There are plenty of players at the top of their chosen sport for whom things come easy.

Some burst onto the scene and succeed emphatically, establishing themselves at the top of their game for many years to come.

Others, though, are not so fortunate. They have to fight relentlessly, overcome knock-backs, face critics and prove themselves time and again.

As he stands on the verge of his 100th Test match – 97 for Wales and three for the Lions – that is the category in which Wales captain Dan Biggar sits.

Nothing has ever been handed to the fly-half, who had the battle to prove himself at the Ospreys, then with Wales and ultimately with the Lions.

There has always been a sense that he has had to do more than most to prove his worth and that the battle is a daily one.

But Biggar’s is a remarkable career and he captains Wales on a landmark day for him personally against Scotland this weekend.

We caught up with his coaches and team-mates – including the former Wales coaching ticket of Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley – to learn more about Biggar’s incredible journey…

‘He was streets ahead’

Such was the precocious nature of his talents as a young lad, Biggar played up an age group during his junior years at Gorseinon RFC.

It put him into a team with the likes of Leigh Halfpenny and Ross Moriarty and, despite the size of the players he was up against, and alongside, he was no shrinking violet. Even back then.

Rob Steele, who coached Biggar throughout his formative years with Gorseinon, remembers him fondly.

“He shone from a very young age and he was playing against kids who were a lot bigger than him but it didn’t faze Dan at all,” Steele recalls.

“He was different. His skill level was just above most. He had ambition and he took his game very seriously. He was a little professional, really.”

By the time Biggar was pushing into his mid/late teens, his talent was being noticed. It was natural that he would end up on the Ospreys’ academy pathway and Wales age-grade honours would follow.

Again, playing a year up, he featured in the fabled Wales Under-20s squad at the 2008 Junior World Championship. It was a side which included Halfpenny, Jonathan Davies, Rhys Webb, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Josh Turnbull, to name a few.

In charge of that team was head coach Patrick Horgan.

“Well, as you can imagine, he was very confident,” Horgan says.

“His skill set and his ability to kick the ball was remarkable.

“Sometimes he would make the wrong decisions and take on too much but that tends to happen when they’re young.”

Horgan and Biggar had crossed paths a few years previously, when the former was in charge of Ebbw Vale and the latter was a young, skinny fly-half finding his way with Swansea RFC.

The Welsh Premiership should be a baptism of fire for a young lad, but this was anything but as Biggar guided his side to an unlikely victory at St Helen’s.

“We went to Swansea towards the end of the season,” Horgan remembers. “Dan was playing and he must have scored over 20 points.

“He was moving Swansea around the park, he was kicking goals, I think he dropped a goal from 40 metres out.

“It was like: ‘Hang on, this kid is about 17 and he’s just controlled a Premiership match’.

“He couldn’t have played many senior games but he was running the roost.

Wales' Dan Biggar is tackled by France's Louis Madaule
Dan Biggar in action for Wales under-20s in 2008

“That was against an Ebbw Vale team that was pretty good. We were top three at the time.

“Swansea weren’t brilliant but he just looked streets ahead of everyone in the Premiership back then, and I mean streets ahead.”

Despite his obvious talents as a youngster, the professional arena is a tough place to thrive.

His first professional deal with the Ospreys signalled the beginning of a theme which would follow Biggar for his entire career.

Nothing was going to be handed to him. He had to work relentlessly to prove himself at the region and that would have to continue later in his career.

Lyn Jones, who was Ospreys boss at the time, explains.

“There are some players you watch and you think: ‘Christ, he’s going to play for Wales’,” he says.

“But you weren’t sure with Dan, to be honest. What he’s done is trained extremely hard and learned from very experienced players down the years.

“He’s tremendously hard-working, which is the main quality of Alun Wyn Jones. He’s an example to every player about delivering consistency of skills and decision-making.

