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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Andy Bull at the Stade de Marseille

Dan Biggar, the battered Welsh dragon, has flame extinguished by Argentina

Dan Biggar walks off the pitch after Wales’s defeat to Argentina.
Dan Biggar walks off the pitch after Wales’s defeat to Argentina. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Night time, Saturday 18 March, and Wales are gathered in the away changing room at the Stade de France. They have just lost to France 41-28, and are tired and hurting. It’s their fourth defeat in five games. Warren Gatland is talking. Privately, Gatland has been wondering if it was a mistake to take this job on again. But it is too late now. They only have five months and 21 days before the World Cup. “It is going to be tough,” Gatland tells them. “Probably the toughest thing you have ever done. If you’re not willing to work, if you’re not willing to give everything, let me know, and I won’t pick you.”

Silence, of course, no one talks.

But some of the older players have heard Gatland give this speech before, or others just like it. The oldest know it by heart. It’s not so very different to the one he delivered when he first took over back in 2008, the year Dan Biggar made his debut. And it’s precisely because Biggar, George North, Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb and Alun Wyn Jones have heard Gatland say it all before that they know just how serious he is. In the end, Jones won’t make it. Neither will Webb or Tipuric. In the following weeks all three will, in a quiet moment, have that talk with Gatland. Some know they don’t have it in them, others find he’s decided it for them.

Biggar, North, and Faletau press on though, through five months of hell, training camps in Turkey, and Switzerland – “brutal” says the assistant coach Neil Jenkins – and then three warm-up games, four pool matches, minds, all the time, fixed on this, the first match of the knockout rounds. North’s played in three quarter-finals under Gatland, Biggar in two. They want one more shot at it. The five months were as hard as Gatland promised, especially the pool stages. Wales hadn’t just made more tackles than any other team to reach the quarter finals, they had done it by an order of magnitude, 42 more on average per match than anyone else.

Faletau has gone, with a broken arm. But Biggar made it, knee strapped in black bandages, chest wrapped too, underneath his red shirt, to hold together the injury he suffered playing against Australia. Any other week, you could wager Biggar wouldn’t be playing. But they need him. Gareth Anscombe has gone in the groin, and the only other fly half, Sam Costelow, is still learning how to work a razor. And Biggar wants to be here as much as any of them, maybe more. He has already decided he is retiring after this tournament.

It turns out to be his 112th and last Test. Biggar never had the sharpest pass, or the quickest feet or the keenest eye for a break. He can’t step like Phil Bennett, or cut a line like Barry John and, even in his own era, he didn’t have the guile of Stephen Jones, or the wit of James Hook or even the skill of Anscombe. He stands deep, passes short, and kicks often. But Biggar is Gatland’s man, the epitome of the way he likes his team to play. No one has worked harder or given more, no one is tougher or more demanding on himself, and on his teammates.

Dan Biggar grounds the ball to score the first try.
Dan Biggar grounds the ball to score the first try. Photograph: Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images

Wales didn’t lose this match because Biggar went off limping (naturally) with five minutes to play. But once he had gone you knew, somehow, that their best chance of winning it had too. Wales were two points down at the time, and one shot at goal away from a lead, one shot you would have backed Biggar to make. And it is a cruel truth that once he was gone Costelow made the mistake that put Argentina nine points up, when he threw a pass to Tomos Williams that was picked off by Nicolás Sánchez, who saw the move coming, and snaffled it like it was the last roast potato in the bowl.

Biggar had led Wales through those 75 minutes. He did so much organising, so much talking, to the men either side and to the referee, that you almost forgot it was Jac Morgan who was captaining the team. He was there in the backfield, catching everything, there racing after his own up-and-unders, leaping into the air to contest them with the Argentinian back three. He was even there in support in midfield, following Gareth Davies’s break, to score Wales’s opening try. He screamed and slapped the hoardings afterwards.

It was Biggar who made the tryline tackle that brought down Matías Moroni when he threatened to score just before half-time, Biggar who got back to his feet and started screaming at the men outside him for leaving him so exposed. It was Biggar who was left down on his knees, gasping in pain while the medic crouched over him, after he had broken another wave of Argentinian play by stopping Santiago Chocobares and ripping the ball off him. It was Biggar who ran out of the midfield and threw himself into defending the maul as Argentina rolled towards the try-line with 10 minutes to play, Biggar who was there when the referee ruled the ball had been held up.

It was Biggar, who screamed and cursed and kicked and tackled and ran and leapt and bled, and it was Biggar, afterwards, who was first to go and shake hands with the Argentinian team. He had given exactly what Gatland asked, and exactly what he always has. Everything.

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