Along the London Road in Charlton Kings just east of Cheltenham, a group of people were seated at The Langton pub and restaurant. Mid-conversation, one of them stopped and stooped in towards the table as if to convey a very critical piece of information.

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“Oh my goodness,” she exhaled, 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 – Twelvetrees and RugbyPass – were sat ten feet away and in his peripheral vision, the Cherry and Whites centre had already clocked the incident and the potential incoming request.

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

He also wouldn’t sit still. Talking about how he sees the game, how he has changed and wishes he could change, the years of nervous agitation manifested themselves in constant shifting and tweaking. 

(Continue reading below…)

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He often threw his gaze to the floor and then across to the far side of the bar. He brought his arm up and pulled it across his chest. His legs nimbly bobbed and he readjusted his hat. All this body language declared a definite discomfort about one particular subject. Speaking about Billy was not Twelvetrees’ happy place.

Moments later came the 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, Twelvetrees was up, moving into the light to get the right shot and waiting as a phone misfired in the wrong hands. The interveners cooed and praised. He thanked them, even proffering an apology for interrupting. There was a perfectly manicured charm to go with his muscular physique. No wonder he is so popular.

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He was contrite throughout our interview, too. He belittled how things have happened in his career, outlining a strong imposter syndrome, and couldn’t seem to stop explaining how at various points of the journey he let a lot of people down. 

That was extraordinary when you think about what he has achieved. But what also came across was his ardent love for the sport of rugby. His energy changed 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.”

 

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His words fell out in semi-completed sentences, his mind moving too quickly from one thought to another. And after eight seasons in the West Country, there was an unmistakable lilt to his delivery. His vernacular was young too. The boy inside the man came 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.

Billy Twelvetrees scores

Billy Twelvetrees dives over to score a Heineken Cup try in his 2009 Leicester Tigers debut versus Ospreys (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“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 okay 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 while 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 okay but there are lots of others out there. Thanks but no thanks. We have 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 (a Leicester academy coach at the time) to Mike Rayer meant Bedford did eventually, almost reluctantly, give Twelvetrees a go. With it, the legend was born and the 19-year-old became an incredible success story.

Serendipity played a role. Late to the party in 2008, he was given a sponsor no one else wanted. The owner of a local lingerie shop was desperate to support the club and sponsor a player. Twelvetrees 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 were smitten.

Twelvetrees scoring

Billy Twelvetrees scores for Bedford against Doncaster (Photo by Nigel Rudgard Photography)

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, Twelvetrees 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.

“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… they were great times,” he said with an oven-warm smile.

From there Leicester called again and before long came a pivotal European 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.

“The night before my European debut I had gone back to Goldington Road to see all my mates and they were like, ‘Do you wanna come back?’ I kind of 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 had helped at Leicester Lions) was in the stand and he was worried that I was going to get found out.

“Then I scored a try and because Jeremy Staunton had tweaked his groin, I was kicking at goal. Then I scored another try and at the end, I was being whisked away by the media to do a load of interviews when all I wanted to do was shake Shane Williams’ hand.”

The game changed his career trajectory and when Gloucester offered terms in 2012, there wasn’t a huge amount of hesitation despite one vibrant memory of Kingsholm as a visiting player. “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*** 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!’”

However, the realisation of an England cap and then, at the end of his first season at Gloucester, selection for the 2013 British and Irish Lions showed the decision had been the right one. So settled is he now in the area, there was no uncertainty when recently signing a new club contract in October.

“Never thought I’d be here this long. I was looking at the likes of Charlie (Sharples) and Henry (Trinder) and Tom (Savage) when he left last year – those are real Gloucester boys, hard as nails. Now I’m in my eighth year I started thinking, ‘Maybe I’m one of them’.

“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. 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 had 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, I felt I had disappointed them all.”

Twelvetrees takes on Saracens

Gloucester’s Billy Twelvetrees takes on Saracens’ Alex Lozowski during the Gallagher Premiership semi-final last May (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

This cloak of responsibility is painfully heavy, Twelvetrees mentioning how he missed a potential match-winning kick at Harlequins at the start of this month and how difficult he found it facing up to team-mates afterwards. 

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’. 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.”

Speak to those around the Gloucester camp and they would agree with Twelvetrees’ assessment: the 31-year-old 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 okay. The fear of it not being okay lurks in the corner of every room.

What will come after rugby for Twelvetrees? “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. 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 Maybe we shouldn’t talk about it…”

It was a suitable place to let him go. Drinks paid for, he went back into the cold of the car park. Back to his garage hire car that caused him so many problems that afternoon and made him late. Back to a drive home and his own, self-deprecating thoughts.

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