The Gloucester and Wales wing explains how sprint training is helping him speed up even more
Why Louis Rees-Zammit is getting faster
To mark winning his first Wales cap against France last October, Louis Rees-Zammit sang Robbie Williams’s Angels in front of the team – yet he wasn’t even born when the song was released! In fact, he arrived in the world more than three years after that 1997 hit. It’s a stark reminder of just how young he is.
It may seem like the 20-year-old’s progress has been as rapid as the pace he shows when put into space on the wing, but there have been a few hurdles along the way.
At 12 he was told he wasn’t good enough to make it as a pro rugby player, while at 16 he was told he’d never win a Wales cap. Yet at 18 he had scored five tries in his first three starts for Gloucester and by 19 had played in four Tests – and he looks set for a long career at international level.
He’s certainly proven those early critics wrong, the knockbacks not only providing him with motivation but also resilience. As Rees-Zammit says: “I’ve always believed in myself and thankfully I’m here now.” It’s like a line from that Angels song: Wherever it may take me I know that life won’t break me.
The support of his family has clearly been key. After a few years away from home, living in halls at Hartpury College and then a Gloucester Academy house, he moved back to Cardiff to be closer to his family and now lives with his older brother Taylor, a financial adviser.
While his parents couldn’t be in Paris to see him make his Test bow due to Covid restrictions, they did get to see the post-match cap presentation via Zoom. “Mum was crying her eyes out,” he says.
There’s a maturity about Rees-Zammit too. Computer games and watching his beloved Manchester United are on his agenda away from rugby, as is playing the odd round of golf, but he is also an ambassador for the Sporting Minds charity.
“Mental health in young people is a problem at the moment and I just wanted to get involved and raise awareness that there’s always someone to talk to,” he says. “I’ve not struggled with mental health but I know a few boys who have and Sporting Minds is a great organisation, which helps a lot of players and people in general.”
He marries level-headedness with innate confidence. He hasn’t been caught up in the fanfare that has greeted his breakthrough in elite rugby, but he does back himself on the pitch – just as his childhood hero, Shane Williams, told him to when they chatted on a podcast last year. Of course, with all the hype comes expectation, but he doesn’t mind because he has those same expectations of himself.
“I’d be annoyed at myself if I didn’t do something when I get the ball, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else is,” says Rees-Zammit. “I don’t put pressure on myself, but I expect myself to do something when I get the ball. When I don’t, I’m hard on myself but learn from it, see what I could have done if I get the moment again.”
Of course, much of the excitement around Rees-Zammit centres on his speed. Raw pace is such a big threat in rugby and it helped him to ten tries in 13 Gallagher Premiership matches last season. The good news for Gloucester and Wales fans is that he’s getting faster. The reason? He’s been working on his running technique for the first time, taking that raw talent and harnessing it.
“I’d never practised sprinting to be honest, I’d just got it from my dad, Joseph. He played American Football, not rugby, is really athletic and he’s passed it on to me. For the last year, I’ve been doing sprint training with Gloucester’s S&C coach Dan Tobin and I’ve got faster.
“It’s the mechanics of sprinting as well as the natural ability to run and there have been a lot of changes. My technique to start with was quite bad, so day by day we’ve changed that to get faster. My acceleration wasn’t the best, so it’s working on getting out of the blocks and having long strides to start with. It feels weird and it’s hard to explain, but I’m not thinking about it as much any more, do it subconsciously.
“There are a lot of fast backs at Gloucester and it gets you faster each day, trying to outrun them. There’s me, Jonny May, Ollie Thorley, Charlie Sharples… We’re all quite fast and it is quite competitive. We have a bit of fun.”
He’s embraced the Rees-Lightning moniker with which he was christened after stunning defenders in the English top flight with his speed – both his Instagram and Twitter profiles feature a lightning bolt – yet there is more to his game than pace.
Yes, the speed with which he can cover ground is what makes him stand out but he is also adept under the high ball and makes good decisions around kick-pass-run. Growing up he played scrum-half, fly-half and centre, not moving to the wing until he went to Hartpury aged 16, and that experience of different positions no doubt helps his reading of the game and decision-making.
There are still improvements to be made; he impressed with how he kept England in check out wide in the Autumn Nations Cup but was caught out defensively when it came to Johan Meyer’s try for Italy in Wales’ final match a week later.
However, it’s only a little over a year since he made his first Premiership start and Test rugby is another few rungs up the ladder. He will take those learnings from Wales’ autumn campaign into the Six Nations.
“It (Test rugby) is a big step up – it’s much more intense, there are a lot more kicks, a lot more kick-chase, but I’m loving it. I treat it like any other game, although in the back of my head I know it’s a lot more intense and you’re playing the best players in each country.
“All the players have helped me loads and the coaches have played a massive part too. Neil Jenkins has been my mentor, he’s been teaching me everything, how to play international rugby.
“My high ball and my defence work have improved massively and I’m trying to make that the number one focus for me. Ultimately defence wins you games and I don’t want to let the team down defensively on the edge, so I’m working to improve that. I want to keep on top of my defence and on top of everything really, to get better every day. I want to improve everything; I’ve not shown my full speed yet.
“I’m really enjoying my rugby at the moment. Everything has happened so quickly and I’m loving it.”
Quite. And don’t expect his progress to slow down any time soon. As he said, he’s actually getting faster.
This article originally appeared in the February 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.