Sport Rugby

Saturday 16 December 2017

Lions exploits have made Roberts the centre of attention

Wales' midfield hitman Jamie Roberts is now a marked man after just three seasons as a professional player, writes Brendan Fanning

I f you have already heard the story about Jamie Roberts and the Springbok's testicle then skip a few paragraphs. And if you haven't then you may wish to look away in any case.

It was on the Lions tour last summer, a coming of age experience for the young Cardiff centre in more ways than one. Part of the South African adventure involved a trip to the farm of Ollie le Roux, the former Leinster prop, for a spot of nocturnal gunplay. They went hunting springbok.

Seemingly the tradition is that the first time you bag one of these creatures you slit its throat and rub the warm blood on your face. Very tribal. Better still, if it's a female you gut it and take a chunk of its liver. And if it's a male? Why you chow down on one of its testicles! Which Roberts, dead eye dick with a rifle in his hands, duly did. So is it a true story? "It is, yeah," he says. "It was funny -- and the most disgusting thing I've done. But a great experience. It tasted like Calamari. It was quite big actually -- Ferrero Rocher size. And I managed to swallow it all. I was very happy with myself."

And why not? It's not every day you get to try new and interesting things.

The Lions experience was terrific for Roberts who went out there with exactly the right attitude and came back a better player and a bigger name. Hard to credit that this is just his third season as a professional rugby player. He is 23.

It's hard to credit too that at 6' 4" and not far off 17st he doesn't look out of place at inside centre. Rugby's lurch towards the large has been so dramatic that in the two years since he made his debut for Wales, on the wing, the field has been littered with enough XXXLs for him no longer to be novel.

It's a trend that fascinates him for he took a break from his medical degree last year to complete a BSc in Sports and Exercise Science. Now he's back at the medical books part time. "I think the Southern Hemisphere got a jump on us in that area, but in the last five years you've seen the changes in the size of players and in international rugby in the Northern Hemisphere we have them now. Across the park training has developed and science has improved -- well not improved but people are more aware of techniques in the gym for getting bigger.

"It definitely shows on the pitch. And because of that you've got more injuries as well. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of years. It all fits in with law changes as well and what physiques the coaches want their players to be. And a lot of it is influenced by the style you want to play. But there's a fine balance now between getting bigger and stronger in the gym and injury prevention -- you've got the two ends of the scale there."

Roberts has been at the traumatic end of the game's collisions. He suffered a hairline fracture of the skull in his first season after a gigantic collision with Australia's Stirling Mortlock. "It sounds like a coconut dropping on the floor and cracking but it wasn't that bad," he says. "Don't get me wrong it was a hell of a collision but it was a hairline fracture above my right eye. Really scary but it wasn't as if my head cracked in two."

That was in autumn 2008, nine months after getting just one game in his debut Six nations campaign. Since Wales' tour to South Africa that summer however he has been a fixture, when fit. Full-back in the first Test on that trip, he was moved to midfield for the second and gave Warren Gatland the physical presence he had been looking for.

And when Roberts went back to South Africa with the Lions last summer, he was excellent. He quickly built up a perfectly balanced partnership with Brian O'Driscoll. Injury deprived the pair of them of being part of a winning Test side in Johannesburg but it was remarkable how two players who didn't know each other could find a rhythm so fast.

"It was a great experience for me and I hope it was for Brian as well. I was a young guy in the squad and there were a couple of us youngsters and I just didn't feel under that much pressure. I was out there to prove a point for the younger guys and ruffle a few feathers amongst the more experienced players and just have a laugh. I'm hugely looking forward now to playing against Brian (O'Driscoll) in Croke Park. Players of my generation and younger guys coming through look on him as an inspiration -- a world-class player. It'll be a real challenge: himself and (Gordon) D'Arcy are a really potent combination."

And if Wales can stop throwing intercept passes, maybe it's a challenge they can overcome?

"We just need to make sure we're clever there. I think there's always room in the game for smart offloads and smart passes and if you throw a long one and score under the sticks it's a great pass, and if it's intercepted, it's a shocking pass. It's a fine line and we need to make sure we're scanning and communicating effectively. We need to be on the money in that respect and box clever a bit more. It's not always the fault of the guy who throws the intercept pass and I had my part to play in James Hook's intercept against France last week.

"We're under no illusions about Croke Park with Ireland playing for a Triple Crown. But we'll look back to the game there two years ago when the boys won and hopefully that will inspire us to another victory."

It will be his first game there. You'd wonder what rituals the Welsh boys have for marking occasions like that.

Sunday Independent

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