During lockdown there’s been an opportunity for players to continue on their journey of self-improvement. Some may choose to learn Mandarin, while others may take up the guitar. More likely rugby professionals will have developed Ninja Xbox skills, but with a two-and-a-half-year-old in tow, most of the learning in the Biggar household has been done by James.
You see, when Biggar Jnr is toddling around the house, he’s habitually carrying things and building bricks but when dad asks him if he wants help, he’ll be reminded of his young self, ‘No I want to do it myself’, is the habitual response. Biggar rolls his eyes in a knowing, paternal way.
“He’s very independent and I see elements of myself in him. That will to succeed has probably overridden everything else in my life. I suppose it’s always been a part of me. It’s who I am as a person.”
While Biggar has said elements of his personality are in his DNA, certain behaviours have been framed by moments in his career.
Disappointments that have made him more determined keep heartache at bay, wherever possible. “When I wasn’t picked for the 2011 World Cup I remember saying to myself, ‘I’m going to work my socks off and fight for everything to make sure I never feel like this again’. That winning mentality is probably the one thing you can’t really coach or get better at. I wish I had the ability and physical attributes of pretty much every other rugby player on the planet but the one thing that has held me in good stead, and helped me achieve more than my natural ability, has been my attitude to want to improve.”
While his will-to-win remains unabated, the Northampton Saints pivot does believe, at 30, that maturity has helped him cope with the unique pressures of professional rugby.
“I’m pragmatic enough to know you can’t win every game on a Saturday and every game in training. That’s the reality. Yet when you’re in the heat of the moment, you can’t always see that. You are so desperate to win.”
While the quest for victory has been an obsession, contentment away from rugby has helped Biggar instil coping mechanisms, with the help of his wife, Alex, to stop consuming him. “She’s really good. I’ll always know if I’ve had a good or a bad game as soon as I get in the car or in the house.
“She’s good at understanding when I don’t really want to talk about rugby or when things haven’t gone to plan. Nowadays, I’m better at doing all my bits and pieces in training, even if it means I’m getting in at 7am, so by 3pm or 4pm I can switch off and call it a day.”
While Biggar says he quite enjoyed being at home not having to worry about the pressure of the business end of the week; Saturday afternoon, where he is perpetually under the Franklin’s Gardens microscope, he concurs that it is refreshing to be back to be back in the saddle with some competitive rugby.
At Saints, he has his ‘work wife’ in Sam Vesty. They talk shop and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. “In terms of the technical elements of rugby I wish I’d had Sam as a 21 or 22-year-old coming through. He makes players better week-in, week-out.
“He picks up little bits of pieces of my game throughout the season which I can perhaps get better at. He is someone I lean on. The younger lads here at Saints should be really grateful they have a coach who cares as much as him.”
I genuinely believe I’m a better player than when I left the Ospreys
When this writer previously caught up with Biggar, he was on the cusp of a move to the Saints and full of hope about the move to the English Premiership. Two seasons on and 36 appearances later, it has been a mutually beneficial move and his worth has been appreciated by a wider audience. “I genuinely believe I’m a better player than when I left the Ospreys. A lot of that is down to Chris [Boyd] and Sam. I’ve been quite vocal about Chris in terms of how he gets the best out of players. If your boss is fair and you like and respect them, you’re going to get a lot more out of your employees.”
Immensely popular around the club and a fountain of wisdom and knowledge, the former Hurricanes coach, however, does expect certain benchmarks to be met, which will make their current malaise all the more frustrating.
Don’t mistake genuine humility with being a soft touch, seems to be the message. “Ultimately, Chris needs us to perform on the pitch. He’s brought me out of my comfort zone. Even though there’s not been a dramatic change in my game I think subtle differences like attacking the line a bit more, backing myself skills-wise and in different passages of play have been noticeable.
“He’s given me the confidence not to fear mistakes. He gets a lot of plaudits for being a decent bloke but he works us bloody hard. He doesn’t let us do what we want, he sets high standards. If you adhere to them and give everything for the shirt, you’ll get a lot back from him. That’s the way it should be.”
Now 30, it’s somewhat surprising, that someone with natural leadership qualities has not skippered any sides he’s played for and with a raft of highly-rated youngsters around him in George Furbank, Fraser Dingwall, Harry Mallinder and James Grayson, is it something he aspires to do?
“I haven’t captained anyone, they’ve never let me loose with a captain’s band,” he says. “The demographic of the squad is pretty young, especially in the backs, so I have to perform and get those around me to perform at a high level. I find the more you ask from people the more you have to give back.
“The young guys here have unbelievable skill-sets. Their talent and energy is infectious but sometimes you have to rein them back a bit. Experience can help a group with such potential and it’s a good mix.
“It’s a quality Alun Wyn [Jones] has got. He won’t stand up in a meeting and tell players what they should be doing if he’s not putting himself out there. He doesn’t need to say a million words in the changing room but if you see him leaving everything out there for every game and training session, you want to work for that person.”
Biggar has spent a career, certainly in some quarters, being compartmentalised as a certain type-of-10, denigrated not for what he can do on a rugby pitch, but for what he can’t. The wilo’-the-wisp 10s of yore in Wales; the Cliff Morgans, Dai Watkins and Barry Johns swirl round the Principality Stadium, but Biggar, who has had his share of snide comments over the years, prefers to take the positives out of being written-off as a steady-Eddie.
