Roberts takes his medicine on route to recovery
Wales' defensive nous gives Jamie Roberts grounds for hope, writes Brendan Fanning
J amie Roberts, still recovering in midweek from the battering his body had taken in Rome, was comparing the race between Ireland and Wales to the top of the penalty charts.
"It'll make things interesting for next week then, won't it?" he says. And then sighs. As in Ireland, the inability to stay clear of the referee is dominating the analysis work in the Wales camp ahead of Saturday.
"Because we've been giving away soft penalties, we've been allowing teams to get set-pieces in our 22, or at least in our half. All on the back of our silly penalties. It's all well and good going in and competing for the ball but a lot of the time the decisions are going against us. Back row forwards and centres especially are encouraged to compete on the ball but sometimes the ref's got to make a call and we're giving them away unforced.
"So instead of making teams be creative we're giving them platforms to attack us in our own 22 off our mistakes. It's hugely frustrating and something we're trying to fix. I don't think there's any one trend with the penalties we're conceding -- we've just got to trust our defence a bit more because it's very good at the moment."
In Rome last weekend, they reckon they made 160 tackles (142 is the independent stat), of which their last line of defence only had to make three. So they're doing something right?
"Yeah, and we only had five missed tackles on top of that lot," he says. "Our tackle completion rate is well up (96 per cent). The frustrating thing is that the tries we're conceding are off the back of our mistakes. The defence itself is actually pretty solid and hopefully will be the same against Ireland next weekend."
Despite all that, Roberts feels they've turned things around. A few weeks ago he went to Murrayfield feeling a massive weight on himself and the team. If they had bombed as a group against England then it was his ignition issues that came in for lots of attention that night. Great expectations attend Jamie.
"When you come off the international rugby pitch having touched the ball five times, it is very frustrating individually and you question why. Obviously some of that was down to me and looking to get involved in the game. But, then again, as a backline we didn't have one starting play off lineout and scrum. It was just one of those games that sometimes passes you by."
Before the first quarter was over in Edinburgh, however, he had re-established himself as their go-to man in midfield. Lots of ball, plenty of yardage. He says it was like having a pressure valve released.
"There was a lot of it going into that from the press and the public because we'd lost eight on the bounce. The press were really making a point of that and it did create a lot of pressure on us especially after losing the first game to England."
Roll on to Rome and again he was direct and physical in an environment where those traits count for a lot. It helps that he is fit at last.
Roberts missed six months last year after a wrist operation for an injury that started, incredibly, back in the second Test with the Lions in Pretoria in 2009, a tour on which he was man of the series. On and on the injury dragged. He only got back on the field in December.
"I'm pretty good actually now -- nice and strong. Definitely a lot better than when I was playing through that. It's nice not to be in absolute agony when I get knocks on it. And I was in absolute agony with it because it took a long time to get diagnosed and I was playing on. So it's good to have it back working again especially when it's a part of your body that takes quite a lot of knocks during a game."
This is Roberts' third season of Test rugby and the crossroads is coming in two years. His Cardiff Blues contract is up then, and already he is open to the idea of playing abroad. It's a Lions year too and he's very keen to make that trip to Australia. And of course his medical degree will be complete by then.
"I've broken the back of it at this stage and it's helped keep me sane, to keep some balance in my life," he says. "Medicine keeps me fresh. Working on the wards is a different type of banter and you're meeting different types of people. Different experiences."
It seems inevitable he will get the hell out of Cardiff in 2013. A native Welsh speaker and hugely proud of his roots, Roberts has been quoted often about swimming in the goldfish bowl of the Welsh capital without colliding with something. Or having something collide with you. Two weeks ago, he got a cut lip for his trouble outside a Cardiff nightclub. Another man was arrested and investigations are ongoing.
On the scale of things it's at the lower end given the battle to regain respectability on the field, where Wales's record had gone down the pan.
"We've taken a lot of mental strength just from coming through that bad run of results and getting a couple of wins now," he says. "And what was good to see after the game in Italy was that everyone knew we didn't play as well as we'd like to. In a World Cup year -- a year which is so important to everyone in Welsh rugby and I suppose everyone in general -- we've set high standards and we need to start reaching those standards. We know the way we can play and that we can cause a lot more problems for teams than we are causing at present. We just want to make that click on the pitch. Hopefully on Saturday."
Jamie Roberts is an Under Armour ambassador. Under Armour is the official technical partner to the WRU and an official partner of IRUPA and the Dublin senior football team. Under Armour products are available from select sports stores throughout the country including Arnotts, Elverys Sports and Lifestyle Sports.
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