Dan Biggar: I wish 2016 was Lions tour year

Wales No 10 Dan Biggar, who faces a big game for Ospreys today in Bordeaux, tells Chris Hewett of his hunger to pull on that other red shirt, and recalls the highs and ‘what ifs’ of his World Cup

Chris Hewett
Saturday 19 December 2015 01:20
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Dan Biggar goes through his unique pre-kick ritual before another three-pointer for Wales
Dan Biggar goes through his unique pre-kick ritual before another three-pointer for Wales

If the rugby world is full of the original Daniel Carter – the great outside-half of the age seems to be everywhere at once, from London and Paris to Christchurch and Auckland – it is virtually bereft of potential Daniel Carters. Grand claims are made on behalf of Bernard Foley, Quade Cooper and Handré Pollard as kingpin No 10s in waiting; much continues to be written about Jonathan Sexton, George Ford and Owen Farrell as European pretenders to the global throne. Somehow, none of these arguments bear scrutiny for more than a handful of games.

Which brings us to another Daniel – Dan Biggar – who would not have been mentioned in such company even a year ago but has spent the last 12 months laying siege to the front rank of international playmakers and demanding to be counted among them. Had it not been for Carter’s soft-touch, hard-headed brilliance in keeping the Webb Ellis Cup in New Zealand hands during the autumn, Biggar might well have been voted the best No 10 in the tournament. Across the full stretch of 2015, he has outperformed everyone.

“I wish next year was a Lions year,” he says. “The way I feel about my rugby right now – about my form, about my hunger for the game – I’d fancy myself to give it a real shot.” But the British & Irish collective are not gathering for another 18 months, so the 26-year-old Welshman will have to maintain his current standards across two Six Nations tournaments, a three-Test tour of New Zealand with his national team in June and an autumn programme in Cardiff before challenging for the “other” red shirt of his dreams.

And before that there is Ospreys business to conduct – not least an important European Champions Cup campaign that continues today with a must-win game in France against Bordeaux-Bègles.

Biggar is a local Swansea boy, educated at Gowerton School (a comprehensive that, in its previous life as a grammar establishment, gave Haydn Tanner and Lewis Jones to Welsh rugby) and, according to the regional side’s backs coach Gruff Rhys, the “heartbeat of what we do”. Yet he has not always been loved by the Liberty Stadium regulars. As his friend and revered clubmate Alun Wyn Jones told this newspaper during the World Cup: “Back in the day, Dan was getting booed by our own supporters. They thought he was an insolent bugger. Me? I think that’s one of his best qualities. Sometimes, I think it’s a pleasure to play with him.”

Biggar smiles at the back-handed compliment. “I love the ‘sometimes’ bit,” he says. “I think we’re two of a kind, Alun and me. We’re both heart-on-the-sleeve types and we both really care about this team. It runs deep with us and if we don’t always sing from the same hymnsheet, we’re absolutely on the same page most of the time. We bounce off each other because we feel the same passion for what we do. From my point of view, that passion is what keeps me here.

“Have I ever been close to leaving? Yes, very close. There were offers on the table during the summer that made a lot of sense in financial terms and it took me a while to think things through. Money is important and, when you have an opportunity to set yourself up for life, you have to take it seriously. But I’ve been here since I was 15, I came up through the academy and I’ve battled through some tough times to play good rugby with people I care about. That means a lot.

“When I look back on those tough periods, I’m glad I experienced them. They made me what I am. I’m actually grateful for the fact that my career hasn’t simply been an upward curve: it’s been a career of troughs as well as peaks and my confidence comes from proving to myself that I could stay strong in the bad moments – moments when I had technical issues that affected me emotionally and made me feel I was letting people down. Not just my team-mates, but the people spending money to watch us play.

“I could have said to myself, ‘I don’t need this’, and left Wales to play my rugby under the radar somewhere. Instead, I decided to stay and fight, and I’m happy I did. I’ve never said I’ll stay here for the rest of my career, but I feel I need to be in Wales at this point in my life.

