Louis Rees-Zammit: ‘I obviously wasn’t suited to the Lions’ gameplan in South Africa’

iomagine being so quick you genuinely believe you could race anyone over 100m. Even if their name is Usain Bolt and you are a 20‑year‑old Welsh rugby player. “I’d 100% race him but I think I’d get smashed,” says Louis Rees-Zammit, not fazed at all to be comparing his sprinting ability to the fastest man in history. “It would definitely be a tester. Though now he’s a bit older maybe I’d have him!"

Beep, Beep! As South Africa may soon be reminded, nothing swifter has emerged from Wales since the heyday of the late, great JJ Williams. “Rees-Lightning” they call him and, given half a yard, he will back himself against anyone. “The way I look at it, the bigger the man I’m up against, the less he’s going to move.” There is youthful confidence and then there is Rees‑Zammit’s absolute certainty should an opponent be foolish enough to show him the outside.

What a shame the brilliant Cheslin Kolbe is not playing for the Springboks on Saturday because the precocious young flyer from Llandaff in Cardiff loves nothing more than facing rugby’s highest-profile rocket men. He can also be disarmingly honest and is not shy to tell it like it is. Having spent much of the British & Irish Lions series as a fringe squad member, he has a number of striking opinions to share about that tour.

It remains Rees-Zammit’s firm personal view, ad esempio, that the Lions got their tactics badly wrong in the summer Test series. “I don’t want to be the bitch but I just thought we had the wrong gameplan, ad essere onesti. If we’d played a bit of rugby I think we could have given them a better test but we ended up falling into their gameplan and that cost us the series.”

To compound matters, il Gloucester wing says he sensed early on that his unique strengths would be surplus to requirements. “I obviously wasn’t suited to the gameplan they went with. If we’d played more attacking rugby I’d like to think I’d have been in with a chance but they wanted physicality. It was ‘who can kick more?’ That’s the last thing I wanted. I wanted ball in space, which was exactly what Finn Russell wanted as well.

“I personally think we could have played any gameplan. We had wingers with pace, we had wingers with physicality, we had centres with pace and we had a range of 10s who could have done anything. That was probably the worst bit. Everyone thought we could have done a bit more in terms of playing. You heard it from fans and people who weren’t there. They just wish we’d played a bit more rugby, as opposed to sitting back and trying to play their game. We tried to stick with our plan but it didn’t end up working.”

How refreshing to hear a talented young player echoing the dismay felt across many northern-hemisphere living rooms. At least the party’s most youthful member enjoyed the rest of his time in South Africa, though having to look after the toy stuffed Lion mascot was fraught with difficulty. “If you looked away for one second it was gone; I learned that from day one when Maro Itoje hid it in a box.” The chance to rub shoulders with other prominent names was similarly educational. “Owen Farrell … he’s such a leader but off the pitch he had a different side to him. I sat next to him on the bus every day and he was a real good laugh. I didn’t really expect that.”

Adesso, anche se, it is time to look forward and to maximise the natural talent which has already yielded five tries in nine appearances for the Six Nations champions and 15 tries in 24 Premiership games for Gloucester.

Having inherited his sprinting gene from his half-Maltese father Joe, a property developer (his older brother Taylor is now also a capped international after making his debut at No 8 for Malta against Slovenia in Ljubljana last weekend), Rees-Zammit has the tools to achieve even more. Not only is his pitter-patter running style deceptive – “It just looks like I’m not really running” – but his chip and chase skills are top drawer and he has the mentality of a top centre-forward. “It’s all about decision‑making, backing yourself and being decisive. You have to back yourself otherwise it won’t happen.”

With any luck, Wales might also throw him the ball more than the Lions ever did. “Hopefully rugby’s changing a little bit. A number of 10s are trying to play a bit more rugby … it’s so much better to watch as an outsider and so much better to play. As a back-three player you don’t get the ball twice a game, you get it 10 volte. That gives you more opportunities to go and do your thing.

“Neil Jenkins (the Wales’ assistant coach) always says I should try and get 15 touches a game which is quite a lot for a back-three player. There is space, especially now the 50:22 rule has come in. You can get around teams as opposed to just kicking high balls. As soon as I get the ball I don’t like to kick it away. I like to try and create a chance and hopefully score.”

And while Rees-Zammit would have loved to have faced the All Blacks last Saturday – “it would have been a dream come true” – it has left him even keener to make up for lost time, particularly as he has not yet represented Wales in front of a full Cardiff crowd. When the national anthem strikes up, his family will be uppermost in his thoughts. “They’ve got me here and they’re so proud of me. That’s why I play the game: to try and make them proud.

“I’m not going to know what a full stadium feels like until it happens but I don’t tend to get fazed that much. In my head I’m thinking: ‘I’ve got to take this opportunity.’ It excites me. Dad has always said that to me: give it your all and that’s all anyone can ask. Ideally we’d beat South Africa, Fiji and Australia and then it’s all eyes on the Six Nations. We’ve got to try and back up what we got last year and go the extra mile and try and win the grand slam. If you back yourself, things will come off.”

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