Brian Rees’ life was meandering at best before a candid conversation with his former Neath Grammar School colleague Brian Thomas changed everything.
Playing good rugby was always high on the agenda for Rees, who won four Blues, captained Cambridge and won three Welsh caps as a hooker, but he wasn’t sure in which direction to take his working life.
He eventually headed to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, from school after turning down the chance to attend St Luke’s College, Exeter, and study to become a teacher.
“I fell off my studies in the sixth form at school after discovering rugby and women in my late teens. My final years in school were very much up and down and I ended up going to Aberystwyth,” recalled Rees, who died at the age of 79 on Wednesday, 29 December.
“The rugby there was good, with people like John Dawes and Dennis Hughes around the place, but I wasn’t satisfied. So I got in touch with Brian Thomas, who had been to Neath GS and was up at Cambridge at the time.
“He put me in touch with the Senior Tutor, and Admissions Tutor, at Christ’s College, Dr CLG Pratt. I wrote him a begging letter, asking if there was any way I could come to Cambridge to read medicine.
“Christ’s was the rugby college at the time and when I got into the interview with Dr Pratt I told him I wanted to get a Blue and become a doctor. The great historian, Jack Plum, was the king-maker at the college, brining in all the high brow students like Simon Schama, who had a study above mine, while Dr Pratt looked after the sporting entities.
“He said that as long as I passed an organic chemistry and botany exam I could have one of the five places on offer. He also gave me a warning – ‘you can come here to do two things, sport and work, but you can’t fit in three, sport, study and women’.
“That meant the girlfriend had to go on hold for a while. After what happened in my teenage years I was so petrified about not passing exams that I worked very hard to ensure I kept up with some incredibly bright fellow students.”
The demonstrate how much he was able to keep up with his colleagues he became an elected member of the Royal College of Surgeons and the High Sheriff of South Glamorgan in later life. Having completed his medical degree at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, he eventually returned to Wales to work and became a general surgeon at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff.
He was the lead cancer clinician from 2000-06 and established a unit for the teaching of skills in surgery and laparoscopic techniques which is used by many disciplines within the medical world.
The unit, called the Welsh Institute of Minimal Access Therapy, is recognised as having a place among the best training units in the country. In 2000, he was awarded an OBE for services to medicine.
He became the High Sheriff of South Glamorgan in 2008 and for the past two years had acted as chair and Trustee on the board of the Welsh Rugby Charitable Trust.
Born in Neath on 28 August, 1942, he learned his rugby at Neath Grammar School alongside his lifelong friend, the former WRU President Dennis Gethin. No sooner had the two school pals gone up to Cambridge than they found themselves playing against the 1963 touring All Blacks.
Rees, a rumbustious front row forward, quickly became a permanent fixture for the Light Blues and won four Blues from 1963-1966. He captained the side in his final season, a post in which he was succeeded by his younger brother, Gareth, seven years later.
New Zealand won the 1963 fixture at Grange Road 20-6 and Rees led the side against the 1966 Wallabies, when his team went down 6-5 in a tense, tight tussle.
His Varsity Match record ended up as won one, drawn another and lost two to Oxford at Twickenham, including his game as captain. He also went on the 1965 Combined Oxford & Cambridge tour to Argentina and Brazil, where he featured in the side that drew with and then beat the Pumas.
He would later return to Argentina on the uncapped Wales tour in 1968, where he played in the first Test defeat. He was invited to fly out to New Zealand a year later to replace the injured Jeff Young after the first Test defeat to the All Blacks.
He was forced to turn down the offer, Newport’s Vic Perrins going in his place, due to his medical exams. By that stage he had graduated from Cambridge and was completed his studies at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.
He won his three Welsh caps in the 1967 Five Nations Championship after coming through the trial process for the first time that season.
“Winning a Blue was an accolade you couldn’t believe. Rees Stephens, the former Neath, Wales and British Lions lock, told me that if I won a Blue I’d definitely get a Welsh trial,” recalled Rees.
“There is no doubt it was a massive stepping stone towards international honours, even in Wales. I finally got a trial in 1966 and then got capped in 1967, when I was playing at London Welsh.”
His Test debut came at Murrayfeld as Wales opened the defence of their title against the Scots when he was one of five new caps. Four of them were in a new look Welsh pack – John O’Shea and Rees in the front row, Billy Mainwairing in the second row and John Taylor in the back row.
Billy Hullin won his one and only cap at scrum half and one of his former Cambridge team mates, Billy Raybould, launched his international career in the centre.
Scotland won 11-5 and then the Irish came to Cardiff and left with a 3-0 win after a smash and grab raid in which wing Alan Duggan scored the only points. The selectors stuck to the same pack for those two matches, but made three changes behind the scrum.
Next stop was Paris, where Gareth Edwards, Dai Morris and Ron Jones won their first caps, and Rees’ brief international career ended with a 20-14 defeat. In the previously postponed game against England a few weeks later, Wales rallied to win 32-23 in what became known as the ‘Jarrett match’ to avoid the Wooden Spoon and stop England winning the Triple Crown.
Taylor joined London Welsh at the same stage of the 1966-67 season as Rees and played alongside him at Old Deer Park as the seeds of the glory days of the club were first being sown. They then both won their first caps together in Scotland.
“Brian was very proud of his Neath heritage and there was certainly a touch of the Neath about him on the field. Neath were revered, hated and admired in equal measure for the hard edge they brought to their rugby and Brian was ferocious on the field,” said Taylor.
“On the field he could be a menace, yet off it he was charming, witty and loads of fun. Never afraid to get stuck in, he once pleaded his innocence when faced with a biting charge by claiming he had lost all his front teeth and therefore couldn’t inflict any damage.
“When he joined London Welsh he was completing his studies to become a doctor in London. He picked a hospital in Luton to do his first internship and that left us all flummoxed.
“When we asked him why he wanted to go so far out, and pointed out it would make life very difficult for him to get to training at Old Deer Park, he revealed his reasoning. He wanted to be a surgeon, the M1 had not long opened, which was close to Luton and he reckoned there would be lots of crashes that would provide him with plenty of chances to get into theatre.
“He went on to become an eminent surgeon, rising to the top of his profession. He was a great man to have around, both on and off the pitch.”
At Cambridge he won the College Cup final in 1964 and followed that up with victories in the 1969 and 1970 Hospital’s Cup finals with St Bart’s. He also played county rugby for Middlesex.
Brian Idris Rees (Blues No: 681 – Wales cap No: 709): B: 28 August, 1942 in Neath; D: 29 December, 2021 in Cardiff; 4 Cambridge Blues, 3 Welsh caps