Jamie Roberts is much more than a brilliant centre who has achieved so much for Wales and the Lions.
Jamie has somehow combined qualifying as a doctor and pursuing postgraduate studies at Cambridge University while playing club rugby in France and England as well as Wales.
He’s still putting in the hard yards with the Dragons in Newport and I was delighted to hook up with him this week to chew over Wales v England and much, much more…
Jamie Roberts knows first-hand what a victory over arch rivals England means for Welsh rugby
The Welsh centre spoke to Sportsmail’s Sir Clive Woodward ahead of the Six Nations clash
Clive Woodward: Thanks so much for making the time, Jamie. I understand you are suddenly very busy with a week-old baby to look after. Congratulations on that and I trust all is well with mother and baby. Life is about to change dramatically!
Jamie Roberts: Indeed! I have a new-found respect for rugby-playing dads. I’ve had almost no sleep in the last week and I’m sitting in the car park at Dragons talking to you ahead of my first session of any kind for a week. It’s going to hurt big time! But let’s get stuck into Wales v England, Clive. I’ve been looking forward to this, it will take my mind off the pain ahead this morning!
CW: Let’s do that. It’s a great rivalry, but what makes it special? You played in 13 Wales v England games. Five wins, eight losses. You know everything there is to know about these encounters.
Roberts, 34, played 13 games against England in his nine-year career, winning five times
JR: What makes it special? In many ways it’s a hat-tip to England because I suspect Scottish, Irish and French players will also tell you their games against England feel special. England, with their player base and resources, are always strong. It’s never just another game.
It goes back to grassroots rugby. Everybody would crowd around the TV in the clubhouse or pub or families would get together to watch the England match. It’s the game the nation most wants to win — and when you play in these games you are conscious of the support all around the country.
CW: Every Wales-England game is an event. As a player I appeared in four — won two, lost two — but as a coach I was fortunate enough to win eight of nine. The one I remember, however, is Scott Gibbs and the Grand Slam defeat at Wembley in 1999. I’m still not over it! The other one is the 2003 World Cup quarter-final in Brisbane when Wales gave us a nasty shock with a brilliant first-half display. Which are the ones you particularly remember and why?
JR: You will understand if I mainly recall the wins! But as you say I’ve had my share of defeats. Victories over England are the games that stay with you emotionally. They are the greatest days of your life.
The game in 2009 was an early eye-opener. England had brought back Joe Worsley to try to nullify my ball-carrying. He stood in that 10-12 channel, lined me up three or four times and absolutely melted me with some of his hits.
The 2009 clash in Cardiff was an ‘early eye-opener’ over the quality at international level
Joe was a superb tackler, low and hard like our Dan Lydiate, and I couldn’t get out of the car the next day after I drove home. I reached out and put my arm on the roof and sort of levered myself out. I’ve never been that sore after a game since. We won but I didn’t exactly feel like a winner the next day.
CW: I can imagine, Joe was a tackling machine…
JR: Clive, sorry to butt in, I need to break off for a minute. The swab man is coming round for my Covid test. Let me roll the window down. Hang on, damn, it’s the one they put up your nose. It brings tears to your eyes. Still, got to be done.
CW: These are the times we live in.
JR: Right, good to go again. Where were we? Memorable England games. There was also the 2013 match with England gunning for a Grand Slam. We had trained terribly all week. We were on edge and clumsy, couldn’t catch a thing, but the moment I woke up and walked down to breakfast I just felt different. It was Wales v England day. Then came the anthems. There seemed a load of English in the stadium and it was a really good rendition of God Save the Queen. Just for a minute, I felt anxious again. Then the Welsh crowd struck up with the best and loudest version of Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau I’ve ever experienced. It was extraordinary.