“That’s why he’s hitting 100. It was tough for him at the start. He had huge competition but it turned out to be the best thing for him, with the likes of James Hook, Gavin Henson, Shaun Connor.

“They were excellent role models for him to work around.”

Fighting for every cap

As he established himself with the Ospreys, national selectors began taking notice. Biggar was given his Wales debut in a November Test against Canada, kicking three conversions and a penalty in 34-13 victory.

But over the next four years, he would amass just 10 caps, five of them coming from the bench.

Nailing down a spot in the side was proving challenging but there is a tenacity about Biggar which has defined him in the years since. And it was to the fore in his early days on the international scene as he fought tooth and nail to get that coveted No. 10 jersey.

An injury to Rhys Priestland opened the door and Biggar ran through it.

“Dan hasn’t had it easy and most No. 10s don’t in Wales,” said former Wales attack coach Rob Howley, who worked closely with Biggar for a decade.

“I think about the quality of the fly-halves that were around when he was coming onto the scene with Stephen Jones and Rhys Priestland. Dan was probably the next one to come through.

“He started getting picked for the Ospreys, nailing performances for them.

“Rhys Priestland got injured and Dan took his opportunity and we picked him in every game of the 2013 Six Nations.

“But it wasn’t an easy passage for him. He had to drive himself and commit to being the best he could be, trying to make coaches turn heads.

“Dan epitomises what the qualities of Wales were under Warren Gatland – resilience, his thirst for hard work and he leads from the front.”

Alun Wyn Jones and Dan Biggar celebrate with the Six Nations Trophy in 2013

Agreeing, ex-Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards added: “That’s Biggsy in a nutshell, isn’t it? Every day is a bit of a challenge for him.

“I could relate to him because that’s how I felt as a player, every day I felt I had to work harder than everybody else.

“Biggsy epitomises that.”

‘The bigger the challenge, the more he thrived’

Despite helping to steer Wales to that memorable 2013 Six Nations title, Biggar still had to fend off the challenge of his rivals for the jersey.

But then-head coach Warren Gatland landed on his man ahead of the 2014 summer tour of South Africa.

From that point onward, all of Biggar’s next 34 caps, spanning three years, were starts. He was the main man.

He elevated himself to become a leader in the side, driving home his position as the number one fly-half at the 2015 World Cup.

Edwards, Howley and Gatland all recall that Twickenham victory over England as the day he truly took his game to a new level. It was a seminal moment in his career as he kicked Wales to victory, producing a man-of-the-match performance on the biggest of stages.

“It was his calmness, with the amount of injuries and the reshuffling of the team,” Gatland says.

“He nailed a number of big kicks to keep the scoreboard ticking over and keep England under pressure.

“The bigger the occasion, the bigger the challenge, the more he thrived.

“He’s not one to go into his shell or to hide under a rock. If you put a challenge in front of him or a big game, he’ll be first in line.

“That’s one of the things you admire and respect about him.

“You get a kick like that one at Twickenham, he loves those big moments. You don’t always find those players but he’s special like that.”

Howley adds: “I saw a big difference in Dan from 2015 onwards.

“He kicked eight out of eight goals. It was outstanding. He had a man-of-the-match performance against South Africa in 2014 but I certainly believe his performances at that World Cup, when he replaced Leigh Halfpenny as the goal-kicker, led to Dan’s self-belief going to another level.

Dan Biggar kicks the decisive penalty
Dan Biggar kicks the decisive penalty against England in 2015

“He became a player that you simply couldn’t leave out of the side. He became comfortable in his own skin and well-respected as a leader.

“During that time, he still had to fight off competition from Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Priestland.

“But that performance against England gave him the platform to go on.”

Playing outside Biggar that day was Jamie Roberts, who would not understate the role Biggar produced in a victory which has gone into Welsh rugby folklore.

“He almost won the game single-handedly for us at Twickenham,” Roberts said. “It was an amazing performance when the stakes were at their highest. This guy has delivered when the stakes have been at their highest for Wales.”

