Bristol v Cardiff: Medicine man Roberts has the muscle to help Welsh back to health

Blues doctor-to-be evokes comparisons with JPR Williams
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The Independent Online

Wales have been looking for a new JPR Williams almost since the year dot, and though Cardiff Blues' wait to get beyond the pool stage of the Heineken Cup dates only from their formation in 2003, it hangs precariously on this afternoon's match away to Bristol. Could the answer to both prayers exist in the substantial form of the Blues' full-back, Jamie Roberts? He already has Wales's new head coach, Warren Gatland, on his side.

That much was clear last Monday when Gatland named his 28-man squad for the Six Nations' Championship. The New Zealander left out the long-serving Kevin Morgan and Gareth Thomas, and instead of Llanelli Scarlets' promising Morgan Stoddart he chose Roberts to go alongside the Ospreys' Lee Byrne in the full-back bracket.

The rugby public outside Wales might understandably be saying "Jamie who?" about the only uncapped member of Gatland's squad. Or, possibly, Doctor Who, as the Cardiff born and bred 21-year-old is a third-year medical student, with plans to follow his idol, the great battering ram and lordly runner JPR, into medicine full-time and, specifically, into orthopaedics.

Those plans, it should quicklybe added, changed radically last Monday. "My world's turned upside down," said Roberts. "I will have to restructure my medical studies, but it is all for the good. There is no choice now, rugby will take precedence."

Eight weeks of training and matches with Wales – if that is what Gatland has in mind for him – would certainly disrupt Roberts's hectic timetable. In his first "professional" season with the Blues after playing for Cardiff in the semi-pro Premiership, he has been training each morning before donning his white doctor's coat on afternoon rounds at hospitals throughout South Wales; Roberts's current placement at the Heath and the next one at the Royal Gwent may have to go on hold. So too the 10 or 11 exams due in April.

"Felipe Contepomi of Argen-tina has qualified as a doctor, but it's taken him 10 years at universities who support part-time learning," said Roberts. "The University [of Wales in Cardiff] have been very supportive, with consultants giving me time off to train. But it is a strain mentally,and it would be pointless to do either rugby or medicine if I wasn't totally focused. There is the chance you could fail at both."

JPR Williams made two similar decisions during rugby's amateur era: he picked rugby and medicine over professionaltennis in 1968, then medicine over rugby when he pulled out of the Lions' tour of New Zealand in 1977. He always maintained, however, that he could never have played professional rugby and been a doctor: until recently,as an orthopaedic consultant at Bridgend's Princess of Wales hospital. Jon Webb, England's full-back in the still-amateur 1990s, was also into orthopaedics.

Roberts captained Wales Under-18s and added caps atU-19 and U-21 level within a few months two years ago. He twice missed possible senior call-ups through injury but got his timing right in December with a solid performance at full-back – though he appears today on the wing – against Stade Français, with Gatland watching. Roberts suffered nothing by comparison with Stade's eminent Argentinian Ignacio Corleto.

"The last time I'd seen Corleto was him running riot for Argentina," Roberts recalled. "But you can't sit back and admire these players. You have to get stuck in." And so he did, with another enthralled spectator in Cardiff Blues' backs coach, Rob Howley, who has since taken a similar part-time role with Wales. "Rob likes to watch our games from behind the posts," Roberts said. "You can hear him screaming down instructions sometimes." Squeals of delight, that night, as Blues won 31-21.

If Cardiff Blues win or draw today they will top Pool Three and emulate the old club's last quarter-final appearance, against Gloucester in 2001. As for Wales, if they pitch Roberts in against England there will be more shades of JPR who, two days short of his 21st birthday, scored one of four winning tries at Twickenham in 1970. Roberts may not yet be a doctor at large, but at 6ft 4in and 15st he is a large full-back. Shaun Edwards, Gatland's defence adviser, has been ringing around the heroes of the 1970s, to see if his belief in big hits echoed through the ages.

"We won the 1971 Grand Slam in Paris because we tackled our hearts out as the French threatened to overwhelm us," John Taylor, the former flanker, confirmed. "Even Barry John tackled so hard that he broke his nose." Maybe that's why these rugby-playing doctors find orthopaedics so appealing.