Roberts brings home Lions spirit

After his heroics this summer in South Africa, the Wales inside centre is primed for a repeat performance today, writes James Corrigan
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The Independent Online

Through all the mind games, reverse swipes and subtle putdowns that have characterised a build-up that at the very best could be described as tetchy, the Wales and New Zealand camps have at least managed to agree on one thing. Jamie Roberts will be a key man at the Millennium Stadium this evening - if not the key man.

If the All Blacks can succeed where South Africa failed and stop the inside centre, who at 6ft 5in and 17st is less of a crash-ball and more of a wrecking-ball specialist, then it is hard to imagine anything other than a 21st consecutive New Zealand victory. As Rob Howley admitted yesterday: "Jamie is the focal point of our attack." And although the Wales back coach also spoke of the dangers of relying to heavily on his defence-splitting mayhem, the away team know Jamie will be coming. And coming and coming and coming... All the way, he hopes, into his 23rd birthday tomorrow.

The vision is burnt upon Ma'a Nonu's psyche. "It's my job to stop him," said the opposing No 12. At 16st, Nonu certainly has the wherewithal to play a full and physical part in a battle described by one member of the Welsh backroom staff as being akin to "Nikolai Valuev versus Nikolai Valuev." Like the rest of his team-mates, Nonu has seen all the videos from the summer; how Roberts reduced a supposedly unbreachable Springbok defence into little piles of green and gold; how the Lions proceeded to step through with such regularity that they could, possibly should, have grasped the glory.

As it was, only Roberts could claim to be a winner in the party. "The Player of the Series" award takes pride of place in his Cardiff flat. And so it should, says Warren Gatland. "I am looking forward to seeing Jamie," declared the Wales coach when announcing his team on Monday. "He is probably the only midfielder in world rugby who has done some damage against the South Africans." The warning to New Zealand – a side who have lost three times to the Springboks in 2009 – could not have been clearer. Not that they seemed to need a warning.

From coach to captain, the All Blacks have paid special reference to Roberts. Wayne Smith, the defence coach, labelled him "the danger man", while Richie McCaw, the onfield leader, called him "really, really impressive". "He gives Wales a lot of go-forward and was a major part of why the Lions played as well as they did against the Boks," opined the openside. "Of course, he is someone we will be keeping an eye on."

But will they focus too hard? After extolling Roberts' virtues yesterday and pointing out how remarkable it is that just 12 months ago he had not even established himself as a bona fide No 12, Howley added one almighty "but". "I'm sure the All Blacks are well aware of Jamie, but we are well aware of Nonu's defensive abilities," he said. "That means we have to use Jamie in other ways, have to have variation. Yes, he is the focal point of our attack but we cannot just go to Jamie all the time. Because if you use Jamie too much as a strength he actually can become your weakness as well."

This happened – in victory, it must be said – against England in February. Then Joe Worsley was detailed to man-mark Roberts; a tactic the Welsh never truly got to grips with, as the flanker got to grips with Roberts. Will New Zealand be employing the same strategy? "Erm, no," said Smith, almost with a guffaw. There is respect and there is just plain running scared. One tends not to do the latter after 56 unbeaten years.