“Do you know what? What I find amazing is that I’ve been pigeon-holed as this player who can kick goals, be defensively sound and run a game. I think if I’m going to be pigeon-holed as anything, there’s a lot worse things than that.
if I’m not pulling my weight , I’d rather you come out and tell me rather than sugar coating it. I enjoy proving people wrong.”
“I will turn it on its head. There are so many players who are more naturally talented than I am. It doesn’t bother me. I’d rather that than being a hit and miss 10, having flair but not turning up when it matters. The skills I’m criticised for are the key components to a 10s role. I take it as a real compliment.”
The record Ospreys points scorer has weathered many a storm in more than 300 professional games and accepts he will not be the yin to many coaches’ yang when it comes to what they look for in a fly-half.
“You can’t always please everyone. If you lined up every Premiership coach, I’m sure there would be coaches who would say, ‘that Biggar bloke doesn’t quite fit into the style of play we want to play’. It’s no skin off my nose if some people like the way I do things and some people don’t.”
That Rhino-hide of Biggar’s has been toughened by criticism, especially in his homeland, where he has come under-fire on countless occasions but a mental toughness has been a factor in the Morriston-born player’s armoury from the day he told his bosses at the Ospreys he was worth more than the modest contract they were offering and would exercise his right to look elsewhere as suitors were circling.
Unsurprisingly, they relented, with Biggar’s payback 2306 points over 10 years. “I honestly quite like people challenging me. That’s part of my mentality. I say to the coaches, if I’m not pulling my weight in training, I’d rather you come out and tell me rather than sugar coating it. I enjoy proving people wrong.”
His exuberance and frustration has, at times, boiled over on the pitch and has led to criticism. While Biggar hasn’t lost sleep when his on-field behaviours are deemed not to be as chivalrous and exemplary as some commentators expect, he is candid enough to accept he may have erred on occasion.
“There’s hundreds of regrets I’ve left on the field. No one moment but that will-to-win has sometimes spilled over. A lot of people use the word petulant but I don’t see myself as that at all. I see it as a frustration in wanting to see things done to a high-standard.
“If I started my career again, I’d like to be able to control the emotions better but not eradicate it. When I’m watching an Owen Farrell, or a Johnny Sexton, they play right on the edge as well, it’s what makes them the players they are. Away from the rugby field, it’s so not me.”
“If I started my career again, I’d like to be able to control the emotions better
Indeed, away from the field of play, Biggar is empathetic and generous with his time. Happy to laugh at himself and shoot the breeze about Manchester United’s transfer plans and Welsh rugby, when talking about other players, he is quick to raise his concern for the Welsh fly-half who took his Welsh shirt in the 2018-2019 season, Gareth Anscombe.
“I spoke to Gareth a few weeks ago. He was quite frank. He said he’d had a few setbacks and is not progressing the way he liked. He’s a top bloke and I’m gutted for him. That’s the nature of the sport in a way.
“You’re only a couple of bad games or a bad injury away from being out of the mix. It’s disheartening to see someone with the talent Gareth has side-lined after the way he was playing that year in the side. I’m sure he’s strong enough to come back when the time is right.”
With an international calendar that is fit to burst from mid-October as unions seek to redress the financial calamity of the pandemic, Biggar, fitness permitting, should be adding to his 83 Welsh caps, that puts him behind only Stephen Jones and Neil Jenkins in the all-time list.
He isn’t counting his chickens with a clutch of young 10s champing at the bit to usurp him. “Take Jarrod [Evans]. He is brilliant with the ball in hand, it’s difficult to find anyone better. He’s very similar to George Ford in picking the right options.
“We’re fortunate in Wales to have lots of good options and players who provide different things. With Sam Davies, Rhys Patchell, Jarrod, Gareth and I, we don’t have five identikit players. All those guys are younger than me, so Wales will have them for a good few years yet.”
Mimicking an ageing prize fighter Biggar says he’s just an old man trying to hang on for a little while longer before passing the mantle on.
The obvious joke is that when Biggar does finally hang up his boots, he can be unsparing in his critique of the mythical Wales No 10 shirt. Clearly, it’s time for payback. “If I come back and do some media, I’ll sit in the commentary box and slag off the Welsh 10 for all its worth, I’ve had it in the neck for a decade!”
While another huge season of almost year-long rugby whirs into focus, targets for Biggar are not too difficult to spot, with a certain series in South Africa perhaps suiting a fly-half with unshakeable belief, robust defence, varied kicking skills and world-class aerial game.
“Of course I would like to play for the Lions, but I will be happy just to be in the hat for discussion. Firstly I have to play well for Northampton, who are my first port of call, I want to help us bring success here. If I do that I’ll be in contention for Wales, and if I do okay for them, I’ve got a chance of being in the mix. If a coach goes in a different direction or way of thinking, I can live with that. It’s out of my control.”
Biggar says he’s not greedy but the full-house of a winning Lions Series and Premiership title, on top of two Grand Slams and four Pro12 titles, before hanging up his boots isn’t too much to ask.
He sets out his stall and smiles, but there’s a steelier glint to his eyes. The saintly halo worn outside the tramlines, can turn into a sinner when spoils are up for grabs.
The Welshman who plays on the edge is maturing like a fine vintage. Mr Indestructible will continue to prove the doubters wrong.
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