Watching from afar, his old coach Lyn Jones agreed: “He was outstanding at the 2015 World Cup. He came out of that game world-class. If he wasn’t playing that day, Wales would not have won the match.”

Kicking prowess

It was around this time that Biggar’s kicking game was beginning to get the plaudits it deserved.

Those working closely with him, going all the way back to his formative years, will tell you he has always been a great kicker of the ball, whether that be in open play or at goal.

But, with Leigh Halfpenny out of action, he had to take over the kicking duties at the global gathering in 2015 and did so with aplomb.

In open play, his now trademark chip and chase was coming to the fore as well.

“His aerial skills are legendary but he worked very hard on that, the little chip he does to regather it,” Edwards said.

“You get such good field position from something like that. It’s the best ball to have, win an aerial contest behind the opposition’s defence line because it opens up all your options.

“There was nobody better than him at doing that.”

Explaining what Biggar’s right foot brought to Wales’ attack, Howley said: “Dan had an ability to navigate the team into the right areas through his kicking game.

“A good kicking game, that finds space in the backfield, will change the alignment of a defence. When you have a 10 who can put it on a sixpence, opposition wingers will drop off the frontline and it makes it easier to shift the ball into the outside channels.

“It’s about a player understanding the process, understanding the tactical reasons for kicking, not just for the sake of it.

“There isn’t another player that you’d want to kick a conversion. Over Christmas I was watching the re-run of Wembley, when Neil Jenkins nailed that kick. Out of players currently in world rugby, you’d want Dan taking that kick for you.”

Edwards agreed: “If you want someone kicking a goal to save your life, you want Dan Biggar doing it.”

Another fight to prove himself

True to form, Biggar had to hammer the door relentlessly before getting the ultimate recognition for a player in this part of the world: a British and Irish Lions call-up.

He missed out in 2013 after his Six Nations heroics, and had to settle for being the midweek fly-half on the tour of New Zealand in 2017.

“We had to have a conversation in 2017 when we didn’t use him in the Lions Test series but he was absolutely brilliant,” said Gatland, who was head coach of both tours. “He kept pushing right to the end, he was ready to go if it was required.

“He doesn’t leave anything out there in terms of the way he prepares.

“I have a lot of respect for him and admire him so much as a competitor.”

Howley, who was attack coach on both trips, adds: “I’ve said this to Warren Gatland but I think we made a mistake in not picking Dan on the 2013 Lions tour. We only took two 10s.

Dan Biggar on the 2017 Lions tour of New Zealand

“But by the time we got to 2017, he had matured and he was outstanding in that midweek team. The players had a huge respect for him, he was a key player keeping that Tuesday/Wednesday team together and he certainly kept Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell on their toes.

“He led with a lot of maturity and I think that goes back to him growing as a player on the international stage in 2015.

“He was ready to be a Lion in 2017.”

Biggar would go on to receive his second Lions call-up in 2021, starting every Test match against South Africa.

The critics

In keeping with the gritty narrative which surrounds his career, Biggar has not always been a universally popular selection.

There were times, particularly heading towards the 2019 World Cup, amid the emergence of Gareth Anscombe, that he was perceived to be a limited player.

Some said he relied too heavily on his kicking, some said he held Wales back.

But those who worked closely with him refute that.

“I don’t know if you can print this but that’s f***ing bulls**t,” Lyn Jones said.

“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion but there’s this old-fashioned opinion that we need a will-o’-the-wisp, Phil Bennett-type of 10 who can seriously side-step players but those days are gone.

“His catch and pass in half a step is as good as anybody in the world. Lot’s of people don’t see that but when you’re playing 12 and 13, you need that extra time, thank you very much.

“Dan can give them time. This is what people who are involved in rugby see in him.

“He might not side-step six people and score under the sticks from 80 metres but the ’70s aren’t here anymore.

“We need guys who can fix and create space for others.

