Roberts keen to join ranks of red dragons in white coats

Being either a professional sportsman or a medical student would be enough for most. James Corrigan meets the Welshman who is striving to shine at both
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The Independent Online

Sure, when the story emerged that Jamie Roberts planned to combine a full-time international career with that of studying to become a doctor everyone happily went along with it, if only to evoke the memory of Dr John Peter Rhys Williams, but very few truly believed it was possible. Probably not even JPR himself.

Indeed, when the surgeon who spent his time on the rugby field seemingly keeping his orthopaedic colleagues in gainful employment, was told that his young successor was planning on sitting his exams just three weeks after he returned from a summer tour with Wales, those legendary sideburns almost joined in with the eyebrows in raising themselves off his scalp. "Remarkable, remarkable," spluttered JPR.

If rugby folk think a Test series in South Africa is a challenge, then they should try passing those in the third year of a medical degree. There are 10 in all and they are the ones that traditionally sort the doctors out from the nurses.

Well, Roberts has news for all his doubters, if not for JPR who is inevitably one of his all-time heroes. "I did alright as it happens," he said, sitting in coffee shop not 200 yards from the Millennium Stadium. "Got a couple of merits. Yeah, they went well. I must admit it was tough going, though."

How is this for tough going? There he was in Springboks territory, getting, as his medical dictionary would describe it, a good kicking up the alimentary canal along with the rest of the Wales tourists; but when the evening came and his team-mates would hit the pillows, Roberts would hit the books.

He did have the help of the team doctor at hand – another John Williams as it happens – but even so. Never mind the Tour from Hell this was the Tour from Hell, and the Exams from Hell all rolled into one. It wasn't a merit he deserved so much as an award for long service.

The Cardiffian came through it, though, and in the process the 6ft 4in giant was one of the few Welshmen to emerge from the two tests with his reputation enhanced.

Looking back Roberts is rather coy about talking up what to anyone is a mind-boggling achievement. "It actually helped me to switch off from the rugby," he said.

"I've always found my studies beneficial to my game. And anyway I was fairly used to juggling it all after the season before."

His first season as a professional had, as he admitted, been "nuts, completely nuts". Roberts had not only made the leap from the semi-pro league to earning a starting place with the Blues, but also won his first cap in a Wales side on their way to a Grand Slam.

His life changed there and then from being packed to overloaded and those close to him inevitably feared it would be too much. His parents had even sat him down at 18 and warned him of the caught-between-stools ruination that may lie ahead. By then it was clear he had the talent to make it in rugby and the brains to make it in medicine. What was not evident was that he had the stubbornness to make it in both.

"They were concerned and told me 'look, you're going to have to choose'," he recalled. "But I just said that I would have a go at both and see how it went. I didn't want the regret of one day thinking I could have played for Wales or the regret of one day thinking I could have been a doctor. Maybe there would have to be a choice down the line, but I wanted to give it a crack. I still believe doing both is feasible."

Feasible, perhaps. But advisable? Surely not. Unsurprisingly, Roberts does not it see this way. "I'd recommend it to any young player who wants to do it, I really would," he said. "Yeah, last season was really tough, particularly as in the third year you're in the hospital a lot of the time. It was a case of train in the morning, take my boots off, get washed and straight to the hospital. And yes, I'd be pretty knackered in the evening. But to be honest I found it sort of refreshing. Like I said, it was the ultimate switch-off. A total contrast."

Yet there were times when the Saturday job would interfere with the day-and-night job. "There were a few embarrassing moments, mainly when I was following a consultant around the wards and keeping quiet in the background watching and learning from what he was doing and only speaking when spoken to," said Roberts. "But then a few times the patients would recognise me and say 'aren't you Jamie Roberts who plays for Wales?' Like I say, pretty embarrassing, but the consultants and University were really good about it, really understanding."

