Defiant. It’s the one word that must be used to describe Gareth Rees. Talk to Canada’s greatest-ever rugby player and he uses the word frequently in describing himself and certain teams he played on. Yet it’s the way he says it that makes you believe him, looking you in the eye and daring you to challenge him.

It’s no bluff. The man is what he says regardless of what anyone may think. And maybe that’s defiance in a nutshell.

Born in Duncan, but growing up in Victoria, Rees played whatever sport was in season growing up amongst as uniquely talented a group of all-round Victoria athletes as the Patricks, Chapmans, Pedens, and others were in the 1930s. In this case, it was a group that featured Rees, Russ and Geoff Courtnall, and Paul and Gary Gait.

He first discovered rugby through his father, a former professional soccer player from Britain, and learned the game through the Willows Elementary and St. Michael’s University School programs. Rees took to the game at a young age and soon began to dominate with his speed, ball handling, and the precision kicking that became his hallmark.

When not playing for his club side in Victoria, Castaway Wanderers, Rees was soon chosen to represent Vancouver Island, BC and Canada at an almost unheard of early age. He would go on to represent Canada in four Rugby World Cups—1987, 1991, 1995, 1999—the first international player in history to do so and captained the team for the final two. He would eventually collect 55 caps for Canada—25 as captain—and retired as the nation’s leading scorer in international play with 492 points.

Playing professionally in Europe at a time when few Canadians did so, Rees was the most dominant of an impressive group of Canadians playing overseas that enhanced the nation’s reputation in the sport for years to come. His clubs included London Wasps, NEC Harlequins, and Bedford in England, Newport in Wales, and Merignac in France. Leading Wasps to the 1996-97 league title, he was the top point scorer in England’s Courage League Division One. Two years later, British sports writers named Rees the outstanding player of the 1999 season. His fine play warranted selection to numerous World XV’s over his 14-year career and he was chosen three times to play for the prestigious Barbarians.

And if his rugby accomplishments aren’t enough, Rees can also lay claim to teaching the future King of Britain, Prince William, while William was attending Eton College and Rees was his history teacher and rugby coach.

Ask Rees about the highlight of his career and he immediately describes being part of an incredibly tight and talented Canadian team at the 1991 World Cup that advanced to the quarterfinals against the venerable New Zealand All-Blacks. An underdog Canuck 15 battled the powerful Kiwis so valiantly in a tight loss that the New Zealanders later blamed their semi-final loss to Australia on the physical beating the Canadians had handed them. It remains the best result Canada has ever achieved in any Rugby World Cup.

The accolades bestowed upon Rees are unmatched for any Canadian rugby player. Upon retirement in 2000, he was awarded the Rugby Union Writers’ Club special award for services to world rugby, one of only six men ever to have been so honoured. In 2007, the International Rugby Board named Rees one of the top 12 players in the world for the twentieth century.

Looking close at Rees’ career, the common thread of defying the accepted logic of what a Vancouver Island lad can accomplish in the rugby world runs true throughout.

A 19-year-old can play a large role on a national team. A Canadian can be a top professional player in Europe. A Canadian team can battle with the powers of rugby world. A Canadian can be considered amongst the giants of the world game.

When the naysayers said otherwise, Rees defiantly stood firm and proved: “I belong here.”

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.