Louis Rees-Zammit: ‘Rees-Lightning’ will strike fear in Ireland’s defence

Speedster Wales winger has crammed eye-catching marker into his fledgling career

What’s in a nickname? Some references are oblique, others obvious. In the case of Louis Rees-Zammit it’s not difficult to untangle the origin of “Rees Lightning”. It’s a pretty cool moniker for anyone with fast-twitch muscle fibres. Perhaps less so the lightning bolt that was shaved into his hair on last summer’s Lions tour to South Africa; no doubt the tariff from a forfeit.

There are few in club or international rugby that would be willing to try and match strides in a footrace with the Wales and Gloucester wing. Rees-Zammit’s club-mate, England wing Jonny May, is a noted speedster – in the past he spent time training in a camp run by the former American sprinting legend Michael Johnson – but he’s the “silver medallist” at Kingsholm.

For those who wish to view the most recent footage of that prodigious pace, they need go back not further than last weekend and an English Premiership match against the Newcastle Falcons, Rees-Zammit’s 80-metre grass burning surge for a try, almost cartoonish in the manner in which he left defenders helpless and floundering in his jet-heeled slipstream.

An example of his candour can be reclaimed from a recent interview in the Guardian newspaper in which he suggested that from a tactical perspective, the Lions got it wrong

Rees-Zammit has already crammed a series of eye-catching markers into his fledgling career. He made his Wales debut as a teenager against France, scored four tries for Wales in last season's Six Nations Championship and then toured with the Lions in South Africa last summer; all before his 21st birthday, which he celebrated on Wednesday.


Those are the headlines but the story beneath is no less interesting. He is a remarkably self-possessed young man, a trait that comes across not in an arrogant manner but rather with the exuberance of youth that has yet to be tarnished by too many disappointments.

An example of his candour can be reclaimed from a recent interview in the Guardian newspaper in which he suggested that from a tactical perspective, the Lions got it wrong last summer in South Africa. It wasn’t simply because he was shunted to the periphery from a playing perspective when Lions head coach Warren Gatland championed physicality and a kicking game as key attributes in attack.

“I don’t want to be the b***h but I just thought we had the wrong gameplan, to be honest. 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 game plan and that cost us the series.

“I personally think we could have played any game plan. 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.”

Speaking truth

There aren’t many young players who would be so forthright with their feelings but he has previously said that he tries to “speak the truth and answer everyone’s questions.” It seems that he has never baulked at taking a less-worn path in life.

Born and raised in Cardiff, he owes the sprinting genes to his half-Maltese father Joe and completing the sporting bona fides is his brother Taylor, who recently made his international rugby debut at number eight for Malta against Slovenia.

The Welsh wing spent his formative rugby years at Llandaff RFC from seven to 14 years old before switching to Rumney RFC and then onwards to the Cardiff Blues academy. His mum’s brother Paul Rees had played for the club so there was an obvious connection but one that was sundered following a run-in with a coach after Rees-Zammit explained that he would be going Hartpury College near Gloucester to finish his schooling.

He explained in an interview in the Rugby Journal: “It was when I was 16 and had decided to go to Hartpury because I didn’t want to go to a college in Wales. I did go and look at a few colleges around Wales, but there was no comparison – it was the facilities, the social side (etc).” The coach – he doesn’t name him – told him to “make a decision” as he couldn’t continue to play for Cardiff if he went to Hartpury.

Rees-Zammit continued: “Then I went to a Cardiff Blues game and he (the coach) was there, and he walked up to me and said: ‘That’s going to cost you a Welsh cap’, and walked off. I was a 16-year-old boy. I just thought, ‘oh my god have I made the right decision?’ He met the coach subsequently at a couple of Welsh training sessions but studiously avoided him.

He could have qualified to play for England through residency but never considered it, not even when nudged by the father of a former girlfriend, Alicia; former England and Manchester United midfielder, Paul Scholes.

He made a try scoring first appearance for Gloucester in an A match against Bristol as a 17-year-old and not long after was picked by the then head coach Johan Ackermann to make his senior debut; a five-minute cameo at the end of a West country derby against Bath, aged 18 and two months, and a moment he described "as one of the best days of my life."

International impact

Wales head coach Wayne Pivac called the young wing into the extended squad for the 2020 Six Nations but Rees-Zammit had to wait until that October to make his Test match bow as a replacement fullback during a defeat to France in Paris. He went on to play three matches in the Autumn Nations series at the end of that year, claiming a first international try against Georgia.

If there was a slow burn to his international debut he took to the Test match environment with alacrity and nowhere was this more evident that last season’s Six Nations during which he scored four tries, including one in the Welsh victory over Ireland, an acrobatic finish as he took an aerial route over Tadhg Furlong’s despairing tackle.

Accolades continued to be tossed in his direction, earning a place on French newspaper L'Équipe's Team of 2021

He racked up a brace against Scotland, one of which characterised by a chip over Stuart Hogg and regather won the try of the tournament. Selected for the Lions tour – the youngest player since Ireland's Dave Hewitt in 1959 – he endured the frustration of not making the matchday 23 for the Test series, instead confined to four matches in which he scored three tries.

Accolades continued to be tossed in his direction, shortlisted for the Breakthrough Player of the Year by World Rugby and earning a place on French newspaper L’Équipe’s Team of 2021. But it was a try that he scored against Fiji during November that had supporters and pundits marvelling at his straight-line speed.

He gave a couple of Fijians a 20-metre start and still won the footrace to get the try scoring touch; a caveat was the fact that Ben Volalvola dawdled a little before realising too late the source of the breeze that parted his hair.

That particular burst of acceleration was measured by Welsh television station S4C at 10.73 metres per second (a top speed of 38km/h), quicker than for example New Zealand’s Rieko Ioane 10.69m/s against Australia.

He’s not quite as fleet-footed as Newcastle and England wing Adam Radwan (10.85 m/s) or former Lions, England and Wasps wing Christian Wade (11.2 m/s) who subsequently went off to briefly play NFL in America.

American Sevens star Carlin Isles (11.5m/s) has the tag of rugby’s fastest man but none come close to Jamaican sprinting icon Usain Bolt, whose 9.58 seconds 100-metre world record, saw him cover the ground at 12.4 metres per second.

It would be wrong though to pigeonhole Rees-Zammit as simply a player with “toe”. He’s got excellent football skills and an appetite to seek out opportunities. He’s encouraged to do so. “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,” he admitted.

“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.”

He idolised Shane Williams growing up, not simply because he was Welsh but because of a fearlessness when it came to running with the ball. Rees-Zammit said: “I have high expectations of myself. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do things and score tries. I want to be the player people want to watch and get excited about.”

There’s little doubt that they do and that will continue, although for the majority at the Aviva stadium this afternoon they’d be happy to see him save all that dash for another day.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer