Tom Rees: From the back-row to frontline
Former Wasps and England flanker, now working on the NHS frontline
By Jamie Weir
Last Updated: 29/05/20 8:20am
Former England and Wasps flanker Tom Rees chats exclusively to Sky Sports about his career, the injury which ended it prematurely and life as an NHS doctor now...
He was destined for superstardom. Tipped as a future England captain, and to be one of the first names on the teamsheet for the next decade and beyond.
By the age of 23, he'd reached a World Cup final and become an English and European champion as part of the all-conquering golden generation at Wasps. And then, with the rugby world seemingly at his feet, the rug was pulled cruelly from underneath them.
Injury followed injury followed injury. At 27, Rees had to make the heart-wrenching decision to hang up the boots, and the light of one of the brightest talents in the game was extinguished all too prematurely.
Such a devastating blow at such a young age would have broken many. But when life gave him lemons, Rees made lemonade. Within six months he was at university studying medicine, and eight years on from making one of the most difficult decisions any professional sportsperson has to make, he is an NHS doctor, working on the frontline at Basingstoke Hospital, and saving lives on a daily basis amidst a catastrophic pandemic.
"Both of my parents were doctors, and growing up the only thing I was sure that I wouldn't do was become a doctor," he says.
"Not because they put me off, but because I was going to do my own thing. Over time I started to look at all the physios and medics who were patching me and team-mates back together and thought: 'That's really interesting'. Initially I thought it was too late, I'd missed the boat, I would have needed to have gone straight to university.
"Jamie Roberts was rising to prominence around that time and he was doing both medicine and rugby, and a couple of friends of mine quit their jobs and re-trained. I realised I was going to have to do something after rugby. Sadly the way my career then went, the planning for afterwards started to become more to the forefront.
"Six years after starting university I ended up getting a job at the hospital in Basingstoke, which is the town I grew up in. So having said the last thing I want to do is be like my parents, I'm now doing almost exactly the same thing they did!"
Now 35, Dr Rees is as affable, charming and self-deprecatingly modest as 25-year-old England and Wasps flanker Rees was. And he speaks as passionately and eloquently about his line of work now as he did back then.
Chatting at 7pm on a Thursday evening, it's an hour before collectively as a nation we all stand on our doorsteps and show our appreciation for the job Tom and his colleagues are doing. He's uncomfortable being seen as some sort of hero.
"In a way it's a bit embarrassing, because we are just doing our jobs and particularly at the moment we've probably got the safest employment in the world.
"I've friends who are being furloughed or are running businesses, having to lay off staff and risking losing their livelihoods and they're telling me: 'Mate, thinking of you, hope you're doing alright'. But my life has changed very little. I continue to go to work. My exposure to the virus is much higher but the risk to me personally is really, really small.
"But it's not just about the doctors and nurses, it's about all the staff within the hospital, and understandably there are probably people who feel they have been underappreciated in the past. So suddenly to have this outpouring, you could just see it touched people.
"There were people in tears and getting really emotional. Particularly at the beginning when there was a lot of fear even within healthcare, there was a tangible difference coming in on the Friday after the first Clap for Carers. The morale had skyrocketed, it was palpable."
It's a question he's probably been asked a thousand times before and is fed up of answering, but, does he miss rugby?
"Er… yes, I do. I got onto the playing field at university a little bit and realised how much I missed playing, but then very quickly realised how much I didn't miss feeling like I'd been in a car crash for days afterwards.
"I've struggled watching rugby for the last few years, particularly watching guys that I played with. Having seen James Haskell retire recently, that almost marked the end of my generation. Realistically my career would have run its course by now anyway, so I'm starting to come to terms with that.
"I did meet a bloke in the pub shortly after I'd retired who'd played for Wasps in the amateur era and I was telling him how much I hated watching rugby because I just want to be out there and he said: 'Tom, I'm 55 and I still feel that way, that's never going to change', but it is getting easier for me to watch."
A genuine openside flanker, for England Rees seemed the answer to the void left at 7 by Neil Back's retirement. Destructive at the breakdown, yet dynamic in the loose. And blessed with that rarest of qualities, something which can't be taught on the training pitch: leadership. He was made captain of Wasps at 24.