Wales’ win over England at Twickenham in the 2015 World Cup will live long in the memory
CW: I was on the touchline 10 yards away doing TV and the Welsh anthem blew me away. Until then I’d always played down the importance of a crowd. To my mind you had to dismiss those factors if you are looking to win on the road. To me ‘home advantage’ was the way a crowd could influence a ref with 50-50 calls but that day was the exception. You could see you Welsh players grow a foot taller just as you could see some English players were a little intimidated. From that moment, there was only one result. Any more?
JR: Sorry, but I’ve got to mention the World Cup match at Twickenham in 2015. England had picked Sam Burgess at centre and it was obvious there were going to be some collisions in midfield.
There was a lot of hype and I was nervous, but a small bit of me also welcomed the selection. Sam was a great league player but he was very inexperienced at union. There could be chances to exploit that.
In the end we produced a top performance. Beating England at Twickenham in the World Cup, yes, you remember days like that!
Roberts has been impressed with the way Wales have begun this year’s Six Nations campaign
The centre has been impressed with Wales’ resolve to close out wins in two tight clashes so far
CW: Don’t get me started! It was a poor selection. Sam was way too inexperienced in union. It was muddled thinking and cost England. Wales were excellent, they saw England faltering in the second half and were ruthless.
Selection is so important. Which brings us around to this week, Jamie. What are your thoughts? It feels like a crucial game. Wales could put even more momentum into their campaign, England need to get back in the title hunt. Round three is so often pivotal.
JR: Look, Wales haven’t played brilliantly but have two wins and that starts building momentum. Wales are always dangerous when we get on a roll but the players will know the team need to go up a level. There is room for improvement but that’s very encouraging.
What’s been impressive is sticking in there for 60 minutes and nailing the last 15 to clinch two wins. England start favourites but not by much. My concern for Wales is the lack of crowd. Away wins seem more common in Covid.
CW: What’s your take on the England midfield?
Roberts says England need to decide on how they want to play from midfield going forwards
JR: England should decide how they want to play and work back from there. In European conditions — colder, wetter and muddier — most sides look to a strong ball-carrier at 12 and work off him, a Manu Tuilagi.
So, do England stick with that or try to make more use of their promising, skilful backs coming through? Will the traditional style be good enough against New Zealand and South Africa at the next World Cup? The selection of Ollie Lawrence at 12 suggested they were sticking to the tried and tested, but then they didn’t really involve him enough.
So now we are waiting to see which direction England go.
CW: Changing tack a little, Jamie, you enjoyed time with Racing in the Top 14. I wish more of our top players in Britain and Ireland were given that opportunity.
There seems a depth of feeling against it from the unions but that is short-termism. Ultimately, producing the very best players that are eligible for your country is surely what it is all about?
The 34-year-old reaped the rewards from moving abroad when he played for Racing at 26
Josh Adams (L) and Louis Rees-Zammit (R) have benefitted from leaving their clubs in Wales
JR: Clive, I’ve got to tell you it’s the best thing I did in my career. The time was right, I was 26, I had just graduated with my medicine degree and Racing were a side who just wanted to play rugby every time we laced up.
I was living in central Paris, the French boys were great and at various times there was a nice nucleus of familiar faces from back home — Dan Lydiate, Luke Charteris, Mike Phillips and Jonny Sexton from Ireland. It was a golden time and as a player it increased my rugby IQ massively.
CW: Jonny Wilkinson, despite being a World Cup winner in 2003 and a World Cup finalist in 2007, played the best rugby of his career right at the end during his spell with Toulon. He improved his skills and expressed himself more, achieved a fantastic fitness level. He was just a better player.
JR: He was a better person as well, Clive. I know I was after my spell in France. That’s what experiencing other rugby cultures and other countries does. It is one of the greatest things that rugby has to offer personally and professionally. We shouldn’t close down those avenues.
CW: I would love to see England players in the Top 14 or playing in Wales or the Pro 14. Flip it round. You have a brilliant Welsh youngster, Louis Rees-Zammit, learning his trade with Hartpury in England and then Gloucester in the Premiership. It has accelerated his development. Would he even be playing Tests yet if he had stayed in Wales?
