Roberts fears and reveres great mentor O'Driscoll
Published 26/01/2013 | 05:00
He may no longer be Irish captain, but Brian O'Driscoll remains the litmus test for any international centre, according to Welsh bulwark Jamie Roberts.
The former Lions partners are expected to be direct opponents at the Millennium Stadium next Saturday and Roberts admits that time spent in O'Driscoll's company has formed a fundamental part of his rugby education.
Ian McGeechan used the pair as his first-choice centres in South Africa four years ago and, fitness permitting, they could well be Warren Gatland's choice in Australia this summer.
For Roberts, the experience garnered from two losing Test games against the Springboks still ripples through his everyday life. He was 22 in South Africa, an apprentice in the care of a master.
"I think, subconsciously, I learnt a lot more than I thought," he recalls. "Brian was just a massive, massive learning curve in my career. You grow up admiring someone like him and, remember, I'd only played at centre probably for the season preceding that. Because most of the start of my career, I was playing full-back and wing.
"So, I learnt so much from the way that he communicates on the pitch. Anyone can shout and scream, but it's about communicating effectively. And he's the best player I've played alongside or against who does that."
Describing O'Driscoll as "probably the greatest centre who's played the game in European rugby," Roberts suggests there are no conspicuous weaknesses to the Irishman's game.
"As a back-line, you try looking for weaknesses in the opposition but, when Brian's in the team, it's about trying to find another route around it really. And everyone knows the threat he poses in attack as well.
"He keeps you guessing in defence and it's certainly a far more mentally challenging 80 minutes when he's playing for Ireland.
"I think experience counts for a lot at Six Nations level. And when you come up against Ireland with the likes of O'Connell, O'Driscoll and O'Gara – guys who know how to win big matches and have played at the highest level for a long time – it's always going to be a far sterner challenge."
Roberts hopes to have completed his final medical exams before moving to France this summer where he is expected to be a team-mate of Jonny Sexton's at Racing Metro. He admits to being irritated when people depict his departure from Cardiff Blues as a decision dictated by money.
"It frustrates me when people say I've moved for the money," he says. "I've worked hard enough in my student life to ensure my financial security post-rugby anyway. So, I'm not moving to make a quick buck.
"It wasn't an easy decision. To me, it was a break from old tradition and life in Cardiff where I had grown up. I've spent all my life there, in school, then signing (for the Blues) when I was finishing my education.
"I graduate come April/May time now and I've got to a place where I'm 26, haven't settled down with a girlfriend yet and it just feels a natural time to try something different, to fly the nest from Cardiff.
"For me, it's about wanting to see the world. I've grown up through the ranks with Cardiff and I've reached a point where I feel I have to do some-thing new."
Roberts concedes that his medical knowledge has turned him into "a bit of a hypochondriac" about rugby injuries and he will go to France utterly mindful of the attritional nature of Top 14 rugby.
He was, after all, knocked out cold during Wales' November defeat to Argentina.
"Oh it's brutal," he says of the professional game generally. "I've had wrist, shoulder and knee reconstructions and I'm still only in my mid-20s. I had a scare of a fractured skull as well when I played a few years ago against Australia. I've probably strained most ligaments in my body.
"But, at the end of the day, you're paid to be a rugby player and that's the nature of the game. That's why we play; that feeling of battling hard on a weekend and the feeling in the changing-room after counter-balances any negative that comes with getting injured.
"I think a lot of training nowadays in the gym is directed towards prehab. In a contact sport like rugby, injuries are going to happen. It's amazing looking at the likes of Shane and Martyn Williams, how they played the game at that level for so long. It's incredible. Over the next decade or two, it wouldn't surprise me if we see players retiring in their late 20s, because there's guys coming through now at 18 or 19, being exposed to that high intensity rugby."
With Wales on a remarkable seven-Test losing streak, Roberts suggests that next weekend's Six Nations opener against Ireland is "huge."
"You lose your first game and, all of a sudden, you're under pressure," he says. "But win it and you know you could be on to something special. We saw the effect last year when we played Ireland in Dublin. We managed to sneak that game and went on to win the Grand Slam.
"But I look back at last year's championship and there were probably three of the five games that we could easily have lost. That is the beauty of it (Six Nations) and it is those teams who mentally come through 70-80 minutes and make the right decisions on the pitch that usually do well.
"That's going to be key for us against Ireland."
He is, largely, dismissive of the statistic that Wales have won the last three meetings of the sides, suggesting: "Previous form goes out the window. What happened in the World Cup and last year is irrelevant.
"I think Ireland will be in full blood this time after losing at home last year. They will be looking to do damage at the Millennium Stadium. The last couple of times we played them, we played quite a physical game and I think we have been better than them physically, winning the battle of the gain-line and playing on the front foot.
"Certainly in that World Cup game, we ran the ball quite a lot from deep, we kicked and we competed very well. We ran hard and crossed the gain-line and our kickers slotted their goals, happy days."
Roberts is equally hopeful that the statistic of Wales now having lost those seven consecutive Test matches will prove irrelevant to the psyche of the Grand Slam champions. Much was made, particularly, of Lions coach Warren Gatland's absence from their November series.
"When you lose a lot of games, it's easy to point the finger at certain things" observes Roberts.
"Obviously, Warren not being there is one of them. But the coaching team of Wales comes as a package. The players have the utmost respect for Rob (Howley) and Shaun (Edwards) and Neil (Jenkins) and Robin (McBryde), along with Mark Jones, now for the Six Nations.
"We're all continually learning and the important thing for us is just going out and winning in the Six Nations. We need to break that losing run. The boys will miss not having Warren around, but we'll be raring to go.
"I think we need to forget about it (the losing run) as soon as possible, but also learn from it. There are things we didn't do right in the autumn, predominantly not playing on the front foot and defending the gain-line. You've got to be going forward as a team and we didn't do that (in November).
"It's seven on the bounce now and everyone is well aware of it. But we'll learn from it. It's better soon forgotten."
Jamie Roberts launched the Guinness Made of More RBS Six Nations campaign at Twickenham last week where fans can keep up to date with the latest tournament news and be in with a chance to win a VIP prize to see Ireland play Italy in Rome at facebook.com/GuinnessIreland.