Mauger advice can help Twelvetrees to stay grounded

Leicester's new golden boy has the talent, the nous and the right people around him to ensure he doesn't 'float into space' following his dream debut, his All-Black team-mate tells Simon Turnbull
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The Independent Online

There was no sign of Billy Twelvetrees at Leicester Forest Services the other morning. Inside WH Smith, though, on the back page of the Leicester Mercury, there was a photograph of the golden-haired new golden boy of the Leicester Tigers, next to the headline: "How Billy Rose to Tigers Hero."

It was three days on from the 20-year-old's dream debut against the Ospreys in the Heineken Cup, when the centre-cum-fly-half had been called in as a last-minute stand-in for the stricken Dan Hipkiss and proceeded to produce a man-of-the-match performance, complete with a high pressure conversion that tied the contest at 32-32 for a Leicester side shorn of a recognised backline. Across the city, at the Tigers' suburban training lair, it was clear the East Midland institution were keeping their Twelvetrees rooted to terra firma.

He might have become the talk of the town, and of the rugby union world at large, but at Leicester's weekly media day Twelvetrees was conspicuous by his absence. There had been no shortage of interview requests to speak to him but they had all been politely declined, at the behest of Richard Cockerill. It might be a bit premature to put the former Tigers and England hooker in the Sir Alex Ferguson category, having only been formally installed as Leicester's permanent director of rugby six months ago, but he is clearly of the same mind as the old Red Devil of a football manager when it comes to the handling of emerging young bucks.

After being presented with his man of the match award by Sky Sports and being allowed a brief bit of question time with the media on Sunday, Twelvetrees said that Cockerill had "already put me in my place". In his post-match press conference, Cockerill referred to missed passes and missed tackles by the new boy and stressed: "He's got to earn the right to play."

In midweek, the Leicester chief was happy to expand on his particular philosophy of youth. "Well, I've been in the game a long time," Cockerill said. "I was young once and you learn from your experience. I made some very poor decisions in my playing career. On certain things, I was managed quite badly at times, mainly from my own fault, so I've been there and done it myself.

"I've been in the set-up here with the academy and as assistant coach for a number of years and I've dealt with a lot of these young guys. And I've been a player that's come through and suddenly everybody wants to talk to you. Or you have a good game and everybody builds you up and then you have a poor game and everybody wants to chop you off at the legs.

"Some people have been critical of some of the younger guys not getting opportunities here but it's my responsibility to make sure they come in and out of the side at the right time. And it's quite harsh out there in the professional world if you get things wrong as a youngster. You can be pigeonholed as one thing or another. People will just have to trust me in the way I bring the young guys in and out of the side."

As it happens, after his 14-point contribution towards the overturning of a 28-6 deficit against the Ospreys, Twelvetrees has kept his place in the Leicester side for their second Pool Three fixture in the Heineken Cup away to Viadana this afternoon. He again starts at inside-centre partnering Anthony Allen in midfield.

The Tigers may have Twelvetrees in tow in northern Italy but sadly they will be without the player who has been probably the most masterful No 12 of this decade. "A combination of the back and the groin," Aaron Mauger lamented, more than a little wearily. "The same old thing."

The former All Black had been due to return to action against the Ospreys last Sunday when he suffered a recurrence of the problem that ruled him out of the business end of the Guinness Premiership and Heineken Cup campaigns in which Leicester came within four points of completing a famous double last spring. He was one of the four backs named in the Tigers team who failed to make it to kick-off time. "I hope to be back for the next home game," he said.

In the meantime, few people are better qualified than Mauger to consider the sudden emergence of William Twelvetrees, a name that Thomas Hardy could have seamlessly placed alongside those of Gabriel Oak, William Boldwood, Bathsheba Everdene and Joseph Poorgrass in the pages of Far From the Madding Crowd. There has been no finer exponent of the inside-centre's art in recent times than Mauger (right).

"I think 12 is probably Billy's position," the New Zealander said. "He's got all the skills. He's been playing fly-half and outside centre as well, but 12 suits him a little better. He's quite a big, strong boy and he can kick and pass very well. Once he spends a bit of time in that position and gets more experience he'll be a very dominant player.

"I wasn't surprised that he did so well against the Ospreys. He showed in pre-season what he could do. He scored three tries up in Nottingham. He showed how elusive he can be with the ball in hand. I suppose it's just fine-tuning parts of his game now before he turns into potentially an international player."

It has been quite some turnaround for Twelvetrees. At the end of the 2007-2008 season he was released by the Tigers' academy. He was re-signed after a season as the star turn in National Division One for Bedford, playing mainly as a fly-half and finishing top of the league try scoring charts.

Mauger also alternated between the 10 and 12 jerseys at the start of his career, making his debut for the Crusaders as a stand-in stand-off for Andrew Mehrtens. He was 20, though, the same age that Twelvetrees is now, when he won the first of his 45 New Zealand caps – scoring a try in a 40-29 win against Ireland at Lansdowne Road in November 2001. Richie McCaw also made his All Black debut that day, in a side coached by John Mitchell.

It was a major achievement at such a young age but nothing that was ever in any danger of turning such a self-effacing soul as Mauger into a prima donna.

"It wasn't until I got back from that tour that it really sank in and I actually felt worthy of having played for the All Blacks," he reflected. "I suppose it has a bit to do with how you're brought up. You don't take anything for granted. You've got to work for everything. You've got to realise that. Then you're halfway there."

As for the nurturing of Billy Twelvetrees, Mauger considers the emerging No 12 to be in a suitably earthy environment.

"It's a matter of keeping yourself grounded and if you've got good people around you that can only help," he said. "I think this is the sort of environment where guys don't let others float in space too long. They'll hack them down. I think Billy's the sort of personality that wouldn't let it go to his head."

Billy the Tiger: Name & numbers

*The 'Twelvetrees' mystery

Billy's unusual surname has a habitational derivation. There is a hamlet called Twelve Heads in Cornwall, and there is a location called Twelve Oaks near Battle in Sussex. Either could be a source. Or it could originate from a "lost" village called Twelvetrees, but no such place has been found in any gazetteer of the past three centuries. Early recordings that may have evolved include Richard Twelves in London in 1622 and John Twelftree in 1752.

*12...trees in numbers

11 October 2009, makes Heineken Cup debut, against Ospreys

10 Minutes before kick-off that he found out he was playing

9 Points kicked against Ospreys

8 Born in Chichester in 1988

7 He was part of England Sevens camp while at Bedford last season

6 Foot three inches in height

5 Metres in from touchline that he scored from last weekend

4 Scored four tries for Bedford in one game, against Manchester in 2008

3 Minutes from time that he levelled the scores last weekend

2 Seasons at Leicester's academy before he was released in 2008

1 Appearance for Leicester Tigers