-decent side.

"There aren't many who could have done what Tom did for us last weekend," Hanks says. "When I was coaching back home in Waikato, I remember the All Black lock Keith Robinson doing something like it after a bad back injury, but he didn't have the added responsibility of captaincy." Rees seemed anything but worried at Franklin's Gardens. Do not be surprised if he is the first Englishman out of the tunnel in Robinson country 18 months from now.

My other life

"I didn't watch too much rugby while I was injured. I spent an awful lot of time in the gym, working through my rehabilitation programme, and when I wasn't there I filled my days with the usual vacuous things: films and computer games mostly. But I also started learning the guitar, which had been a long-standing ambition and was a welcome distraction during the lay-off. Am I any good? No. I certainly can't play like Pete Townshend – I haven't learnt anything by The Who – with my shoulder problems, it's probably just as well. I can find my way around a couple of AC/DC songs, but that's about it."

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