Jamie Roberts: 'A fractured skull did sound scary...'

Continuing our series of exclusive interviews with the stars of the year, Jamie Roberts tells James Corrigan about overcoming injury to be named outstanding player of the Lions tour (and Wales' best-looking man)
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The Independent Online

Jamie Roberts started 2009 with his head bound in bandages and finished it being named the sexiest man in Wales. This may sound like yet another triumph for plastic surgery, but in fact this was the year the 23-year-old proved he was for real.

With respect to the "sexiest man" organisers their award does not hold pride of place in the Roberts reflections, although he is quick to say "it probably does to my mother". There is the little matter of a Lions tour to South Africa and the huge matter of a player-of-the-series recognition. "It was a special chapter in my career," says Roberts. "It's up in the bookshelves there somewhere and it's a highlight I shall always cherish."

He confesses, however, to it being rather a strange highlight. After all, the Lions returned as series losers. Many still struggle to marry the heroics of Roberts and others with the tag of defeat, but the protagonist himself is under no such illusions. "It was down to that last-second kick in the second Test," he says, remembering the Morne Steyn penalty. "In fact, it's weird but so much of 2009 was about last-minute kicks. Three of 'em, and they all went against us. That one in Pretoria, the one at the Millennium when Ireland won the Grand Slam, and the one in the penalty shoot-out in the semi-final of the European Cup against Leicester. If they'd gone the other side of the uprights then we would be sitting here talking about a truly fantastic year. But they didn't and..."

His voice tails off as he thinks about the wretched luck of it all. Yet even as he looks back, Roberts is determined not to become ensnared in sentiment. "Someone once told me that the life of a rugby pro is a rollercoaster of emotion and I now know exactly what they mean after this last 12 months. So many highs and lows and they follow each other up so quickly. It's the way rugby is nowadays.

"People might say the modern game has lost something in terms of entertainment, but the other side of the coin is that so many of the big games are decided right at the death.

"It's edge-of-the-seat stuff, and it would be emotionally exhausting if you let it get to you. So you've got to try to stay on an even keel, and that applies after the successes as well as the set-backs. This may sound a bit rich coming from a 23-year-old who's only been playing in the top flight a few years. And, in truth, I do feel the emotion. It's hard not to on that rollercoaster."

It is fair to say that as the midnight chimes hurtled us into the new year of 2009, Roberts had reached the bottom point of the Big Dipper. A month before, he had fractured his skull at the beginning of the Test against Australia and, after famously carrying on for 10 minutes, he eventually obeyed the warning jolts flashing around his cranium. It meant a spell on the sidelines and the doubts inevitably surfaced. "Of course they did," he recalls. "They do any time you have an injury. And a fractured skull does sound quite scary. But I just had faith in my doctors and in the end I was only out six weeks."

It doubtless helped that Roberts is studying to become a doctor and knows a thing or two about the body's recovery powers. Those rugby-loving folk at the University of Wales have allowed their most popular student to split his fourth year over two years. That still means afternoons and evenings crouched over the books while his team-mates are flat out on the sofa, but Roberts would not have it any other way. "Yeah, I get tired a lot," he says. "But I actually think it's beneficial. It helps me turn off and gives me some balance."

Balance is not something Roberts is noticeably short of when ball is in hand. That became painfully evident to anyone in a kilt in Murrayfield in February. It was the day when Warren Gatland's promise of a world-class inside centre manifested itself in brilliant red. "It was the first game probably where I really stood out," recalls Roberts. "It's about taking your opportunity and doing it for the team."

So blatantly did the bullocking 17-stoner stand out that England arrived in Cardiff with Roberts at the centre of their gameplan to limit the damage. "There was a lot said about [the flanker] Joe Worsley being detailed to man-mark me, but I took it as a compliment," he says. "I mean, if an international team is prepared to change their defensive system because of you how else are you going to take it? As it was, we won that match comfortably enough."

