Twelvetrees prepares to branch out

He wants to be known for more than a crazy name so he's left Leicester for pastures new at Gloucester and can show England he has the creative spark they crave when he plays for the Saxons today. He talks to Chris Hewett

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Much has been made of Billy Twelvetrees' unusual surname, which prompted Geordan Murphy, his club captain at Leicester, to label him "Thirty-six" – a gag that works best if told in the Irishman's rich Dublin brogue.

The fact that Twelvetrees' father happens to be a tree surgeon – no, really – who is currently researching the family tree adds to the fun. "Since I've been playing Premiership rugby and had my name in the papers, people have been in touch from as far away as South America," says Billy. "Then there was the bloke who contacted us saying his name was 'Eighteen-bushes' and wondering if we were related. Thinking about it, that may have been a joke."

A bigger joke still in recent seasons has been England's midfield, although the only people finding it a laughing matter have been those on the other side of the halfway line. Something needs to be done ahead of the home World Cup in 2015 and the 23-year-old from Sussex may be the man to do it. If there are not many people called Twelvetrees, there are even fewer blessed with the range of talents offered by a player who grew up transfixed by Jonny Wilkinson and Will Greenwood and who now shows signs of combining, if only to a degree, the goal-kicking prowess of the first with the ball-handling artistry of the second.

He is not there yet, by any manner of means: with his unusual skill-set, Twelvetrees has started out on a road less travelled and cannot see its end. But he is determined to make the best of himself, hence his decision to leave Leicester at the end of the season and try his luck among the bright young things at Gloucester, who, it is said, are about to lose the fitfully brilliant Samoan back Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu to a Super 15 contract in New Zealand. The thought of Twelvetrees playing at inside centre and surrounding himself with the likes of Freddie Burns, Henry Trinder, Charlie Sharples and Jonny May is exciting indeed.

Not that Leicester are particularly thrilled. Richard Cockerill, the director of rugby at Welford Road, had some sharp words to say about Twelvetrees' decision, accusing him of giving out mixed messages about his plans and lamenting his reluctance to stay put and fight for a first-team place. Cockerill may not have picked Twelvetrees as often as he might have done – his preference for the defensive security and low error-count that define the game of Anthony Allen was, and remains, obvious – but he did not want to lose an X-factor player who could turn out to be the creative spirit English rugby has been craving for years.

"I think there was some miscommunication between Richard and myself," Twelvetrees admits. "I wanted to stay, but I also looked at the players currently in the squad and had to wonder how many chances I'd be given. I asked Richard if I'd be featuring regularly next season, and I suppose I didn't get the answer I wanted. It's been fantastic, playing at a club like Leicester. When I went there as a 20-year-old, I knew the competition for places would be intense: it's part of the ethos and everyone has to accept it – props, scrum-halves... it's the same for us all. I've enjoyed the challenge and learnt a lot.

"So why am I going? It's a question of opportunity. Ever since I was playing mini-rugby, I've felt most comfortable as a No 12. It suits my mindset, it's where I play my best stuff. I've nothing against the way Leicester play, or against their preference for Anthony. I'm good friends with him, he's a class player and I can see why the coaches like him. This is about the things I think I can bring to a team. Maybe I'm not the inside centre Leicester want, but I'd like to think it will work out well for me at Gloucester."

Should he perform as productively for England's second-string Saxons side against a powerful Irish Wolfhounds selection today as he did in last summer's Churchill Cup, the "Gloucester gain-Leicester loss" theory will acquire significant traction. Twelvetrees is no stranger to representative rugby at Saxons level: he was in the starting line-up in all three tournament games last summer and his contribution to the landslide victory over the United States was very considerable indeed.

This will be different, though, for Irish rugby is strong in all its manifestations. "Last year went well," Twelvetrees says, looking back on the Saxons experience. "When they first picked me I felt very new to it all, but people kept faith and I found my feet. I feel I need to prove myself all over again, though, because things have been tough lately." He was referring to Leicester's recent night of Heineken Cup suffering in Belfast, where a supercharged Ulster rattled up 40-odd points in condemning the Midlanders to their worst defeat in 14 European campaigns stretching back to 1996.

"Ulster found weaknesses in my game I didn't know I had," he admits. "But I was picked at outside-half and to operate successfully at No 10 you need to play there week in, week out. It was a pretty terrible evening: for 60 minutes of the game and possibly more, it seemed we just weren't there physically – that instead of one or two people having difficulties, we were in trouble from one to 15. It happens sometimes. You spend all week telling yourself everything will be fine, you think you're up for it and then you discover you're wrong. Let's call it a learning curve. It was certainly good for me in showing me what I still need to do to be the player I want to be."

Twelvetrees has had clear ideas about being the best from an early point in his sporting life. As a teenager, he was a keen footballer and cricketer as well as a rugby nut, playing his sport in the Hayward's Heath-Horsham-Wisborough Green triangle. "In football I always wanted to play in central midfield; in cricket I always wanted to be the all-rounder," he recalls. "I always wanted to be involved in everything and completely nail it. The No 12 position attracts me for the same reason. I'm the kind of person who says: 'When in doubt, back yourself'."

He is doing that by leaving a club as successful as Leicester for pastures new, just as he did when he arrived at Welford Road from the second-tier Championship

side Bedford Blues. "I wasn't as good a player as I thought I was and I learnt that straight away," he says. "At Bedford, I could miss a tackle and it did not matter – not too much, anyway. It mattered at Leicester and it caught me out.

"I think I've improved that side of my game, but it's something I can improve some more," Twelvetrees adds. "Ultimately, I want to develop defensively while continuing to try things in attack. I've always relished the creative side of rugby: I love working out how we can find a way around opponents. Do I try too much at times? Yes, and I accept that I have to rein things in occasionally." His tone does not suggest, however, that he is willing to make too many compromises.

England are not blessed in terms of midfield mastery. Wales can call on Jamie Roberts, Gavin Henson, James Hook, Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams to fill the centre positions; France have half a dozen 12s and 13s who could walk, quite possibly blindfold, into the red-rose back division.

As the likes of Trinder, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, Jordan Turner-Hall, Matt Hopper and Jonathan Joseph make their pitches at the various representative levels over the coming weeks – and the freakish human bowling ball Manu Tuilagi regains fitness – there should at least be a narrowing of the gap. As Twelvetrees has a greater range of attacking gifts than any of his peers, he could be the one to close it completely. It will demand a leap of faith from someone if he is to play Test rugby this season, but the smart money says it is a leap worth taking.