As were the important people with clipboards in his other trade. Dai Young, the Blues coach, was initially reticent about handing a full-time contract to a player with an overtime occupation to study for, but just like Roberts's parents, Young has been won around.

Roberts has two years of his degree remaining and after that is toying with spreading over four years to complete what would usually take two to qualify as a doctor – "if the NHS will allow it" – but he appears to have the attitude and the will to last the course. He readily turns what a normal lad of his age would see as a negative into an overwhelming positive.

"You know there's a lot of emotion for a young player trying to make it in professional rugby," he explained. "One minute you're in the team, the next minute you're on the bench and it's hard not to spend all your time fretting about it." Roberts had been dropped for Tom Shanklin for two high-profile Heineken Cup games. "It does hurt, no matter you say," he said. "Ok, you appreciate why the coach has done it, listen to him and do your hardest in training. But deep down you can't help but think 'why have I been dropped, what am I doing wrong?' There's a lot of downtime for a rugby professional and a lot of time to think about such things. When that happens I can just go and stick my head in the books. It works for me."

But not everything was working about the student life. He has moved out of digs with his college mates and one of the reasons might have been the temptation of all those nights out. While he claims to still possess a social life it is hard to see when and where he manages to fit one in.

Not only is he an ambassador for Red Bull the energy drink which arranged this interview ("I honestly do have a can before a game – it's part of my build-up") but is also the patron of ASH Wales, the anti-smoking pressure group. The responsibilities are lining up and Saturday will see them lining up in front of him in the imposing figures of Jean de Villiers and Adrian Jacobs.

They are the South African centres Roberts and his midfield partner, one Gavin Henson, will be entrusted in halting in the rematch between the Six Nations champions and world champions.

It is Roberts' fourth test and rather unusually for an international career which could already claim to be out of the norm, it will be his fourth position in as many starts.

The coach, Warren Gatland, has made no secret of his admiration for this most modernly-shaped of backs and vowed to find him a place in his three-quarter line. He is obviously still looking, as he tries him at 13 after outings at wing, full-back and then inside centre.

Roberts is not bothered. He claims not to know his most suitable position himself, but does want one thing let known. "I'm not as slow as I look," he laughed. "It's just that my shoulders are so big."

All he knows is that he is playing for Wales on his 22nd birthday and life does not get much better than that. "Perhaps at 25 or 26, I may just have to settle on one position to get the most out of my career," he said.

By then he could have his degree and who knows, be well on the way to a white coat. "I'm not thinking about the future too much," he said. Wise man. He has far too much going on in the present for any of that.

Bone crunchers: Rare breed at home in the scrum and the surgery

JPR Williams

Switched from tennis to the amateur game of rugby so he could become a doctor. Was propelled into the Wales team when a student. Went on to become an orthopaedic surgeon and won 55 caps for Wales, eight for the Lions and was one of the game's greatest full-backs.

Gwyn Jones

Professional rugby player and a medic who captained Wales in the mid 1990s. Disaster struck in a club game for Cardiff in 1997 when the open side flanker suffered a spinal injury. Feared paralysed, he regained the ability to walk and returned to his studies. Qualified as an A&E doctor in Cardiff.

Jack Matthews

Formed one of the great midfield partnerships for Wales and the Lions in the Fifties with Bleddyn Williams. Matthews played 17 Tests for Wales and six for the British and Irish Lions on their 1950 tour of New Zealand and Australia. He was a hard-tackler who was nicknamed the Iron Man, but not by the patients at his Cardiff surgery. Dr Jack was team doctor on the 1980 British Lions tour to South Africa and is still a keen fan of the game at 88.

Teddy Morgan

Immortal in Welsh rugby as the wing who scored the winning try against the All Blacks in 1905, but should be equally immortal the world over as he led the singing of 'Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau' in response to New Zealand's haka. It was the first time a national anthem had ever been sung before a sporting event. Earned his first cap while posted at Guy's Hospital in London Welsh and later for Swansea when a GP in that city. He died in 1949, aged 69.