No one can succeed like Dr Roberts
Humble and talented off the pitch, Cardiff juggernaut's huge presence in the Welsh midfield means he can't escape the spotlight
Published 11/03/2011 | 05:00
The 2009 Lions tour caused considerable comment and controversy, but one unforeseen consequence was the trouble it caused with family back home.
And it was all Jamie Roberts' fault. The Cardiff centre, then 22, had a profound impact on that expedition to South Africa, winning over team-mates, management, media and supporters with his powerful play and self-effacing manner.
When you threw in the fact that he was a medical student, a fluent Welsh speaker, talented guitarist and an anti-smoking campaigner, it added up to the pretty complete package or, as it was put in the Irish Independent at the time, "you'd throw your sister at him".
That might not have gone down too well in (happily married) sibling circles but Roberts' CV makes for pretty impressive reading, by any standards. After winning the Lions Man of the Series award, Roberts returned from the tour and kept up his 'Johnny Perfect' routine. He played on for 10 minutes with a fractured skull as Wales defeated Australia and was the star turn in the Barbarians' victory over the All Blacks.
Although born in Newport, Roberts grew up in Cardiff and is intensely proud of his roots and of representing the area by playing for the Blues.
While understanding the professional prerogative behind the switch to the Cardiff City soccer stadium, Roberts has a special fondness for Cardiff's traditional Arms Park home.
With less than two years to go on his medical degree, he enjoys his rounded lifestyle and, although one of the most recognisable faces in this rugby-mad city, he accepts the attention with a mixture of gratitude and modesty.
"It's a really enjoyable lifestyle and I wouldn't change it for the world. It makes you feel that you've achieved something when people ask you for your autograph or photo, and you acknowledge it because these are the people who make you what you are when it comes to professional sport. I love that part of the job.
"Negative things? It can get quite frustrating when you're out trying to have a good time with a group of friends and some people will approach you and want to talk about rugby all night when you just want to switch off from it. It's not about being arsey about it -- but sometimes it's about telling people where to go... but in a polite way."
On the pitch, Roberts' impact in 2010 was less compelling than the previous year, not helped by Cardiff failing to kick on from what looked like a launch-pad Heineken Cup semi-final season in 2009, while injury came into the equation also, a wrist problem ruling him out of the November Series.
However, the 24-year-old has looked back to his barnstorming best in this Six Nations. He was one of Wales' better performers in their opening defeat to the English and the rallying figure when they bounced back at Murrayfield. When Wales struggled in Rome, Roberts was once again the pick of the bunch, along with Sam Warburton.
And so to Ireland. Warren Gatland has returned to the Jonathan Davies-Roberts midfield that thrived against the Scots, with James Hook back at out-half. To traditionalists, Roberts would seem to be the ideal inside-centre, as he was on the Lions tour in tandem with Brian O'Driscoll, rather than a natural No 13.
However, the modern way (see panel) is to have two big, bruising centres to get their team consistently over the gain-line, and the Welsh pair would have been forwards in a different era.
It helps when there are ball skills to complement the bulk and Roberts, in particular, has worked hard on the one-handed off-load. His opposite number tomorrow thrived playing off Roberts' shoulder in the first two Tests for the Lions and O'Driscoll is in no doubt of the threat posed by Roberts.
"He is a talented footballer," said O'Driscoll this week. "A great ball carrier, big hard physical guy and he uses his size really well. He's the sort of guy who accelerates into tackles and knows what his power possesses. He's definitely a player of a very good calibre and getting better with the more Test matches he plays; he's a big threat."
Size is the constant in any discussion about Roberts, and Hook has made no secret of the fact that Wales will use the power of their centres to target Ireland out-half Ronan O'Gara as well as O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy outside. However, Roberts does not put his progression up the rugby ladder down to his 6'4", 17st frame.
"No, it's mindset," said Roberts. "The way you come across as a person is very important and rugby is a team game: morals still have a huge part to play. A lot of people think they're bigger and better than everyone else. They aren't humble, they aren't respectful.
"You usually find they're the ones who don't make it."