Matthew Rees has paid tribute to the Arms Park faithful as he hangs his boots up following an emotional final week at Cardiff Blues.
The man known as Smiler draws the curtain on an illustrious career that has spanned 19 years, including six with Wales’ Capital Region.
Rees announced his intention to retire at the end of the season in February, and despite his frustration that he was unable to run out at the Arms Park one last time, he looks back on his career with nothing but pride.
The 38-year-old, who was overtaken by Ken Owens as Wales’ most-capped hooker during the Six Nations, has played more games of professional rugby than any other Welshman, with 329 club and regional appearances, 60 Wales caps and three British & Irish Lions Tests to his name.
Rees’ final week as a professional player crept up on him and retirement will undoubtedly provide new challenges, but he is relishing the next chapter.
“It’s been an emotional week,” admits Rees.
“After making the decision that I was going to retire at the end of the season, I’ve been thinking about life after rugby. I haven’t featured much this season, which has been frustrating, but I’m looking forward to the next chapter.
“When you look back it’s quite scary in terms of how long I’ve been playing professional rugby. I like to think I was durable as a player and that’s why I’ve been playing the game for so long.
“I was keen to come to Cardiff Blues with the success they’d had in previous seasons, Phil Davies was coach and it was great to team up with him again, along with a few of the players I had played with for Wales and Geth coming back from Toulon as well.
“You can’t fault the support that Cardiff Blues have week in, week out. It does make a difference and it’s important that we appreciate what the fans do for us.
“It’s an old school ground. As much as the pitch has been renewed, the stadium itself still has a lot to offer and other teams don’t like coming to the Arms Park.
“We’ve had a good run there this season and hopefully that will continue for seasons to come. It’s a fortress and whenever you speak to other players, they say it’s a tough place to come.
“The future is bright here with the young players coming through and I’m looking forward to seeing them next year.”
During his immense career, Rees has captained Cardiff Blues, Scarlets and Wales on numerous occasions, won Grand Slams, a Lions Test against South Africa and played a part in last season’s European Challenge Cup triumph.
But Rees counts his return to Cardiff Blues action and final two caps for Wales as his greatest achievement, having overcome his battle with testicular cancer in 2013.
“When I retire I will reflect on a lot of things I have done in my career and that is probably the main one,” said Rees.
“I was going into the unknown in terms of whether I would play professional rugby again and coming out the other side of it, the big statement was coming through the treatment and then going onto Wales at the end of the season to gain another two caps.
“That has to be the main highlight, not just from a rugby perspective but health perspective and I’m glad to be here and live to tell the tale.
“I’ve enjoyed playing my whole career in Wales. It’s something which I always wanted to do and success has come with it in terms of a couple of Grand Slams, a Lions tour, a semi-final with the Scarlets in the Heineken Cup and the Challenge Cup last year. Although I didn’t feature in the last few games of the season, for the squad to go out and do what they did in Bilbao was amazing.”