The No 10 has found a new groove at Northampton Saints – and he still has plenty of desire to play for Wales too
Dan Biggar on family, fly-halves and the future
A competitor. That’s how Chris Boyd describes Dan Biggar. Driven is the word we put to the Northampton and Wales fly-half. “A bit too much at times,” he laughs in response. “I’m very determined to succeed and want to do well. I wanted to win as much as possible growing up and I’ve always been quite vocal. That comes from wanting the team to perform.”
Yet while that steely focus remains and there are still moments when he is forthright – to put it politely! – in making his point on the pitch, the 30-year-old believes he has learnt to use it in a better way. There’s no shouting for the sake of shouting. His move to Northampton in 2018 has undoubtedly helped in this regard, with director of rugby Boyd bringing a refreshing approach, while his two-year-old son, James, also provides a new perspective.
“It’s about channelling it in the right way,” he says. “I’ve got better at dealing with things and I’ve probably been able to channel it in better ways over the past few years. When I was younger I wanted every single moment in every single game to go the right way. I wanted everything to be perfect in every moment. I wanted my role to be perfect to help the team to be better.
“The more experience and the older you get, you realise that’s never been the case for anybody. It’s about how you react when things don’t go your way or you make a couple of mistakes.
“It’s a change in my own mindset. I’ve still got that streak in me and it’s never going away as that’s my natural personality. There are times I let loose a bit and the boys are happy to respond to that. At a new club it’s about getting a feel for who can handle a kick up the backside and who needs an arm around the shoulder. In my younger days, it was probably a kick up the backside for everyone!
“It’s helped being in an environment (Northampton) when you can make mistakes without being hung, drawn and quartered. My little one also puts things in perspective. Whether I make mistakes or not, I go home and my wife and little boy love me and are there for me.
“Chris is the type of coach you really want to work for and play for and not let down, and we’re achieving something with a group of young guys who are keeping me on my toes, keeping me young. It’s infectious.
“I’m as happy as I’ve ever been on the rugby field. It’s been refreshing coming here whereas in Wales there’s scrutiny for every single thing. Northampton is a rugby-mad town and we’re under pressure every time we play, but I live closer to Oxford, which isn’t a massive rugby area. When I go into town I’m not noticed at all, unlike in Wales, and I enjoy that side of things.”
Many a Welsh player has spoken of relishing life outside the ‘goldfish bowl’ of Wales when they move to English or French clubs and Biggar has had to endure a fair amount of criticism during his career. You could argue that he’s underappreciated by many of the Welsh public, pigeon-holed as a kicking ten when fans often want to see more of an expansive style.
Yet he has plenty of skills too; it’s just that he now has the freedom to use them more often. The reverse pass in Saints’ victory over Benetton is a prime example while the last-minute winning penalty in the same match showcased his more recognised capabilities.
Biggar recalls an early conversation with Boyd when the coach asked for his strengths. Biggar listed his kicking game, defence and competitive edge, and Boyd encouraged him to become the best in the world at those things, to strengthen his strengths. At the same time, he challenged him to work on other areas that weren’t quite as strong, to improve.
As well as Boyd, Biggar finds the younger players at Franklin’s Gardens inspire him. He’s full of praise for his understudy at ten, 21-year-old James Grayson, as well as the likes of Rory Hutchinson, George Furbank and Tom Collins. They are all excelling this season.
“It’s a really positive set-up,” says Biggar. “The young guys here are the future of this club and it’s refreshing for me to come in and be driven by their hunger and how they want to perform and find another level.
“We’re not a team that’s going to try to turn the screw on teams at the set-piece; we’re about the ability of players to play with the ball in their hands. I learn more in every single session, every single meeting here, and that’s really important. I feel I develop and learn and get better every day.”
Those improvements have been noted too, with plenty of praise heading in his direction. But Biggar is not one to get caught up in those comments or bask in the glory as Northampton set the pace in the Gallagher Premiership; he’s been around long enough to know how quickly things can change. After all, it’s more than a decade since he made his Test debut against Canada as a teenager – and surviving at the top level for that long is an achievement in itself.
“It’s nice to stick it out through the ups and downs. I’ve achieved great moments in that Wales shirt and I always pride myself on giving everything on the pitch for whoever I’m playing for. There are times I’ve had praise and times I’ve had stick, but I’ve got through it.
“I’m not on my own in this; I’m sure every player who has played ten – Rhys Priestland, Neil Jenkins, Stephen Jones, James Hook – have all had praise and all had criticism.
“I rarely read the press but I do pick up bits and pieces, and I’m sent things over WhatsApp. It makes me laugh because the press are waiting to big you up – there are probably four or five people playing outside-half getting bigged up as the next big thing – but I know how quickly it can turn. That’s the way of the world and I take little notice of things like that. When it comes to picking you, a coach is not going to listen to a reporter giving you three out of ten.”
Biggar has a new coach to impress in 2020: Wayne Pivac. The Kiwi took charge of Wales for their 43-33 victory over the Barbarians at the end of November – a match Biggar couldn’t be picked for as it fell outside the international window – and is now starting his first Six Nations campaign.
After ending the World Cup with a narrow defeat by eventual champions South Africa in the semi-finals, Biggar is hungry for more Wales honours – he starts at ten in the first game of the 2020 championship against Italy – but at the same time is aware that his international career is finite.
“I’m categorically not ready to give that up,” says Biggar of Test rugby. “I’m not planning on retiring unless he (Pivac) retires me! I’d like to carry on playing for the next couple of years and see where that takes me.
“I’m on 79 caps now so if I get another good year or so, hopefully I’ll edge towards a really big milestone. It might not work out like that, the coaches might want to go down a different route. There’s a lot of young talent coming along, so it’s going to be really interesting to see how the next couple of years go.”
It’s clear the thought of reaching a century of caps has crossed his mind, but perhaps France 2023 will be a step too far. Biggar is extremely honest as he talks about the future and weighing up the needs of his family against rugby honours.
The World Cup is when it hit home. The training camps in the summer were followed by eight weeks in Japan – that’s a long time to be away. Wife Alex and son James flew out towards the end of the tournament, but there was still a period of adjusting upon returning to the UK. James still preferred Alex at bedtime or bath time because she was the familiar face from those previous few months; Biggar hadn’t been around. It has all led him to evaluate what comes next.
“I’m desperate to carry on playing for Wales and it looks like being an exciting era. I also have a young family and they are a massive priority. I want to spend time with my little boy as he grows up.
“My family have supported me and have given up so much time, missed out on so many things from me being away. I found it hard to be away for such a long time (at the World Cup) and there are moments you won’t get back.”
It all comes down to that work-life balance. That’s probably one of the reasons the Biggars have been making the most of their central location to visit other parts of the country, with trips to London, Manchester and Birmingham all made recently.
And even on family days out, Biggar’s focus can come to the fore. If a 9am departure has been agreed, he’ll be getting irritated if they haven’t left by 9:02! “I just like things done properly,” he says with a wry smile.
His team-mates wouldn’t expect anything less and over the coming months, whether in the green of Northampton or red of Wales, he’ll be striving for more success. “I’m hungrier than ever in terms of that determination and drive.” Happier too.
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Rugby World magazine.
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