Statesman Rees plays King maker

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The Independent Online
Gareth Rees refuses to discuss Prince William, whose rugby he oversees at Eton, but he cannot stop talking about King. Alex King, that is.

Rees may be a stand-in full-back these days, but when it comes to stand- offs he knows a good thing. The Canadian, who continues his new career as Wasps' last line of resistance against Harlequins at Loftus Road this afternoon, is adamant - his gifted team-mate's coronation by England is overdue.

Rees has happily conceded the No10 shirt to help King gain vital experience, but he is far from happy with the England management's failure to share his faith in the 21-year-old. "It's a crime that Alex didn't get on in any of the three internationals before Christmas," said Rees. "That's three wasted opportunities.

"The New Zealand Barbarians sent on Carlos Spencer as a substitute at Twickenham and he won them the game. Alex could have done exactly that. All he needs is an opportunity, though I'm sure all the other countries are quite content that Alex hasn't yet pulled on an England shirt."

Last summer Rees, the son of a teacher (and former London Welsh fly-half), who emigrated to Vancouver Island during the 1960s, left Newport for his second stint at Wasps knowing that he and King were destined to alternate at No10. Then injury to the full-back, Jon Ufton, enabled the club to use both men together. "I played a couple of seasons at full-back for Merignac in France after the 1991 World Cup," Rees said. "I enjoyed it. It's nice to see the game go on in front of me and use my fly-half's experience to anticipate what's going to happen."

Last weekend, courtesy of six Rees penalties which secured an 18-13 win over Northampton, Wasps pulled level with Leicester at the top of Courage League One, four points clear of Quins and Bath. With Leicester on Heineken Cup duty yesterday, Wasps can turn their game in hand into a two-point lead today.

Place kicking still remains important when teams are evenly matched, Rees insists. "We don't take on so many long penalties now, but consistent kicking still wins games. I kicked well against Northampton while Paul Grayson had an off day - that was the difference. I don't like the pressure, but I've learnt to deal with it."

Rees, an Oxford Blue who has played for clubs in four different countries, was a schoolboy at Harrow when he first tasted the pressure of the Pilkington Cup final, for Wasps in 1986. "That side was packed with internationals while the present team is much younger and nowhere near its peak," he said. "But the game is almost unrecognisable from 10 years ago. Apart from the law changes, players are bigger, stronger and faster. It's better now, but the law makers need to leave alone so that spectators can get used to it."

Rees, a veteran of three World Cups, sees professional rugby as a mixed blessing. "In playing terms we're going in the right direction, but we've lost the social aspect. When New Zealand played three Tests in South Africa last year, the players didn't even dine together after the first two games. That was ridiculous.

"There's also a danger that educations won't be completed and we could have professionals with nothing else to offer once their rugby careers are over. I'd like to play for another five years, certainly until the 1999 World Cup, and then concentrate on coaching. But my life has never been completely consumed with rugby. My calling is to teach young people."

Despite this claim, he intends to scale down his own career at Eton where his specialist subject is modern history. "Last year, my first at Eton, teaching was my priority, but now I'm looking to reduce my timetable."

Once the season is over, he returns to Canada to prepare for summer assignations with Wales (against whom he landed the decisive penalty at the Arms Park in 1993), Argentina, Japan and the United States. "There isn't much rest built into our schedules any more. The fixture list is very disjointed, but as long as I can get a month off before we start training for next season I`ll be fine."