While seven Cardiff Blues stars are hopeful of impressing Warren Gatland and earn a spot in Wales’ 31-man squad for the Rugby World Cup, academy manager, Gruff Rees, has already booked his ticket for the global spectacle in Japan later this year.
The former Ysgol Gyfun Glantaf pupil, who returned to his home region as academy manager last summer, juggles his duties at Cardiff Arms Park with a coaching role with the Canadian national side.
Rees has joined Canada’s back-room team on a part-time basis, working alongside head coach, Kingsley Jones, as they prepare for a gruelling World Cup schedule where they will be facing the likes of Italy, South Africa and defending champions, New Zealand.
The former Ospreys backs coach, who overlooks the academy coaches such as former Wales internationals T Rhys Thomas and Gethin Jenkins, insists the invaluable experience will bring a considerable boost to his role at the region, and he remains enthusiastic about the potential within the pathway.
“I’m really committed to my role at Cardiff Blues, and I’ve emphasised that there are no distractions. I love this role and I have a vision to how things can flourish across the region. There are things we can do a little bit better and the opportunity to do that is there," said Rees.
“It’s a long career, and I’m firmly believe I have a lot to offer, and my experience of working with Canada won’t take away my commitment from my role at Cardiff Blues.
“It’s an opportunity to put the tracksuit on and be creative. You’ve seen academy managers in the past, with some moving onto the board room while others dive back into coaching.
“I will be preparing with the side for the World Cup and heading over to Japan, where we’ll try to compete with sides such as New Zealand and South Africa.
“The opportunity to prepare and do your homework on those games is a really good strand of learning and I’ll be able to bring my investment in that back to Cardiff Blues.
“I appreciate all the support that Cardiff Blues have given me to allow me to take this opportunity. The World Cup will be a mini-secondment, but in the grand-scheme of it I will be having a challenge for my own coaching and management of players.
“I think there will be huge learnings from the experience and it will give me an understanding of where the global game is at at the moment.
“Being part of the World Cup is something to embrace, and the Blues have really bought into that, which I appreciate greatly.
“As a tier two country Canada don’t have a number of full-time employees, so it suited them that I could be a resource coach, where I would be going back-and-forth.
"At the same time, I was chatting to Richard Holland about the opportunity at Cardiff Blues, which came up, and I was really keen to make a difference around Cardiff Blues.
"Richard and John [Mulvihill] saw it as quite important to me that I could keep a connection with Canada in terms of helping my development and also brining something back to the region from an international set-up.”
Canada’s current squad contains former Ospreys trio such as Tyler Ardron, Jeff Hassler and Phil Mack, while former Canadian internationals such as Dan Baugh, Ed Fairhurst and John Tait called the Cardiff Arms Park their home during their playing careers.
Rees is excited for the challenge ahead in the pool stage but admits coming up against giants of the international game, such as New Zealand and South Africa, will be an unforgettable experience.
The academy manager said: “We’re drawn against two giants of the international game in New Zealand and South Africa, who have five Championships between them.
“As a coach and as players, to come up against side of that calibre is a challenge to embrace and I’m really looking forward to those encounters.
“The eyes of the world will be on those games, and it’s a real chance to shine for some of the boys, who will no doubt be motivated to give their best, and as we saw with Japan in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, anything can happen in this tournament.
“We open the tournament against Italy, which will be another tough Test for us in the pool stages, but it’s these type of games you want to target and really look for a scalp.
“I think the clash against Namibia will be really intriguing, and they’ll offer a really physical challenge. They have their own Welsh influence in the coaching team as well, with Phil Davies and Dale McIntosh involved over there.”