“Dan makes things happen. His error count is dramatically low.”

Howley agrees.

“I thought those sentiments were probably a little bit unfair,” the former scrum-half said. “Dan and Gareth have totally different skill sets.

“We were fortunate to have two 10s and we were comfortable with either of them starting. That drove competition between them.`

“We were able to get the best out of both of them. We had two 10s that could give us something a little bit different when we needed it.”

Gatland concludes: “Dan may not have been the greatest running back in the world in terms of blistering pace and making breaks.

“But not everyone does that, so you look at what his strengths are – and he has a huge amount of strengths – and you build your game around what they are.

“He’s got a lot more skill than people realise. He’s got a very astute rugby brain.”

The body language complaint

When you watch Biggar, he will leave you in no doubt as to exactly how he feels. Even though you won’t be able to hear him, if he is frustrated his body language will tell you so.

“He loves chucking his hands in the air when he doesn’t get his way,” laughed Jamie Roberts. “He loves the only body language complaint.”

He is not afraid to voice his displeasure to officials, either, although it was noticeable how his approach to officials had changed when he captained Wales against Ireland in the 2022 Six Nations opener.

Broadly speaking, he has always remained respectful but frustration can, at times, get the better of him.

He has also been a vocal character on the field his entire career, demanding the best out of those around him.

Jamie Roberts and Dan Biggar

“That’s what he was like as a junior on the field,” remembers Steele, his boyhood coach. “Off the field you’ve got a totally different character.

“He wouldn’t long be telling anybody, put it like that. But it was only on the field and the players loved him. He got on well with everybody.”

It was the same at Under-20s level.

“Yeah, he was very vocal and his arms would wave,” laughed Horgan.

“At that age, boys are boys, they’re not really men and… well… he would get on the nerves of some of the other players, let’s put it that way.

“You could sense it but deep down he is a lovely bloke. He’s a winner.”

It was the same at senior level, with Gatland admitting the pair had numerous chats about his mannerisms on the field.

“Oh, on a number of occasions, yeah!” laughed Gatland when asked if he had to sit down with Biggar.

“It’s difficult to do because he’s so involved in the game but it was about saying: ‘Look, you’re the number 10, you’re a leader of this team, you’re the driver, everyone looks to you for calmness, they want to see the 10 thinking about the next job’.

“It was more a conversation about how the other players perceive you. If you see the 10 getting involved in certain things, what kind of message is that sending?”

But that comes with the territory with Biggar and, in more recent years, onlookers have come to accept it.

It is likely a bi-product of the challenges he has had to face in his career. In his early days, there was a recurring sense that he wasn’t quite good enough, that there were people ahead of him in the queue.

It was inevitable that he would develop that chip on his shoulder which all the greatest athletes require to be successful.

Without it, he would not be the player he is today.

“He wants it badly and he’ll do whatever it takes to get himself in the best shape, to get himself in the squad,” concludes Gatland.

“You could never question the way that he prepares, his determination to want to be involved and for the team to win.

“I haven’t met too many players that are more competitive than him. It’s about winning, for him.”

Howley adds: “I don’t think any 10 has had the credit, and that’s going back to Jonathan Davies’ era.

“I don’t think we realise [their quality] or celebrate the players in that jersey because of the pressure that comes with it, more so in the modern times.

“Dan navigates the team, he’s a leader, he drives team runs, he has an input into the training schedule. There is a lot of responsibility that goes with being an international 10 these days,

“There is a reason why players like Dan, in their 30s, can still play at the highest level. It’s because of their drive, their relentlessness, their tactical acumen and their ability to lead the team. Those players are priceless.”

When Biggar runs out for his 100th cap on Saturday, February 12, he will get the ovation he richly deserves from the Principality Stadium crowd.

  • To get the latest rugby news and Six Nations headlines sent straight to your inbox for free every day, just sign up to our rugby newsletter here.

Source link