Cometh the hour, cometh the man mountain from the land of valleys. Jamie Roberts will play his first Lions Test for four years in Sydney this morning cast as the man to save the series, a “big man and a big personality” who is “tailor-made” for the deciding game of the British & Irish Lions’ attempt to claim a first series success in 16 years.
It was Warren Gatland who gave Roberts his first cap for Wales five years ago and now, for the biggest game of Gatland’s career, the Lions coach has turned again to a player who has become his totem. Roberts will partner his Wales team-mate Jonathan Davies in the centre for this morning’s third Test against Australia and Phil Davies, his coach at Cardiff Blues, believes the return of the 6ft 4in, 17st No 12 can make all the difference for the Lions.
“Jamie is a big man and a big personality,” said Davies. “The situation going into this Test is tailor-made for a guy like Jamie. He is a big-game player, a world-class footballer who understands what needs to be done on the big occasion and he can deliver that, whether with or without the ball.”
Ian McGeechan, Roberts’s Lions coach in 2009, described his return as a “huge boost”, while the Australians admit they will have to double up to stop him.
“He’s a big guy,” said Will Genia, the Wallabies scrum-half and orchestrator. “He brings that direct running game. Because he’s so big, you probably have to double tackle him. We just want to make sure it doesn’t give them momentum in their second phase with a big carry or an offload. We’ll make sure we do our best to stop him.”
It is just three weeks since an anguished Roberts limped out of the Allianz Stadium, across the city from today’s venue, the ANZ Stadium, with a hamstring injury that threatened to end his tour. It was a devastating blow for Gatland. Roberts was man of the series in South Africa in 2009, when the Lions suffered an agonising defeat, while for Wales he has been a pivotal figure when it comes to “Warrenball”. He is Gatland’s defensive captain as well as being an attacking linchpin and his return is a huge and timely fillip.
“Roberts is a player who makes a difference,” said Phil Davies, the former Wales international and part of the side that finished third in the first World Cup in 1987. “Whichever way you look at the game he will make a difference. He is an intelligent defender, makes good decisions in the defensive line and puts the hits in. As a ball carrier he can be subtle but more often than not he is very, very capable of hitting space to get over the gainline, bashing bodies out of the way. He is a very effective player in key parts of the game.
“Jamie understands the way Warren likes to play. Christian Leali’ifano and James O’Connor will certainly know they have been in a game after Jamie has been thundering down that 10/12 channel a few times.”
The Lions failed to make a line break in Melbourne and Roberts is charged with rectifying that and creating openings for the likes of Tommy Bowe and George North to exploit in front of the largest crowd of the tour. Some 83,000 will be shoe-horned into the stadium, with up to 30,000 clad in the red of the visiting team – nearly four times the official Lions ticket allocation.
A successful return for Roberts would cap a remarkable 2013 for the 26-year-old, who is moving to Paris to join Racing Métro next season. He missed last summer’s tour of Australia, in which Wales lost all three games, but returned to form during a Six Nations campaign that saw him juggle rugby with his medical finals. It culminated with his outstanding display in the decider in England, days after he qualified as a doctor.
“He has a great view of life,” said Davies. “He has had a very eventful season and it comes to a massive crescendo this weekend. If the Lions win he will look back at a fantastic year. He has a huge drive to succeed but he also wants people around him to succeed as well, which is a great quality.”