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My life: Dai Rees

The head coach of the Hong Kong Sevens team tells Robby Nimmo about achieving balance in rugby as he prepares for next weekend's tournament

 

MAJOR MINERS I grew up in Abercarn, in South Wales. It's a real rugby valley and Abercarn Rugby Club is one of the founder members of the Welsh Rugby Union. It is a small village, with three mines in the nearby hills and mountains. Many families work in the steel and coal industry, with mining having been entrenched for generations. All of the mines are closed now. My parents always had aspirations for me to look for a career away from mining. They supported my sister and me through university; we both went to the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, to study sports science and teaching. This is the same university that Welsh internationals Gareth Edwards and John Devereux attended - rugby and sport is ingrained in the university's culture.

THE DRAGONS' DEN When I came to Hong Kong, it was inevitable that I would become a member of the St David's Society [for Welsh people]. I was on the committee within the first week of being in Hong Kong. The society hosts a ball at the beginning of each March to mark St David's Day, which falls in the same month as the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens. The rivalry between English, Irish Scottish and the Welsh is true on one level, particularly on the rugby pitch. And on another level, it's just banter. They say the relationship between the Welsh and the English is based on trust and understanding; they can't understand us, and we don't trust them!

RUGBY POSTINGS People may say it was bittersweet that I decided to come to Hong Kong about the time that Wales won the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Dubai, in 2009. I'd hit a "dead end" as coach within the Welsh structures; I was looking for a new challenge. I'd had 11 years in Welsh Rugby Union coaching roles. Outside of rugby, I couldn't see myself growing old as a college principal [at Coleg Gwent, City of Newport]. I'd been in education for 18 years while also coaching Wales at under 19, 20, 21, Wales 7s as well as the women's team. I had also been a front runner for the job of assistant coach to Warren Gatland, for Wales' national team. When deciding to become a full-time coach [for the Newport Gwent Dragons] I had a job for life, a wife and three young children, but at 41 I was ready for the change and a challenge. Rugby is renowned for being an old boy's network when applying for jobs. In Hong Kong this wasn't the case and it didn't matter that I wasn't a household name or a former international. My experience and skills were what mattered.

ALL CHANGE My family has adapted well to Hong Kong. My daughter Maisie was 13 when she came here - not an easy age to move to a new country - but she settled in well. Our next daughter, Tirion, was eight and Will was four. They're Hong Kong kids now. Our eldest daughter grew to like Hong Kong so much she found it hard to leave. She went to the UK after she finished school for a short stint but missed her siblings and her life here, so she's come back and is working at Clearwater Bay Equestrian Centre. My wife, Sarah, after the initial shock, has blended in easily.

PITCH INVASION The Hong Kong Sevens is a magnificent showcase for the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union (HKRFU), but rugby is a 365-day-a-year commitment for the union. The HKRFU does much for the community, growing rugby from the ground up, with 4,300 (at the "mini" level - under the age of 12) and 1,700 ("colts" - up to 19) playing every week during the season.

Many of our best players leave at 18 or 19 to go to university. Despite this, the number of people playing rugby in Hong Kong has never been so high, and increasingly our players are not just expats. In the Hong Kong Sevens squad, 80 per cent of the players were born here, and rugby across all competitions in Hong Kong is now predominantly a local sport. With the Sevens as an Olympic sport for the first time in Rio in 2016, the Hong Kong Institute of Sport has been exceptionally supportive.

CAPS AND DIFFERENT HATS In the sevens, it's been an interesting year. The 28:7 win against Japan in Mumbai last October gave us the HSBC Asian Sevens Series Championships 2012, the first Hong Kong team to achieve this. However, we still have our eyes on our performance in Moscow at the Rugby World Cup Sevens and the London Sevens. This year's successes have been all the more remarkable because we achieved all of them (from such a small playing base). Last year, we ended up in our last game at the Hong Kong Sevens with six players on the pitch after a red card and injuries.

For all of our players, there's the constant juggle with their careers. Keith Robertson has taken time out to go to Australia to qualify as a pilot, as did Tom McColl before him, while Sevens captain Rowan Varty is working as a solicitor. I'm working with the team to balance their lives; despite the difficulty in juggling, athletes in all sports have shown in studies to perform better when they have careers that engage them. There's got to be balance. Players reach 16 and they buckle under the pressure from their schools and parents to give up rugby. Dropping out and giving up is not the only option. Plenty of people can say, "I have three A levels/an IB," but not everyone can say, "I have three A levels and five international caps for Hong Kong."

Dai Rees will be cheering his team to victory (we can dream!) at next weekend's Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens.

 

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