Josh Adams only started to fulfil his potential when he was released by Scarlets and joined Worcester, where he quickly kicked on and the rugby world saw what an exceptional talent he was.
How are we doing for time, I’d hate you to get into trouble with Dean Ryan!
Roberts is torn over plans for this summer’s scheduled Lions series against South Africa
The Welshman is wary of the financial ramifications of abandoning the series this summer
JR: We are fine for a few minutes, fire away!
CW: The Lions. You are a great Lion of two tours in 2009 and 2013. What do you make of the 2021 tour of South Africa and the chance it is played here in the summer?
JR: I’m torn. The Lions is totally about that unique touring experience with British and Irish players in one of the great southern hemisphere nations. A bit of me thinks there should be an asterisk by 2021 (*tour cancelled because of Covid) and the Lions pick up again in 2025 in Australia.
But there are huge financial considerations and there is also the fact that for some, 2021 is their Lions year, they are in peak form. It’s difficult. What do you think?
CW: It’s a dilemma. My gut instinct is that eight years is a long time between meals. The Lions have to fight their corner with the clubs and the unions who don’t always make life easy for them.
Moreover, some players will have no better chance to represent the Lions than this year
It feels like this series needs to take place somewhere, somehow. On the Lions, I was watching some of the 2009 tour during lockdown. You said the second Test in Pretoria was the hardest game you ever played in.
JR: It was brutal. Magnificent, but brutal. We didn’t speak in the dressing room for 15 minutes, we were so wiped out, and I was one of five Lions who then headed off to the hospital for treatment.
Test rugby is always intense and physical but that was another level. There was so much at stake, the series, and there we were in the Afrikaner stronghold at Loftus. The home crowd were animated, the Lions fans were loud, both teams supercharged. Awesome game of rugby.
CW: Rugby is, as you say, incredibly physical and that is causing debate around concussions and protecting the head. With your medical degree what is your opinion?
JR: Although I have the qualifications, I’m still a player, not a practising doctor with week-on-week, hands-on expertise. I sit on a committee of players whose views are sought, though, and I have a couple of thoughts.
Roberts says that contact training is necessary in replicating real game situations for players
Warren Gatland ran intense 10-minute full contact training which helped players mentally
Firstly, training. It’s been suggested that contact training is part of the issue with accumulation of knocks to the head, but equally you must prepare in some realistic way for what you are going to encounter. It would be dangerous not to. Under Warren Gatland with Wales there was always a ten-minute eyeballs-out full contact session every Tuesday. You had to prepare yourself mentally for that session but that helped prepare you for the game.
CW: We did the same every Tuesday at Pennyhill. Phil Larder ran the hit out — six minutes it lasted. He insisted that we had to test our defensive systems in realistic conditions. Of course, the likes of Johnno and Lawrence loved it but I stood on the touchline with my stopwatch counting the minutes down and would step in to end it on the buzzer.
This was the one fraught part of the week when a key player could get injured. But the session was vital in our preparation. What about all the red cards recently?
JR: They have been justified. Peter O’Mahony was a straight red, Zander Fagerson a bit more nuanced but I think red as well.
Roberts has no plans to retire and is relishing the opportunity to play in front of crowds again
I applaud the refs for getting to grips at the clearout. The message is that when you are sprinting in from a long way out, you must be textbook in the way you bind on and hit the breakdown, where you make impact and the height.
CW: Finally, what does the future hold for you?
JR: I’m not sure, Clive, but I do know I don’t want my career to end this season. I feel fit — well, I’m a bit bleary-eyed with our new arrival but I’m in good shape and playing well. I’m missing the crowds horribly. I want to experience the thrill, buzz and chemistry again. That’s what it’s all about.
CW: Amen to that. Talking of which, I’d better let you get off to training.
JR: Yep, it’s time. Wish me luck!