Billy’s burn­ing de­sire

Twel­ve­trees waxes lyri­cal as he goes back to Welford Road

The Guardian - Sport - - Front Page - Robert Kit­son

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

Lau­rence Grif­fiths/ Getty Images

Feel­ing good and back in the swing Billy Twel­ve­trees says he loves play­ing now more than ever be­cause he feels less pres­sure

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