From Cardiff to Sydney and from Brive to Tokyo - it’s safe to say that Tony Rees has made the most of opportunities to see the world, playing rugby and picking up invaluable life experiences along the way.
However, the former lock - one of few players to have represented both the Blue and Blacks and Les Noir et Blanc - will continue to come up in pub quizzes around the country for years to come, as the first Welshman to have lifted the Heineken Cup.
However, even the Port Talbot-born man, who now resides permanently in Australia, admits it was a close shave: “Yes, it is interesting, but I guess I was one kick away from being nothing, because Cardiff should’ve won the first final against Toulouse the previous year. I actually watched that game live out in Tokyo, where I played for two years.
“Cardiff came within a whisker, so I could’ve been an irrelevant stat as far as being a Welshman was concerned. So thankfully, it did me a bit of a favour!
“But I didn’t know the significance of it until the tournament continued to evolve!”
But, how did the Welshman find himself playing in the top level of French rugby, ultimately claiming Europe’s most coveted trophy?
Rees, who also made 65 appearances for Cardiff, explains: “I’d played with Nick Farr-Jones at Sydney University, and caught up with him at the Hong Kong Sevens in 1996. He was doing some consultancy coaching work with Brive at the time.
“My plan was to head back to Brisbane at the end of my time in Japan, but thanks to Nick we ended up flying to Paris where I signed for Brive.
“It was out of the blue, and I didn’t even know where Brive was geographically. The first time I saw it on the map was on the screen on the plane while we were flying out there!
“My first experience of French rugby was in Perpignan with Brive, which was fascinating. There was a mass fight at the end of the game, huge fences all the way around - they call it the Bull Ring in Perpignan - and I remember sitting in the stands, thinking just how brutal it was.
“Their hooker was walking down the touchline, covered in blood, and the crowd cheered him on as a hero. I quickly realised this was going to be a fascinating season for me.
“It was just a completely different experience, on and off the field.
“I made my first team debut for them against Bordeaux in the Top 14, live on television. Their hooker kicked ours, so I sent one through on him in front of the stands, and it was probably the best thing I could’ve done! Safe to say the president was very happy with me.
“It went swimmingly from then. We played Nice, Harlequins and Caledonian Reds in the pool matches in Europe before Llanelli and Cardiff in the quarters and semis. I’d played every game up until the quarter final, but was selected for Wales A to play against South Africa and never really regained my spot after that. Had I not played for Wales A I probably would’ve kept my place.
“But I’ve got no regrets about my time in Brive. I loved it there.”
Rees came off the bench in Brive’s final victory over Leicester Tigers in Cardiff, which sparked memorable celebrations both in Wales and back in Brive.
Part of those celebrations saw Rees back in Cardiff’s clubhouse that evening, leading the charge with his Brive team-mates: “We only have 5,000 people at the final, and they were the noisiest lot there! They all rushed back as they knew the celebrations back in Brive would be massive, and it was. It didn’t disappoint - it was amazing.
“I knew Darren and Jeff, who used to run the clubhouse at the Arms Park. We stayed at the Copthorne, and walked past Cardiff rugby club with the cup to get to the coach for our after-match dinner with the president, which is the tradition.
“We popped into the Arms Park for a beer, and as soon as we walked in every one was chuffed to see us. Jeff filled the cup with beer and everyone in the bar drank from the cup.
“The whole team was there and the Cardiff supporters were so good. The atmosphere was brilliant and none of us wanted to leave. Cardiff were such wonderful hosts to us, and everyone remembers that. It was really special.
“That night was wild, the next day on the plane was wild. Back in Brive they threw an open licence for 24 hours across the town, and the small regional airport was packed. The celebrations were televised, with bands playing on the square, and we had a special bar for us to party in.
“We went all night. It was crazy, and the next day we flew to Paris - on the oldest plane I’ve ever flown on - to me Jaques Chirac. We just about made it, and had a police escort down the Champs-Élysées. We had such a good bunch.”
Following his time in France, Rees returned for a stint at the Arms Park alongside Greg Kacala, who would become a cult hero in the capital: “I spoke to Peter Thomas after the semi final, who indicated that he wanted me to join Cardiff and bring Greg Kacala with me.
“We worked it out in the end, and Greg and I flew to London after a training session to meet with Peter and Alec Evans to arrange the contracts.
“It was under the cloak of secrecy, but I got picked up on a speed camera in the club car, with the two of us on the way to Bordeaux and then the police recognised us at the airport. With all the gossip-mongering in French rugby, everyone would’ve quickly known about it!
“It’s a fascinating country, they’re passionate about rugby and that’s why they do so well.
“But as part of the deal to release us, Cardiff went over there to play a friendly the following season. I was there, due to play, but my wife went into labour two weeks earlier and I had to jump in [team manager] Peter Manning’s car and leave the night before the match.”
During his time with the Blue and Blacks, Rees made 65 appearances and was a member of the 1994 cup-winning side, who saw off the challenge of Llanelli in the final.
Recalling his time with the capital club, Rees added: “I went to a charity function recently, and the theme was that everyone had to wear a rugby shirt that was significant. So I wore the jersey from the cup final, which was tucked away in the cupboard.
“I was lucky enough to play in that final as well, and what an atmosphere that was. It was the showpiece of Welsh club rugby, and it was spectacular.
“Peter Thomas has always been outstanding to me. He’s a wonderful person who I get along well with.”
With the reverse fixture set to take place in Brive in January, Rees has also given Cardiff supporters a taste of what to expect for those making the trip.
The former lock added: “There’s a passion in Brive that’s driven towards the team, and Cardiff will see that when they go over there in the new year. I’d encourage any Cardiff fan who wants a good time to go and stay down there.
“The passion will be no different to when they were in the semi-final. It’s a hugely historic club, with a long, successful tradition and they’ve developed a lot of French internationals.
“But the local community is no more than 60,000 people within the region, but the Briveists are passionate about their club.
“The affection really gets to you. It’s a rugby-mad region of France with a lot of clubs playing in the various leagues. There will be many dozens of teams, within that area, who are also fully supportive of Brive beyond their own playing commitments.
“When I was there recently, to celebrate the 25 year anniversary of the Heineken Cup win, I got in touch with [former head coach] Jeremy Davidson who invited me to spend time with the team, watching them train and have a look at the facilities.
“It’s completely transformed since I was there, and they’ve got superb facilities across the board. I was really impressed with how it’s developed so much.
“But they don’t skimp on the history either, with former players plastered around the place. It’s a terrific set-up.
“They keep former players involved so the history’s not forgotten, and that’s important to them.
“So I’ll be watching! Good friends of mine are still involved, which means a lot. They’re a good bunch, and I’m sure they’ll bring good support over with them.
“A lot of people who remember the final will want to come back to Cardiff and there will be plenty of passionate people there. You’ll certainly hear them!”
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