Evergreen hooker Matthew Rees insists he is as determined as ever to claim the number two jersey for Cardiff Blues, after recently signing a one-year extension at Cardiff Arms Park.
‘Smiler’ was one of six squad members to agree a new contract at Wales’ Capital Region over the summer, alongside Taufa’ao Filise, Anton Peikrishvili, Lewis Jones, Scott Andrews and Brad Thyer.
The 60-times capped Welsh international became a key member of the Cardiff Blues squad during the latter stages of the 2017/18 campaign, turning out 25 times for Danny Wilson’s side.
Rees is looking forward to another competitive charge for a place in the Cardiff Blues starting XV, and believes the fierce competition for places within the squad is a big positive.
“Towards the end of last season, I played a bit more than I thought I was going to play, and I’ve enjoyed it,” said Rees.
“I’m just taking every opportunity at the moment. It’s nice to have a couple of younger boys coming up through the ranks, but I’m not going to hold back. I still want to play as much as I can.
“Pre-season has gone well for me, it’s been more about looking after my body, which is something I’ve done over my career and it’s paying dividends by still being able to play at the age of 36, and still enjoy it.
“There’s a good environment up at the Vale. It’s good here at the moment in terms of strength in depth at hooker, although the younger boys are probably thinking, ‘when is he going to retire?!’
“But as I said, I’m still enjoying it and I’ll keep fighting as long as I can.”
There is certainly plenty of experience in the Cardiff Blues front row, as the likes of Rees, Filise and club captain Gethin Jenkins remains to play a key part in Danny Wilson’s plan.
On the other hand, Wilson has handed experience to some of the region’s most promising youngsters, such as Ethan Lewis, Corey Domachowski and Dillon Lewis, who won his first Wales cap over the summer.
Another front row prospect that has caught Rees’ eye is Wales U20’s Keiron Assiratti, and the former British and Irish Lions hooker believes the prop has the potential to go all the way.
Rees said: “Assiratti has been working well for the Under-20’s, and he had a great tournament in the summer. He reminds me of Samson Lee through the way he scrummages.
“He’s got a fair bit to learn, but the promising thing is you come against a team like Exeter, he comes on and does a good job.
“You’ve got the older boys behind him, cwtching him in and making sure he goes about his business the right way.
“The thing about the front row is that you’ve got to play to earn your stripes, you’re going to take a couple of hidings on the way and that’s part and parcel of playing in the front row.”
Rees has been encouraged by the signs shown during pre-season, and is looking forward to the challenge of facing Edinburgh on Friday, under the leadership of former Leicester Tigers and Toulon coach, Richard Cockerill.
“A massive step-up for us is the defence. If you want to win competitions or cups, defence has the most impact to play on that. Against a very strong Exeter team I felt we were comfortable pretty much throughout that game.
“The most important game now is Friday night.
“They’ve changed their coaching set-up with Cockerill coming in and we know how tough a taskmaster he can be, especially at set-piece, and that’s probably where the biggest challenge will be.”