Letting Billy know

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Along the London Road in Charlton Kings, just east of Cheltenham, a group of people are sitting around a table in The Langton Pub and Restaurant. Mid-conversation, one of them stops and stoops in towards the table as if to convey a very critical piece of information.

“Oh my goodness,” she exhales, her voice suddenly very secretive and breathy. “That’s Billy Twelvetrees. We go to Gloucester all the time. My husband would be beside himself.”

We, Billy and I, are sat ten feet away and in his peripheral vision, the Cherry and Whites’ centre has already clocked the incident and the potential incoming request.

It must be said, he is hardly inconspicuous. It is early December and there is a cold wind biting at the heels of those scurrying along the Gloucestershire pavements. But our hero is happily incongruous in shorts and t-shirt. He also wears an orange beanie, out from under which his long trademark blond hair splutters forth like winter sunshine.

He also won’t sit still. As he talks to me about how he sees the game, how he has changed (wished he could change), the years of nervous agitation manifest themselves in constant shifting and tweaking. He will often throw his gaze to the floor and then across the far side of the bar. He’ll bring his arm up and pull it across his chest; his legs will nimbly bob and he’ll readjust his hat. Of course, all this body language declares a definite discomfort about one particular subject. Speaking about Billy is not his happy place. 

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Moments later, a diversion: “Excuse me, but my friend has just gone to the loo and she’s too nervous to ask you herself, but when she comes back, would you mind if we had a selfie…?”

Without hesitation, our man is up; moving into the light to get the right shot; waiting as a phone misfires in the wrong hands. The interveners coo and praise. He thanks them, even proffering an apology for interrupting. There is a perfectly manicured charm to go with his muscular physique. No wonder he is so popular.

He is contrite throughout our interview, too. He belittles how things have happened in his career, outlines a strong imposter syndrome and can’t seem to stop explaining how, at various points in his career, he has let a lot of people down. Which is extraordinary when you think about what he has achieved. But what also comes across is his ardent love for the sport of rugby. His energy changes completely when asked to explain why he plays the game. 

“Even with my day off today, I’m like, great, I’ve got training tomorrow. In the middle of the night, I’ll be up with the kids thinking, ‘it’s training in the morning!’. It’s the same since I can remember. I started playing when I was four. My dad dragged me along and said ‘go and get beaten up by your three older brothers’. I was playing three years up. It was the same feeling then as I have now.”

The words fall out in semi-completed sentences; his mind moving too quickly from one thought to another. And after nearly ten years in the West Country, there is an unmistakable lilt to his delivery. His vernacular is young too. The boy inside the man comes through.

“Honestly, the same nerves. My mum would worry. So nervous I felt sick. And yet I’d go out and play my best. England debut, sick to my stomach, went out and played alright. Same nowadays for Gloucester. If I don’t get nervous, I think there’s something wrong: weird.”

The boy almost didn’t have a rugby beginning. Born in West Sussex, he couldn’t get a look in at club or county sides. Harlequins were hoovering up locally and yet, he wasn’t sucked in. Only an intervention from a family friend at Leicester Lions meant there was a way around the problem.

“We’d gone on holiday with these friends and my parents asked if I could play for them (Lions). I was only 17 and still in school. They said they’d give me a small match fee and cover my travel. In my little Ford Fiesta, up and down the M1. David Sainsbury (the former Premiership referee) was my Head of Year and he said that I had to go and do it. He’d make sure things were ok with school. I played at places like Fylde away, Blaydon, Tynedale, West Park St Helens. It was such an experience. Chris Tarbuck was the coach. He knew people at Tigers; said he’d talk to them. They offered me an academy contract on no money. The friends we had up there were property developers; said I could labour for them. I put my place at the London School of Osteopathy on hold and played for the Tigers’ Academy whilst working on a building site. I loved it. But got injured, and didn’t manage it well; I was working on the site in my boot. It got to Christmas and they were like, yeah, you’re ok but there are lots of others out there: thanks but no thanks. We’ve got contacts at Bedford: go and play in the Mobbs Memorial Match, that’s a great opportunity…’”

It is a well-told story at Goldington Road. How Twelvetrees auditioned in that Mobbs game, only to bomb and not get asked back. A phone call from Andy Key (Leicester’s Academy Coach) to Mike Rayer meant Bedford did, eventually, almost reluctantly, give Billy a go. And the legend was born; the nineteen-year-old became an incredible success story.

Once again, serendipity played a role. Late to the party, he was given a sponsor no one else wanted. A local owner of a lingerie shop was desperate to support the club and sponsor a player; Billy shrugged when asked if he would mind being associated with such a brand. The club’s promise to the businesswoman was that if Twelvetrees scored, they would read the name of the company out over the PA. Thousands chuckled about frilly knickers as Twelvetrees crossed for his first. He scored four on his home debut. Bedford squealed as one and was smitten.

Twelvetrees played alongside the likes of Mouritz Botha, Nick Walshe, Karl Dickson, Paul Tupai and James Pritchard in a team that played scintillating rugby that season. At home against Doncaster, Billy rounded off a brilliant length-of-the-field move, launching himself headlong underneath the posts, pointing at the delirious crowd who knew this was another chance to whoop about winning and brassieres. 

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Photo courtesy of Nigel Rudgard

“I still think about that try. My knee still aches from the landing. In the picture, you can see one leg lower than the other and when I look at it, I think how daft I was.” Twelvetrees smiles a smile oven-warm with nostalgia. “They were great times.”

And from there, Leicester called in again. And before long, a pivotal game against the Ospreys. 

