‘Hero’ Wales rugby player, surgeon and teacher Brian Rees dies as Jamie Roberts leads tributes

Much-loved Welsh rugby player and surgeon Brian Rees has died at the age of 79.

The former hooker, who won three caps for his country during the 1967 Five Nations Championship and went on to become a distinguished surgeon, passed away on December 29.

Born in Neath, Rees pursued a medical career at Cambridge, where he also featured for the Light Blues against New Zealand and Australia.

He played in four Varsity matches against Oxford, winning one, drawing one and losing two between 1963 and 1966.

Rees’ three caps then came a year later, against Scotland, Ireland and France. His final cap, in Colombes, was the first of 53 for the great Gareth Edwards.

He then went on an uncapped Wales tour to Argentina in 1968 before being invited to join the squad on tour in New Zealand as an injury replacement. But he had to turn the offer down as he was completing his studies at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.

Having also enjoyed a stint with London Welsh during the early knockings of the club’s glory years, Rees eventually returned to Wales to work and took up a post as a general surgeon at the University Hospital of Wales.

He became the lead cancer clinician in 2000, the same year he was awarded an OBE for his services to medicine, and held the position until 2006.

Upon arriving in the Welsh capital, he immediately threw his support behind the Cardiff Medics student side.

He never represented the team given he was trained in London, though you would have been forgiven for thinking he did. Rees became a patron, president and later a lifelong vice president of the club, helping out in any way possible and was a regular face on the sideline at matches.

“You couldn’t know Brian without having a personal relationship,” Huw Davies, who has coached the Cardiff Medics for 27 years and has known Rees since taking on the role, told WalesOnline.

“Anybody who spent time with him felt privileged, he just had that gravitas, that amazing presence. You knew he was in the room as soon as he entered.

“There are very few people like that in life.

“He was one of these boyhood hero type people. We’ve had a couple of them in the club – Dr Jack Matthews before him and Jamie Roberts since.

‘Hero’ Wales rugby player, surgeon and teacher Brian Rees dies as Jamie Roberts leads tributes
Brian Rees, former Wales international and distinguished surgeon

“Everybody loved Brian. The amazing thing about the tributes is how diverse they are. He could communicate with everybody and leave an incredible impression on them.

“All of the boys wanted to work on his firm and do a job with him because he had such an amazing reputation.

“He was a hard taskmaster in everything he did. He had exacting standards in terms of punctuality, how they looked, how they spoke to patients.

“He wanted everybody to be great ambassadors of medicine and of rugby. He led from the front.

“Whenever he was at the medics games or social events, everybody wanted to speak to him and he had time to speak to everybody. He’d speak to you as if you were the most important person in the room. That’s a rare gift.”

Rees also established a unit for the teaching of skills in surgery and laparoscopic techniques which is used by many disciplines within the medical world.

The unit, called the Welsh Institute of Minimal Access Therapy, is recognised as being among the best training units in the country.

In 2008 he became High Sheriff of South Glamorgan and also sat as a Trustee on the board of the Welsh Rugby Charitable Trust, acting as its chair in recent years.

Brian Rees with Dr Ian Harries and Dr Huw Charles, all vice presidents of Cardiff Medics RFC

“I’m not a medic, I work in pharmaceuticals, but all of the medics say that his ward rounds were legendary because he would uplift the team and uplift patients that were very often on death’s door,” Davies added.

“He just raised spirits. We might be playing in the Welsh Cup in somewhere like Glyncoch and he would be prowling the touchline, encouraging the boys.

“He had that energy and he was just a great leader.

“We almost saw him as indestructible.

“Although he had been ill for a number of years, it was a bit of a shock because he’s one of those individuals you thought would be here forever.

“He was one of a kind.”

Tributes to Rees, from the worlds of both rugby and medicine, poured in on social media.

Wales international Jamie Roberts, who also studied medicine at Cambridge, said: “A wonderful man, such sad news.”

Jonathan ‘Jiffy’ Davies added: “RIP Brian Rees. What a an absolute legend. You will be sorely missed. Bye friend.”

Geoff Davies, Wales team doctor, posted: “A real pleasure to have known such a lovely man and true Cardiff Meds RFC legend.”

“Very very sad to hear this,” posted @DrGeraintPreest on Twitter. “I remember looking after his patients when I did paediatric surgery and on the general surgery wards as a house officer. Looked after his team as well as his patients and a great teacher.”

@simonmdjones added: “Very sad news. When I was Chair of Cardiff and Vale Trust I always knew I would have a challenge from Brian but always he had the best interests of his patients at his heart. And always fun to be in his company.”

And BBC Business Correspondent Huw Thomas shared: “Very sad to hear this. He was a lovely man and a supremely talented surgeon who saved my life when I was very young. A hero to so many kids like me.”