With one round left of the Gallagher Premiership season, Gloucester's Billy Twelvetrees feels the Cherry and Whites' future is in their 'own hands' ahead of their final day clash with Saracens at Kingsholm.
Currently fifth in the league table, George Skivington's side know that they will have to beat the five-time Premiership champions and hope that Newcastle Falcons upset Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens if they are to find themselves in a playoff position on Saturday evening.
For those in Cherry and White, regardless of the result this weekend, the 80 minutes will conclude with players, coaches and fans alike knowing that this scenario could have been avoided.
Last time out at Twickenham, Gloucester surrendered a 24-7 lead against current English champions Harlequins and the 28-24 loss saw them miss the chance to leapfrog the Saints into the top four.
“It was a tough one to swallow,” Twelvetrees said. “Just because of being 24-7 up, boys being in control of the game and then we always knew that by letting Quins back in through our errors, it would do for their energy and their emotion.
“We were frustrated we lost control of what we were doing, not necessarily what Quins were applying. We dealt with the [Alex] Dombrandt threat, the [Danny] Care threat, the Marcus Smith threat. What I don’t think we dealt with was the occasion.
“In terms of how we apply in the game, the controllable from our side of the game, we got let down with a little bit and then a confident team like Quins when they get on the front foot, they are dangerous to deal with.
“From our point of view, it was a massive learning experience in the sense that this group is performing well, but if we want to be established in the top four, which Quins are, then in those games we have got to come out on the right side of. Being 24-7 up in this league, you have got to win those games.
“I think most teams in that position would be pretty frustrated with a loss. That is probably where we are. On the back of that, the opportunity we let slip, now we have got a slim chance of doing something depending on other results.
“From an in-camp point of view, frustrated would probably be the key word because of the underlying potential this group has.”
Looking to make the Premiership semi-finals for the first time since the 2018/19 season, it has been a chastening past couple of months for Gloucester.
George Skivington’s side have been in hot contention for a top four finish for much of the season, but in April, they lost to Wasps at Kingsholm, Bristol Bears at Ashton Gate and most recently that defeat to Harlequins.
As a result, and regardless of a 64-0 mauling of Bath and 31-21 victory over Northampton Saints, the campaign will culminate in a testing clash against a Saracens outfit desperate to get their hands back on the Premiership trophy.
Throughout the conversation, Twelvetrees only talks in glowing terms about his teammates, a testament to a culture that a relatively new coaching group has nurtured in the West Country since first arriving in the summer of 2020.
Talking about the way the team has improved, the 33-year-old is pleased with how the defence, the set piece and how the driving maul has come on, but it is in attack where some work must still be done to take the club to the next level.
“Where we need to improve is in the attacking side of our game, our execution in the try line area, our discipline in games, letting teams in, the top end stuff that makes teams really good,” Twelvetrees said.
“We are fully aware what our thoughts are, but it is harnessing that and getting on the right side of it. What has been great this year is someone like Fred [Clarke], who has been in the group for a long time but has taken his opportunity this year and established himself extremely well.
“We have got good players in every position and competition for places is good, which only drives you on and helps the team, hence why we have gone well in certain games.
“In tight games this year, we have lost. We lost to Quins at home on New Years’ Day [17-20], Wasps at home at Kingsholm [21-27], Quins away [28-24], (Leicester) Tigers at home [35-23]. These are games you look back on now that you are fifth in the league and you are like ‘what could have been’.
“They are the ones I think must really frustrate the coaches and, obviously, really frustrate the players as well. We have got a quiet burning desire within these four walls of when we are training, to know where we can go, but also a reality of how tough this Premiership really is.”
"If the senior guys are leading, the young guys will follow."— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) February 27, 2020
With so much young talent emerging at @gloucesterrugby...
Billy Twelvetrees is excited to be one of the 'senior citizens' leading by example ?? pic.twitter.com/1SoEmlPbR1
Nearing the end of his 10th season with the club, it is something of a shock to think that during Twelvetrees’ time at Kingsholm, the hulking midfielder has only experienced playoff rugby in the Premiership on one occasion.
Interestingly, in 2012/13, the top four was as it is now - although Saracens were the league leaders and Leicester second - with five points separating the Cherry and Whites from Saints. With that in mind, it felt only right to ask if the 33-year-old is surprised that the club hasn’t been in the top third of the Premiership table more regularly.
“Yes and no,” he said. “We have had some fantastic players, amazing players if you look at the team sheets we have had. I am a true, true believer of culture in the team dynamic of sport. This sport is a team sport. You all have to be singing and dancing off the same hymn sheets and everyone has to be working in the same direction, pulling the same way.
“For a couple of years, we definitely weren’t for some reason. I don’t know why. In the last couple of years, with George, and when Johann Ackermann was there, we were pulling in the same direction so obviously results started going our way.
“We had good players. We started pushing for playoff spots and even this year, we’ve quietly gone about our business and been there or thereabouts. There is definitely an understanding in the group of why things work.
“It is a good group of guys working hard together. We have got good leaders, a good coaching group all getting on the same wavelength. Nobody has come in and is trying to do different things. It is as simple as that.
“It is a pretty good time having everyone putting their all into the club, so on matchday it gets affected. It doesn’t surprise me in a way, but it does make you a bit baffled at a couple of wasted opportunities sometimes. It makes you just want to live in the moment and make the most of what you have now.”
That comment about culture is what struck the biggest chord in Twelvetrees’ response. When you think about the Premiership and teams with a culture, it is the likes of Exeter Chiefs, Saracens, Harlequins and, more recently, Leicester Tigers that spring to the forefront.
Perhaps brought on by their change in management two years ago, the club’s former captain says the that aspect of the game has grown in importance.