“I got asked back to Welford Road and I’d leap-frogged all my mates but was still behind a wealth of talent. The centres were; Aaron Mauger, Anthony Allen, Dan Hipkiss, Sam Vesty and me. And the night before my European debut (against the Ospreys), I had gone back to Goldington Road to see all my mates and they were like ‘Do you wanna come back?’ and I kinda did, because I wasn’t getting a look in. The next day, I was due to be a travelling reserve. Then I got a call that morning saying I was on the bench. And then by lunchtime, because of illness, I was starting. Up against Dan Biggar, Tommy Bowe and the likes. The family friend (who’d helped at Leicester Lions) was in the stand and he was worried that I was going to get found out. And then I scored a try. And because Jeremy Staunton had tweaked his groin, I was kicking at goal. And then I scored another try and at the end, I was being whisked away by the media to do a load of interviews and all I wanted to do was shake Shane Williams’ hand.”

The game changed his career trajectory. And when Gloucester offered terms, there wasn’t a huge amount of hesitation. Twelvetrees knew what was on offer. Even if he would have to wade through some personal irony.

“My first-ever start at fly-half for Leicester in the Premiership was at Kingsholm. I scored and had to take the conversion from in front of the Shed. I was so intimidated that I dropped my gumshield on the floor and was fumbling about. They were shouting all sorts: ‘You’ve got s**t hair!’, ‘Billy Twelve-d**ks!’ everything you could think of and I didn’t care if I landed the kick or not, I was just so relieved to be running back. I clearly remember thinking: ‘I never want to play here!’”

But the realisation of an England cap and then, at the end of his first season at Gloucester, a selection for the British and Irish Lions showed the decision had been the right one. And there was no uncertainty in signing a new contract earlier this year.

“Never thought I’d be here this long. I was looking at the likes of Charlie (Sharples) and Trinny (Henry Trinder) and Sav (Tom Savage) when he left last year; those are real Gloucester boys: hard as nails. And now I’m in my eighth year. I started thinking, maybe I’m one of them. And the reality is: I just love the club; I am so desperate for it to do well. We were a mid-table side for so long; I’m desperate to win the league. We made huge strides last year, but losing that semi-final made it feel like it didn’t mean anything. We scored some incredible tries but, in a way, it was all for nothing. And that is why I lost it at Allianz Park. The kids came running onto the pitch after the game and I just burst into tears. They’d all come down for the semi-final and part of me was like, please, don’t come. Let’s just win and you can come to the final next week. All of my family; Georgie: I felt I had disappointed them all.”

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The cloak of responsibility he wears is painfully heavy. He talks about missing a match-winning kick and how difficult he found facing up to teammates:

“It was one of my darkest days in a Gloucester shirt that ‘Quins game. Having to turn up on Tuesday morning, this feeling of hopelessness and letting the boys down. People say, ‘that’s not why we lost the game’, and while I agree to a certain extent; if I’d kicked that kick… I have this perfectionist, controlling side to my game and I see it that literally. It’s a closed skill; one I can get right, so I am hard on myself.”

If you speak to those around the Gloucester camp, they would agree: he is hard on himself. He takes longer than anyone else on the field or in the gym. He is routinely mocked for how long he stretches but maintains it is just to make sure that everything is ok. The fear of it not, lurking in the corner of every room.

I ask, tentatively, how often he thinks about what will come after rugby.

“Every day. I think about it every day. And I don’t know. I never want to stop playing rugby. Whatever I end up doing after rugby, it will never replicate what I have right now. I know that. It’s tough. The kids help. And Georgie and I just try and focus on providing an environment that is happy and strong for them. Because that is what I had. I don’t know other than that.” His laugh is tremulous and mottled with disquiet. “Maybe we shouldn’t talk about it…”

It is a suitable place to let him go. We pay for our drinks and I lead him back into the cold of the car park. Back to his hire car from the garage that had caused him so many problems that afternoon, making him late for our meeting. Back to a drive home and his own, self-deprecating thoughts.

But I am glad I talked to Billy. He was the first rugby player I ever wrote about. The nineteen-year-old with flaxen hair who fired passes like arrows and scored tries that made everyone smile. And a man who became one of the most enduring and important figures in a decade of Premiership Rugby. A man instantaneously recognisable, heart-achingly gracious and very, very good at playing the sport he loves.

My dearest hope is that, at some point in the future, he will let himself know.

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3 Responses to Letting Billy know

  1. Simon Barrow says:

    Great read! I was lucky enough to have been there for his Bedford debut and remember a few seconds of silence and what did he say? after you mentioned the sponsor but by the fourth we where ready! Just wondering, next time you talk to him , see if you could get Billy to finish off his great career with one more stint at goldington road!

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  2. Jack Zorab says:

    I remember watching his Leicester debut vs the Ospreys on TV and you could tell everyone instantly loved him. Miles Harrison, the crowd, his team-mates. Only Barnesy tempered his praise with the ‘long way to go’ caveat – which was true of course. And he has gone all the way. His is a very nice rugby story. Well done Billy, well told Sam.

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  3. An interesting subject, and very well written as ever, Sam.

    A thought-provoking aspect is the fact that there are many exceptional players out there who didn’t play much, if any, representative rugby when teenagers, in contrast to those who came ‘through the system’. Alex Dombrandt mentioned somewhere recently that he didn’t, and I’m not sure that the Simmonds brothers played much either (although I stand open to correction on this).

    I recall Billy playing at Sandy Park for Bedford in the Championship. From memory he stood out, although it may have been as much for his hair as his skills…

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