"Yeah, I was alright," he smiles uncomfortably, "I'm very proud of what I did, and it was good fun while it lasted. It's not quite the career that I wanted to have.
"Absence does make the heart grow fonder, and I do sometimes wonder whether the fact that I wasn't able to hang around and slowly peter out does probably leave much more favourable memories in peoples' minds."
Sport is cruel. The same season he was made captain, he played just seven times, before having an operation to reconstruct his right shoulder. He returned, only to succumb to the same problem. Again, he put the hours in rehabbing and came back.
But it was the dreaded ruptured ACL in his knee - an injury that's ended many a career prematurely - which finally meant the end of the journey that was only just getting started.
There must have been a feeling of 'why me?' - anger that a career of immense promise was snatched away from him.
"I was fairly bitter about it at the time. On average something like two players per club would retire prematurely every year but at 18 you don't think about that. You think: 'Well I'm going to have the stellar career that goes on and it's going to be England caps and Lions Tours' and I felt I was on that trajectory.
"I was just on the verge of establishing myself as an international player when my body started to break down. There was certainly an element of: 'Why have I been so unlucky?' but I couldn't do anything about it.
"I remember Graham Rowntree giving me some of the best advice I've ever had when he told me: 'Don't worry about anything you can't control'".
Control is not something we seem to have a lot of at the moment and there are parallels to be drawn between then and now. How overcoming adversity and desperately searching for some light at the end of the tunnel is something he had to do back in 2012, and is something we all find ourselves doing now. Over the last couple of months, there have been times when it has been difficult to see how and when we can emerge out the other side of all this. Does Rees think we'll beat coronavirus?
"Yes," he says unequivocally.
"We have needs that are beyond just health; from a social, financial and employment point of view, things that give our lives meaning. Illness is always there and it's never going to go away.
"We can never reduce the risk of things to zero but as time goes on we're going to see what measures will keep us safe and make a difference and what measures do have the potential to cause really significant harm further into the future. Eventually we will come through it.
"I'm not convinced there is a right answer. Whatever happens there are unfortunately going to be people who will lose their lives, and as a society we need to continue to pull together and be as supportive as possible."
So what does Tom Rees do for kicks and to keep those competitive juices flowing, now his days of clattering into ruck after ruck have long gone. He's not one for gyms, nor jogging, and hasn't yet felt the itch for golf that many retired sportsmen do.
"I do a bit of yoga!" he says with a laugh, almost apologetically. "For the sake of trying to keep fairly creaky joints moving.
"Prior to lockdown there were hospital football matches; doctors, porters, staff across the hospital who get together for a kick-about once a week. Unfortunately the first tackle I tried to make on my first appearance I mistimed. It was much less of a football tackle and much more of a rugby one. Luckily the doctor on the receiving end took it fairly well!
"Darts is another one. I play darts a bit with some of my junior doctor colleagues, but that's about as strenuous as it gets for me these days."
He lists four moments when asked for his career highlights; his first start for England against France at Twickenham in 2007, going on to be part of Brian Ashton's World Cup squad that autumn, Wasps winning the European Cup in 2007 and the Premiership a year later, on both occasions beating Leicester in Twickenham finals.
In that Premiership final, he scored the game's opening try.
"I got to be part of a very successful club, but it was also a very special bunch of people. It's one of those things with sport that sometimes the stars just align and you get a group of people who are all together - at different stages of their career - but you're thrown together.
"Look at the coaching staff - Gatland, Edwards, Geech - and players like Dallaglio, Lewsey, Worsley, King, Shaw, Vickery, Waters, Abbott… I'm not going to carry on because I'd be listing names and I'd still be leaving some out."
It's 20 minutes until it's time for the weekly pots-and-pans-banging appointment. His alarm is set for 5am, ahead of another gruelling and unforgiving 12-hour-plus shift at hospital.
In an alternate universe he'd have been bringing joy to tens of thousands of fans at a packed-out Twickenham. In the here and now he's helping save tens of thousands of lives. And as wonderful a game as rugby is, that's a truly noble and inspiring calling.