Billy’s burning desire
Twelvetrees waxes lyrical as he goes back to Welford Road
Next time someone says rugby grounds are all the same, refer them to this description of playing at Welford Road. “The Crumbie Stand feels like it surrounds you. When you run out you feel like you’re coming through the crowd to play. You can hear their feet stamping above you when you’re changing.
“Going down the touchline the fans are there with you. You can smell the food and see the beers. Sometimes you’ll get sprayed on. It’s why I like goalkicking there. They’re so close they’re sometimes tapping you on the back – or telling you you’re going to miss it. I absolutely love it. It can be intimidating but it’s also why you play the game.”
Eat your heart out, William Blake. For Billy Twelvetrees, even after five years away from Leicester, it is clear Tigers memories are still burning bright. As he prepares to re-enter his old lair in Gloucester’s colours, the one-time England centre also knows better than to assume his previous club will succumb meekly to an unprecedented third defeat in their opening three league games. “I’ve been there, I know what it’s like,” he says. “They’ll be coming out to be extremely physical and intense. Ask people there what their identity is and they’ll say: ‘We win.’ It’s inbred. It’s the Leicester way.”
Perhaps so but there is much more cross-fertilisation now. Until recently Jonny May was a Gloucester favourite while his former squad now have six players – Twelvetrees, Ed Slater, Fraser Balmain, Owen Williams, Henry Purdy and Andy Symons – who were on Leicester’s books. While Balmain and Williams are unavailable today, Gloucester are hoping the combined local knowledge will help yield a first league win at Welford Road since October 2007.
Twelvetrees also has an individual point to prove following the abrupt end of his 22-cap England career on the eve of the 2015 World Cup. Few articulate the pain of rejection more honestly, or retain a clearer recall of precisely where things unravelled. In his case it was Dunedin in June 2014 when one illadvised offload allowed the All Blacks a crucial foothold back into a frenetic second Test. Even now he still wonders what might otherwise have been. “I remember it vividly, don’t worry. I do think about it a lot,” he says. “I’d had an injury but was desperate to go on tour, as any player would be. I felt good enough to play but I wasn’t mentally match ready.
“I made that dodgy offload and they ended up going the length. I remember thinking to myself: ‘Why, why, why?’ I got dropped for the third Test – rightfully so – and then things became difficult off the back of that.”
Difficult is one way of putting it; England won 11 of the 12 home Tests Twelvetrees played in but, soon enough, Stuart Lancaster was turning to Sam Burgess. The rugby league convert made the World Cup squad, burying a sharpened axe into Twelvetrees’s long-held ambition. “As a player you can see it developing in front of you. I was just desperate to be involved in a home World Cup and to lose out was devastating. It was brutal … all my mates in the squad were discussing what a great World Cup it was going to be. I was thinking: ‘I don’t think I want to be there.’”
It has taken a while to pick up the pieces. Even when Gloucester made him captain in a bid to rejuvenate him, he tried too hard and temporarily lost his love for the game. “I struggled after the World Cup. It hit me hard and we were also struggling as a club. I probably thought about it too much.”
Trying to satisfy the Shed – “You see it in front of you when you run out, then the wall of noise suddenly hits you” – proved increasingly hard. “I wasn’t enjoying being captain and the boys could see that as well. It was fine on the pitch – it was the stuff outside I didn’t enjoy.”
Thank goodness a happier postscript is emerging. His mother, Bev, has fought off cancer and he has become a doting father – “It gives you an extra energy” – to twoyear-old Matilda and fourmonth-old Wilfred. He is not an obvious Eddie Jones-type player but, otherwise, things are looking up professionally. While the Cherry and Whites disappointed last time out at Quins, their opening night victory over Exeter at Kingsholm still reverberates. Twelvetrees’s contribution to Jason Woodward’s last-gasp try was pivotal and, at 28, he retains a tangible sense of ambition: “I love playing now more than I did, even when I first started. I just feel less pressure. I didn’t understand the game that well when I was younger. I just went out and played.”
At his best Twelvetrees can still offer unusual amounts in terms of his game-breaking skills playing at 12, his goal-kicking and the example he sets at the training ground. The club’s new coach, Johan Ackermann, he believes, has also energised the players. “There’s not been a lot of change in terms of our rugby mindset but more in terms of the way we believe in ourselves,” Twelvetrees says. “Johan doesn’t raise the roof emotion-wise but he wants us to be ambitious and not go into our shells. That suits the way we are as a group. It’s about having the confidence to go away and stick to our guns, even when we haven’t got the Shed behind us.”
It makes for an intriguing contest, particularly after the home side’s successive defeats by Bath and Northampton. Twelvetrees cites 201112, when the Tigers lost five of their first six league games en route to the Premiership final, but also yearns to show May and George Ford, an usher at his wedding, that Gloucester have rediscovered themselves “Rugby comes back to the fundamentals,” he says. “It’s a simple game if you look after the ball and get your set piece right. That’s where we’ve come unstuck sometimes.”
So can he really see Gloucester emulating the Leicester of old and transforming themselves into serial trophy winners? “Honestly, everyone believes we can. I don’t think we fear any team. This week it’s about who wants it physically and who dominates the gainline. That’s where we’ve got to get our emotion right.”
Anyone heading for Welford Road is in for a thunderous treat.
You can smell the food and see the beers. Sometimes you’ll get sprayed on
Feeling good and back in the swing Billy Twelvetrees says he loves playing now more than ever because he feels less pressure