“I was lucky enough to be around some successful teams,” Twelvetrees said. “Going away with England and the Lions for a brief time and even in my early days at Leicester, there was a strong culture where winning was integrated into the group and there was even an underlying belief you would win every game.
“It was kind of just bred into you and training was part of that standard and there was a quiet confidence that you could get a result any way you wanted to. Going into an environment at Gloucester when I was a little bit younger, that probably wasn’t the culture.
“I was a little bit taken aback about why it wasn’t, so that is why being in different environments is great. Going away with England, and other things, you cherry pick things about why some things work and why things don’t.
“It sharpens your tools to think about what works and you put your energy into these things and cut some of the bullshit in other stuff. Time is finite in this career, so you want to put your best foot forward physically as well.
“It is where I have ended up seeing it now, luckily. I am in an environment now where we are definitely doing that and it is great to go into work every day. Everyone is desperate to win, and we have got a good belief about what we are doing as well.
“I think that is why there is an underlying frustration within the group that we might have let it [top four] slip because it is now in our hands in a sense. We are at home this weekend, but we have got to hope for another result.”
In playing Saracens, there are some fairly sore memories for Twelvetrees to look back on. One is in that season which Gloucester made the playoffs, the side duly dispatched by the team that would end the campaign as English champions again as they made their way to the final thanks to a 44-19 win over the Cherry and Whites.
View this post on Instagram
Then even more recently, it was Saracens that knocked Skivington's troops out of the Challenge Cup in the quarter-finals at the start of May. Traditionally a competition that Gloucester have fared well in - winning the tournament in 2015 and finishing as runners-up in both 2017 and 2018 - that loss has added plenty of motivation heading into a season-defining 80 minutes.
“It was the first game in a while where we were convincingly beaten,” Twelvetrees said. “We hold our hands up, we weren’t good enough. We were out-muscled, out-physicaled. They were much better than us, and then we were honest enough to say that wasn’t good enough.
“We let ourselves down. That is what Sarries do really well. It is huge motivation. Them coming back, pretty much a month later, hopefully with the same team and we want to test ourselves again.
“We know what we need to do better. We weren’t at the races physically that day. We got outworked in certain areas, outsmarted as well, so it was a sucker punch in the sense that we were going well in the Challenge Cup so to lose in the quarters was devastating in the sense of what it does for your momentum in the season.
“To have them in the final game of the season, with the ability to know there is potentially something in it for us, is massive. Sarries as well, everyone wants to win against Sarries.”
Awarded a testimonial year last October, Twelvetrees has been occupied off the field as much as on it these past months.
The 33-year-old is raising funds for local charity, the Pied Piper Appeal - who make a difference to sick and disabled children in Gloucestershire - as well as for childhood bereavement charity, Winston’s Wish.
It was when signing his most recent contract extension with the club that former Director of Rugby David Humphreys and incumbent chairman Martin St Quinton mentioned the potential of a celebration of Twelvetrees' association with the club, but the versatile back was unsure how it would be received by the Kingsholm faithful.
“In my first year at the club, it was Alex Brown’s testimonial with Nick Wood and then Andy Hazel did one, Pete Buxton and Henry Trinder and Charlie Sharples did one,” he said.
“These are Gloucester boys through and through. Then, suddenly, for them to say I could do one, I wasn’t sure if the fans would appreciate it. I am not from the area, I have played for Leicester.
“It has been amazing. The response from the fans, people wanting to help out, local businesses, the club has been fantastic, and it has been great. I have enjoyed it so far. I have got a few more events, a game against the Classic Lions in September at Kingsholm which will be cool, some dinners and golf days.
“The boys have been great. Obviously, they give you shit for it, but it is really humbling coming to a club and being here for 10 years. It has flown by, but something I have massively appreciated and the support has been fantastic.”
Looking at the 33-year-old’s career, it is fair to say that there is an air of the unexpected about it all. Born and raised in Sussex, Twelvetrees’ journey really started with Leicester Lions in the National Leagues, heading up to the East Midlands as a teenager to spend pre-season with the club under the watchful eye of a family friend whilst also impressing Tigers in a sevens competition.
2??5??0??— Gloucester Rugby (@gloucesterrugby) April 2, 2022
Billy Twelvetrees' introduction marks his 250th appearance for Gloucester Rugby!
Signing on at Welford Road in 2009 after time with Bedford Blues in the Championship, it is at Gloucester where he really flourished.
During his first season in the West Country was when he made international inroads, scoring a try on his England debut before being called up to the British and Irish Lions after injury concerns surrounding Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton.
“It is amazing where it all started from,” he said. “From being 17, playing in National League 2 North and getting beaten up at Darlington, Tynedale and Blaydon, they were definitely eye openers.
“I am lucky I had a family friend that was involved at Leicester Lions. They said to me to come along and do some pre-season during the summer holidays, then I played against Tigers in sevens. they picked me up and I didn’t look back.
“Next thing I was playing at Bedford, then six months later I was playing against Ospreys in a Heineken Cup game against James Hook, Tommy Bowe and Shane Williams who I had been watching play for the Lions that summer when I was in Devon with my mates.
“Then England a couple of years later. You can’t sit still so it is certainly hard to reflect. I just love rugby. I am one of four boys. We just played in the garden, on our village green when we were younger and we used to beat each other up and then just transferred that into senior rugby and doing the same thing, just going at it hammer and tong.”
While testimonial duties might consume Twelvetrees away from the field, his mind is firmly on the challenge at hand this weekend. In Saracens, he and his teammates have a stern test ahead of them, but one they must face as the Cherry and Whites' aspirations of being in the top four goes to the wire.