“I’m at a different stage internationally to someone like Jamie Roberts, for example. If and when I do go somewhere new, it will be a decision made in the moment. I’ll do what seems right at the time.”

Talking of planning, the World Cup campaign in which Biggar reached for the stars and near as damn it touched them did not unfold in the way the Wales head coach, Warren Gatland, had expected. First, the Red Dragons lost two highly influential individuals – full-back Leigh Halfpenny and scrum-half Rhys Webb – to injury during a warm-up game with Italy. Then, in the pivotal pool match with England at Twickenham, what was left of an already denuded back division bit the dust en masse.

“That Italy game knocked us around,” Biggar acknowledges. “We didn’t start the game particularly well, so we were feeling edgy. We felt a whole lot worse when Rhys went down. I knew it was bad straight away, because all I could hear were his screams.

“When Leigh was hurt later in the game… well, I can’t sit here and tell you that the negative thoughts didn’t creep in – that we weren’t standing there thinking, ‘Christ, this is all we need’.

“But equally, it’s true to say that the negatives didn’t stay with us for long. Warren and the rest of the coaches were really good at reassuring us, emphasising that we had good people waiting to come in and that overall, our physical conditioning had put us in a good place despite the knockbacks. They poured the faith into us and we responded.

“So going down to Twickenham, we felt confident in ourselves – really focused on doing the job we were there to do. We lost Scott Williams to injury and then, a few minutes later, Hallam Amos and Liam Williams in the same phase of play, yet it didn’t get to us. In fact, we were chuckling about it in a ‘you couldn’t make it up’ kind of way. The thing was, we’d prepared ourselves by spending training time in different positions. We had a scrum-half on the wing, a wing in the centre, I was an outside-half at full-back… When I look back on it now it seems unbelievable, but at the time it felt manageable.

“When the final whistle blew after all the intensity of the last 10 minutes, I can safely say the feeling was as good as I’d ever experienced on a rugby field. I just wish we’d had longer to celebrate. When you suffer a defeat that really hurts, you dwell on it for ages. The feel-good factor after a really great victory never seems to last in the same way. There again, we were in the middle of a World Cup. There were big things ahead of us.”

Through a combination of outstanding goal-kicking – the dead-eyed Halfpenny was barely missed – underpinned by an aerial kick-and-catch game to die for and a level of competitive ferocity not always associated with members of the No 10 fraternity, Biggar did everything in his ever-expanding range of powers to keep Wales in the competition. And they stayed in it until the very end of their quarter-final with South Africa, when Fourie du Preez pinched it for the Springboks with a sucker-punch try off a scrum.

“If the England feeling was good, that was the lowest point I’ve ever experienced in the game,” Biggar adds. “To be winning with four minutes to go, after all the injuries we’d suffered and after everything we’d given in putting bodies on the line... it was gut-wrenching to lose like that. For all the pride I still feel in what we did, there’ll always be some pain when I think of it.

“Would we have been good enough to beat the All Blacks in the semi-final? Probably not. They were the best team there: I’m still in awe of their self-belief, of the way they find their way through the bad moments without the slightest sign of panic. But I’d have loved to have had a go at them. I’d have given anything – even though I’m not sure there was much left to give.”

One last question, then: a question too close to English hearts for comfort. How did Biggar read the decision of the red-rose captain Chris Robshaw – that decision – to go for a match-winning try at the death, rather than a match-saving penalty? Not for the first time in the conversation, there is a broad grin.

“A wonderful thing, hindsight,” he says. “Had it worked for him, he’d have been a hero, for sure. I have to admit the call surprised me at the time, although it’s hard to comment, not having been right there in the middle of whatever discussion was going on. Things can seem different in the instant but if it had been us in that situation, we’d have gone for the sticks. Definitely.”

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