SPORTS

Gareth Rees still blazing a rugby trail as he enters Canada's Sports Hall of Fame

10/22/2014 04:34 EDT | Updated 12/22/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Gareth Rees made rugby history on one leg at the 1999 World Cup.

A doubtful starter for Canada's opening game against host France because of a nagging knee injury and thigh strain, Rees nevertheless led the Canadian men out in Beziers. In the process, he became the first man to play in four World Cups.

His right thigh heavily strapped, Rees kicked a penalty and a conversion in a hard-hitting 33-20 loss to France. And he led the way on a day of smashmouth defence, almost decapitating his slender counterpart Thomas Castaignede with a high tackle that netted a yellow card.

As he did throughout his rugby career, Rees set the tone.

The stocky fly half put his body on the line on a day when the overmatched Canadians played like human battering rams in a losing cause.

The 47-year-old Victoria native earned another first Wednesday when he became the first rugby player to be inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame. The honour comes three years after he was made a member of the International Rugby Board's Hall of Fame.

Rees played 55 times for Canada and remains the only man to have represented his country in every game at four World Cups — 1987, 1991, 1995 and 1999.

For prop Rod Snow, the charismatic Rees provided a sense of security on the rugby field.

"Not just me, a lot of the older guys with more experience than me, they all looked up to him," said Snow. "And there was a huge sense of security.

"Because a lot of us when we're under pressure, we make snap decisions that don't always turn out to be the best ones," said the iconic Newfoundland forward. "And he was one of those guys that kind of had a sense for the game. The less time he had, the more pressure he was under, his snap decision-making was always good.

"So there's no doubt you got a big sense of comfort when you were on the field with him. And when he wasn't there, you felt it."

In entering the Hall, Rees shared the moment with his family, credited his teammates and talked warmly of growing up in Victoria where the sports community made for an extended family.

Rees captained Canada 25 times and retired after the '99 World Cup as Canada's leading scorer in international play with 492 points. The six-foot 220-pound fly half was a world-class kicker and courageous defender.

He was the kind of player you'd want in a foxhole with you, although some of his teammates would no doubt joke the barrel-shaped back would make for a tight fit.

At the 1995 World Cup, Rees and Snow were ejected with South African James Dalton in Canada's final game of the tournament after taking exception to the way Canadian winger Winston Stanley was tackled into the sideline advertising boards in a tackle by Pieter Hendricks.

The incident marked the first time in international rugby that three players had ever been ejected in a game.

Rees was tough. His leadup to the '99 World Cup included wrist surgery, a severe concussion, chickenpox and a knee injury. There was suspicion he needed painkilling injections to play in France, where he made all 19 kicks despite the leg pain.

Rees spanned the game's transition from amateur to professional — a move that Canada is still struggling with in some ways.

In times when not many Canadians played overseas, Rees had a stellar club career abroad and made a living playing rugby by the time the '99 World Cup rolled around.

But many of his teammates didn't. Fellow back Scott Bryan was a lawyer. Mark Cardinal owned a recycling company. Coach Pat Parfrey was a kidney specialist.

People played for the love of the game. One Canadian player broke down in tears during the '95 tournament when he lost the envelope containing his per diem.

Rees gave back to Canada, paying for his own insurance at times.

He turned heads as a schoolboy before playing for Oxford University, London Wasps, Harlequins, and Bedford in England, Newport in Wales, and Merignac in France. A teacher, he taught Prince William at Eton College.

He was a teenager in his first big game in Britain: the John Player Cup at Twickenham, the home of English rugby.

When he was picked by London Wasps for the game against Bath, his first thought was that the highlights would be shown on British TV's "Rugby Special" and that TSN picked up those highlights.

"I was very very conscious even then kids, people could watch a Canadian playing rugby on TV. Now it's the norm. Then it didn't exist. Those were the things that spurred me on."

He remains a rugby celebrity. In countries where rugby is respected, his name was synonymous with Canada.

"Especially in the U.K.," said Rugby Canada CEO Graham Brown. "When you go to the U.K. with Gareth, cab drivers know who he is."

A former CEO of Rugby Canada himself, Rees currently serves as men's national program manager.

"He's totally respected ... he just knocks it out of the park," said Brown.

Rees said playing for Canada was a struggle at times because of lack of money and time together, but there is little he would change.

"I loved who we were," he said. "Whether it was on the field, or a training pitch or the bar afterwards, I really enjoyed who we were as a group of men."

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