Tim Glover: Back of the future? Rees makes his presence felt

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The Independent Online

Rees himself wouldn't begin to enter-tain such comparisons, but the evidence is growing. Anybody who can read the top line of an optician's alphabet and who saw the pocket battleship destroy the Leicester defence last week would have realised they were watching something out of the ordinary.

To beat the Tigers once was startling enough; to provide an action replay for try No 2 is simply unheard of. Rees was having the game of his life at the Causeway when, early in the second half, he was tackled from behind and didn't get up. "My foot was caught underneath me," he said. "There was a hell of a lot of pain." On crutches, he watched the rest of the match before going to hospital. No break, but a twisted right ankle and soft-tissue damage. His mother, a doctor, had to chauffeur him home.

The following day Rees, wearing one of those enormous Aircast boots made so fashionable by Lawrence Dallaglio, celebrated his 21st birthday. "I had lunch with my family and then met up with some old friends at Basingstoke for golf and a few laughs. I waddled round."

His girlfriend, Abbie, gave him a watch and his friends presented him with a framed edition of an old rugby jersey from the Harriet Costello school in Basingstoke. "I don't know where they got it from," Rees said, "but it was a very thoughtful gesture. We used to play rugby in our PE kit." They also supplied him with the Sunday newspapers. On the sports pages the damaged birthday boy was headline news.

Rees's rise has been slightly unorthodox in that neither the Harriet Costello, nor Hampshire, have been regarded as nurseries for future England internationals. Born in London, Rees moved to Basing-stoke when he was six. "We all used to play football. I don't think there was any rugby, but then one day a PE teacher by the name of Andy Bloodworth got hold of me, said I was a bit of a lump and that I was going to play rugby. I'd never tried it but it was good fun. That was it."

Rees joined the Basingstoke club as an Under-12 and pretty soon became familiar with lifting Hampshire Cups. He was recognised by county and country, and five seasons ago was voted the England 16-Group player of the year. The last two years of Tom Rees's schooldays were spent at RGS High Wycombe, the alma mater of the England scrum-halves Matt Dawson and the late Nick Duncombe.

When Wasps decamped from London to Wycombe they offered Rees a place in their academy. "Initially, I looked on it as a gap year," he said, "and if I wasn't happy I'd walk away.

"Coming straight out of school I was in no state to play senior rugby and I was confined to the gym, training all the time. It wasn't what I wanted, but once I started playing for the second team and got involved in sevens I realised why I went down this road in the first place. It began to dawn on me that rugby could be my job."

Last season Rees made 11 appearances for Wasps and was named man of the match against Leeds. Joining Dallaglio in rehab, he misses today's game against the Tykes at Headingley. A medial- ligament tear in his left knee during the Premiership semi-final against Sale brought Rees's season to a premature end, but analgesic was at hand - he was selected to join the England National Academy and Wasps gave him a first-team contract.

Playing in his preferred position of openside flanker, he was also the England Under-21 captain. "That can be an intimidating job," he said, "but it helped my development. When I returned to Wasps I felt slightly less afraid to say things. In the past I would hope that somebody else would make the point that I wanted to make.

"They say that you gain experience with the years, although I think that's not necessarily true. Wasps have an all-international back row and you pick up a lot of stuff from them. The fitness and conditioning came as a shock to the system, and after that you learn more skills and become more tactically aware of the role. I've become more confident with the guys in the team."

Ian McGeechan, who succeeded the ultra-successful New Zealander Warren Gatland as the Wasps coach, has already had a chat with the England coach, Andy Robinson, about Rees's progress. "Tom has come on a step from last year and I don't think he's far away from England," McGeechan said.

"He's a clever player and he reads the game well. As a consequence he gets into good positions early. He always seems to be where it matters. Obviously, we don't want him to pick up too many injuries. You need to generate consistency and to do that you have to stay injury-free, but I see him as a future England player."

Rees repays the compliment. "As a kid I followed the Lions tour in South Africa in 1997 and Geech was inspirational. He's very different to Warren, who was a lot quieter. Geech is more one-on-one and he has helped me enormously on a personal level."

Unfortunately for Wales, who have let him slip beneath their radar, England is where it matters for Rees. He could have played for the land of his father, John, a psychiatrist who was born in the Mumbles, near Swansea.

"I never had an approach by anybody from Wales," Rees said, "and as I under-stand it, once I played sevens for England I was committed to that country. I was raised here and learnt my rugby here, so it's a logical route."

His injury has given him time to reflect not only on his career but the tries he scored last week. "I had a view of Leicester's drift defence and thought I'd straighten up and pin my ears back. If I hadn't made it to the line I'd have been in a spot of bother, because I had men outside me. When you're in the zone you get on with things. Watching the replays on TV I was quite pleased. It was a bit surreal. Actually the whole thing is surreal. I'm indulging my hobby for a living. I don't think of it as work. It's pretty cool, to be honest."