The Rugby World Cup: History man faces his final examination

The Survivor: Gareth Rees of Canada; Tim Glover meets the original long player, who still enjoys his work
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GARETH REES, who is not averse to a pint of the black stuff, is about to claim his place in the Guinness Book of Records as the only player to appear in every World Cup. "I'm proud of that," Rees said. "It's kind of neat."

Rees was there when the game went global in New Zealand and Australia in 1987 and David Kirk, the All Blacks captain, was the first to put his fingerprints on the Webb Ellis Cup; he was there in 1991 when another scrum-half, Nick Farr-Jones, lifted the cup for Australia at Twickenham; he was in South Africa when the Springboks were crowned world champions four years ago; and he will be in France next Saturday for the latest, and most professional, festival of rugby.

Had Sean Fitzpatrick, the former New Zealand captain, still been playing he might have made it four out of four. As it is, Rees's long-playing record is unlikely to be threatened: in the modern era most players will be content with one World Cup. About the only thing that hasn't changed in the intervening 12 years is that Canada are still living from hand to mouth, still relying on part-timers who haven't given up their day jobs, and still relying on Rees to call the shots, kick the goals and lead his country, a fringe player on the world stage, into what appears to be another lost cause.

Rees, of course, doesn't see it like that. "I'll be very disappointed if we don't at least make the quarter- finals," he said. "We were in the French group in 1991 and got to the last eight before giving New Zealand a run for their money."

Canada have had a lean run this year, finishing bottom of the Pacific Rim Tournament, without a win in five games. Even worse, they were beaten 18-17 by their North American arch-rivals, the United States.

However, the Canadians had a lot more to offer against Wales at the Millennium Stadium and England at Twickenham, the same England who had earlier put 100 points on the American Eagles.

Indeed, Rees's journeymen were the only team to give England a meaningful workout in the run-up to the World Cup.

Canada can be awkward and feisty and in-your-face. Few people like playing against them. Unlike little countries with a small rugby population, Namibia for example, they are a huge country with a tiny number of players and that, under Rees, has helped them to gel as a team and develop a fierce competitive edge. In 1995 they gave Australia and South Africa extremely hard matches, particularly the latter; in that encounter they had two players sent off in an explosive free-for-all more reminiscent of professional ice hockey.

The Canadians can mix it with the best, and Rees not only wears his heart on his sleeve but a red maple leaf on his right ankle, tattooed in glorious colour and positioned to inspire his goal-kicking.

It could have been a Welsh dragon. His father, Alan, who was born in Llantrisant, played for Maesteg, Cross Keys, Abertillery and London Welsh before emigrating to Canada in 1962. While his father has become Canada's chairman of selectors, Rees, against Tonga this summer, became the first Canadian to win 50 caps. "I was encouraged to play all sports but I was particularly keen on baseball. Unfortunately, there was the classic American thing of parents yelling at their kids, so I switched to rugby."

From Duncan on Vancouver Island he went to Harrow school, on an exchange visit, and was influenced by Roger Uttley, the former England captain, who introduced him to Wasps. At the age of 18 Rees played in the cup final against Bath. "It was a brilliant time. Harrow First XV were unbeaten and I was the only un-capped player in Wasps' back line."

Later that year he made his debut for Canada at stand-off against the US. He took a Masters degree in history at Oxford University and had a spell teaching in France before joining the staff at Eton College, where he taught modern history.

"A few years ago I was a semi- professional and I was running around like crazy, marking papers in between training and playing. I'd always done something other than rugby and the decision to become a full-time professional was a difficult one. The life tends to become one-dimensional, and you've got to fight against that. The young new players are becoming mere clones of footballers. We have more to offer than that. We are forgetting who we are. Young guys now are being put into situations where they are encouraged to be the same rather than different."

Rees is well-rounded in another respect. At anything from 151/2 st, he is the largest stand-off/full-back in the World Cup. Even when he was a teenager he was advised to lose weight. And he's been around: Harrow, Wasps, Newport, Oxford University, Mergnac, the University of Victoria and Oak Bay Castaways. At Oxford he gained a Blue not only in rugby, but also in athletics, putting the shot.

Rees, who helped Wasps win the Tetley's Bitter Cup at Twickenham last May, was cast away by the club at the end of the season and recruited by Bedford. How much longer the 32-year-old Rees, or Bedford come to that, can keep going is another matter. What is certain is that there will not be a fifth World Cup for him, and when he retires Canadian rugby will have a large hole to fill.

He has retained his links with Eton, working at the college a couple of days a week: "I'm an assistant house master and I do some counselling and pastoral work." He also helps out with the rugby coaching, though even Rees's encouragement is unlikely to coax a couple of heirs to the throne into the first XV.

Despite his ancestry, Rees took great pride in kicking the winning penalty in Canada's 26-24 win over Wales at Cardiff in 1993. "I'm a Canadian kid. People think I learned my rugby here. I learned it in Canada. We have a great spirit there. We don't play to get rich or to get recognised in the street, but we enjoy it." William Webb Ellis would have approved.