Wales were two for two and seemingly on their way to a second straight Grand Slam. But then came their first Six Nations defeat in two years in Paris, and then came agony against Ireland, as Stephen Jones's last-second penalty hung in the air before falling a yard short. From going forth, Wales had somehow finished fourth and Roberts, dropped from the Championship showdown, was forced to rely on all of his natural pragmatism. "It did hurt, as did the European Cup exit with the Blues," he says. "But we had the EDF Energy Cup to celebrate and I did keep telling myself 'you're young – there's plenty of time'. And there was the Lions tour to hope for."

Hoping was all Roberts did – despite everyone saying he was a certainty. "I'll never forget the moment I heard I was going," he recalls. "I was by Penarth Pier in a mate's car when it came on the radio. There were nerves, there were bound to be, but then as the tour wound on I just decided to play with a smile on my face. I thought I'm still pretty inexperienced and unknown, nobody is expecting too much from me, just enjoy it. So from there I just stuck to what I always did, to my usual pre-match routine – a blast of Verve on the iPod, a can of Red Bull and then, bang, out there."

History and a few Springbok ribcages now show that it was Roberts doing most of the bangs. The player alongside him in that Lions midfield only accentuated the startling quality of the upstart. "People asked me what I learnt playing next to Brian O'Driscoll, but in all honesty I'm probably only realising that now," admits Roberts. "I definitely learnt more than I thought at the time. The way he communicates on the pitch, the way he handles himself , and of course the way he plays. I've said it before and I'll keep on saying it – it was a privilege."

As it was, the experts decided the privilege was primarily O'Driscoll's as Roberts repeatedly crashed through, affording the great Irishman the space his genius craves. It was a winning combination on everything but the scoreboard and when the party returned the focus fell squarely on Roberts. Here was the new force of world rugby; dare to stand in his path.

Except it hasn't yet turned out that way. As the Blues have spluttered and Wales have stuttered, a question mark has appeared above the Roberts engine. Have the defences worked him out, is he a one-trick pony, does Welsh rugby possess the foil this rapier needs? Roberts has heard the mutterings and characteristically accepts their predictability without rancour. "You become a Lion and people expect you to stand out in every game," he reasons. "If you don't, they talk about dips in form. Yet, as a professional you can't get caught up in all that."

Still, Roberts does recognise his standing is radically different to a year ago – both as a player and as a student about town. With the reluctant enigma that is Gavin Henson rapidly becoming a memory, Roberts has become the Valleys heart-throb, filling the role effortlessly with his 6ft 5in frame and his chiselled jaw-line. A few weeks ago he was selected above Hollywood actors, pop-world superstars and the odd Premier League icon as Wales's sexiest man. In the merciless environs of the rugby club, that is an invitation to bait rather than to congratulate.

"You could say I've had some stick in the Blues dressing room, yeah," says Roberts. "I'm sure it's just jealousy though. I know that Gethin Jenkins was particularly upset he didn't win." With that Roberts throws back his head and laughs at his own joke. He has every right to. Jenkins' nickname happens to be "Melon Head".

Keep up to date with Jamie Roberts' season on www.redbull.co.uk

Centre stage: A year to remember

*February

Man-of-the-match display in Wales's opening Six Nations defeat in Scotland. Man-marked by Joe Worsley against England, but Wales prevail, before defeat in Paris.

*March

Dropped for Six Nations decider against Ireland. On as a replacement when O'Gara kicks winning drop-goal.

*April

In Blues side which wins first silverware as a region with 50-12 EDF Energy Cup drubbing of Gloucester. Selected for British Lions tour to South Africa.

*May

Scores one try and makes another as Blues' comeback takes Leicester into extra-time of Heineken Cup semi-final. Agony, however, as Tigers go through after penalty shootout.

*June/July

Named as Lions "player of the series" despite not appearing in the third Test – the only Test the tourists won.

*November

Plays in all four of Wales's autumn Tests, narrowly losing to New Zealand, beating Samoa and Argentina before humiliating loss to Australia.

*December

Back to his best when playing for Barbarians in their victory against All Blacks at Twickenham. Named "sexiest man in Wales".

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