A career to smile about

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Judgement Day’s defeat to the Ospreys spelled the end of the season for Cardiff Blues, but in the background it was also the end of a Welsh rugby great’s stellar rugby career.

For that Saturday was the last time that Matthew Rees would be employed as a rugby player on a matchday, bringing to an end an 18-year career of senior professional rugby that encapsulated hundreds of appearances, trophies won at the highest level, British and Irish Lions tours and victorious personal battles.

Even looking in from the outside it is difficult to choose what would be a career highlight; becoming a legend in Pontypridd, Llanelli and Cardiff, having a hand in two Wales Grand Slam wins and a further Six Nations Championship, playing at the World Cup, captaining your country or winning two Lions test caps in South Africa.

Young kids sit in school and write about that sort of career when asked what they want to do when they grow up, before the teacher tells them to maybe write something more realistic. Well Matthew Rees achieved it all.

He leaves behind a legacy as a hooker that bridged two eras of professional rugby, stitching together the old basics of lineout throwing and hard scrummaging, with the modern demands of working hard around the field, and not being afraid to go gallivanting with ball-in-hand every now and again.

182 Scarlets appearances, 96 Cardiff Blues appearances and 60 Wales caps making him Wales’ most capped hooker pay testament to a man who has been the best number two in the country for over a decade.

Matthew Rees Lions
Rees started two tests against South Africa in 2009

Of course there is more than that though, with Rees having to deal with a well-documented testicular cancer diagnosis in October 2013 that looked set to end his rugby career prematurely.

However he beat all the odds by not only overcoming the disease, but by returning to playing that very same season, just five months later in fact, and enjoying five more years as a professional rugby player taking us to this point where he hangs up his boots.

Perhaps it’s fitting that an un-flashy career should come to an end with such little fanfare, but if you ask me there should be a celebration of a career that, when looked back on, has been at the centre of many of Welsh rugby’s great successes during the early part of the 21st Century.

What’s next for Rees is unknown, with a coaching route available after two seasons looking after the scrum at Sardis Road, or possibly a foray into the world of agents should he choose to stay in rugby that way.

Whatever he ends up doing he’ll make his mark on no doubt though, as when you ask anyone about the man they call Smiler, they don’t start with his playing ability or his off-field challenges, they start with what a thoroughly decent bloke he is.

Matthew Rees’ autobiography Reasons 2 Smile is available to buy through publishers Y Lolfa here. A highly recommended purchase!

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