Roberts picks up speed as a juggernaut approaches
He was centre of attention last time England came calling but Wales badly need his cutting edge now
Sunday 30 January 2011
If England are intending to revisit their Millennium Stadium gameplan of 2008 and so pin a target to the torso of Jamie Roberts, then whoever is detailed with the brick-wall impression should be warned. Jamie is a little bigger. And a great deal faster.
Little wonder, then, that Martin Johnson is considering recalling Joe Worsley for the role. It was the masochistic Wasp, of course, who managed to pick up the man-of-the-match award in Cardiff that day despite his side being on the wrong end of a 23-15 scoreline. The reason why was imprinted all over the frame of the young, 17st centre.
"It was brutal," said Roberts last week. "That was easily the worst I have ever felt after a Test match. Yet to wake up in the morning feeling the way I did, but knowing we had won, was priceless. A lot of people spoke about how well England defended, but it's the scoreboard which counts. Yeah, I'd have it the same way again. By concentrating on me, space was created around me."
It is fair to say, Roberts would be confident of not being the one reaching for the Ibuprofen this time. His improved training stats suggest he would be on top of Worsley before he knew it.
Wrist surgery in the summer meant five months on the sidelines but Roberts did not intend to twiddle his thumbs, even if the cast would have permitted it. His part-time studies for a medical degree were one distraction; the fitting of a turbo on his already impressive engine another. "I knew it was a blessing in disguise," said the 24-year-old. "My speed was an issue. It gave me the time to put in the work I needed."
Under the guidance of Adam Beard, Wales's fitness coach, he shaved more than 0.1sec off his personal best for 10 metres. (If that does not sound much, think of it as one second over 100m). It hurtled him from being down among the pack to third-fastest in the squad. "Any back will tell you they are looking to improve every facet of their play," he said. "I am striving for perfection. I can't afford with the set-up now to rest on my laurels. You are gone as soon as you are picked because of the competition that is here."
The fan in the red shirt will be forgiven for wondering what on earth Roberts is talking about. Without the No 12 – man of the series on the 2009 Lions tour – Wales so clearly lacked a cutting edge in the autumn series. The mind inevitably drifts back to last June and a Test in Hamilton where, despite losing 29-10, the Dragonhood put in their best display on All Black soil. Roberts was at the vanguard, scoring their only try and battering through the home defence. That was the last time the Cardiff Blue played internationally.
He is clearly what Wales require and he is under no illusion what is required to deal with the juggernaut blundering down the M4. "You know when you play England it is going to be the most physical game you've played in," he said. "It's against the old enemy and Friday night in Cardiff is going to be electric. It's always a huge game for us players, just as it is for the senior citizen in mid-Wales, watching in the pub with a pint."
Except this time around it seems even more important. Under Warren Gatland, Wales won their first seven Six Nations games; since then they have lost five of their last eight. With three further defeats to the southern hemisphere giants before Christmas, not forgetting that embarrassing draw against Fiji, patience in the valleys is running lower than the coal supplies.
"I don't think we have gone downhill, although I can see from the outside that it is easy to say that," said Roberts. "But we feel we have moved forwards as individuals and collectively. We do appreciate, however, that international rugby is about results. And we could do with one now – most definitely."
The last two times that Wales beat England in the opening fixture they have gone on to win the Grand Slam. "Hopefully history can repeat itself," said Roberts, who was a debutant in the 2008 glory run. "It is all about securing that first 'W' and making it snowball from there. We know what we've got to do. It's about turning up, knowing the game-plan, everybody being clued in and then just going for it. We've got almost a full-strength backline to choose from and in players like Shane [Williams] and James Hook individual match-winners. For the rest of us, as long as we're playing our role, that's all that matters."
If that involves taking another battering for the team, then so be it.
"The bruises are worth it," added Roberts.
Anglo-Welsh relations: History of mishaps and punch-ups...
1933: England 3 Wales 7
Wales's first win at Twickenham but what was that score again? With 10 minutes left, Vivian Jenkins converted Ronnie Boon's try for a 9-3 lead. Or so the Welsh touch judge and fans thought. The referee had decided it missed the posts; Wales only found out at the final whistle. Where was the television match official?
1980: England 9 Wales 8
England's first Grand Slam in 23 years survived an ugly Twickenham battle. Wales flanker Paul Ringer was sent off early for a late lunge at John Horton. "Everybody [was] at each other's throats and growling, instead of watching the ball," said England's Roger Uttley, who was forced off by half-time with a gashed head.
1987: Wales 19 England 12
"Sickening!" screamed Rugby World's front cover. Ruthless rugby at the roofless National Stadium. Line-outs led to fist-fights and Wales's Phil Davies got a smashed cheekbone while Steve Sutton's nose was broken by a team-mate's elbow. The RFU banned England captain Richard Hill and three others from the next match. In the magazine, Bill Beaumont suggested a "sin-bin" to help players cool off. One day, Bill...
2003: Wales 9 England 26
The second leg of England's first Grand Slam since 1995. Inspired by the classy Will Greenwood and Lawrence Dallaglio, England came through. "We won by 17 points which was seen as some kind of moral victory for Wales," said then England captain Martin Johnson last week.
2005: Wales 11 England 9
In an unusual rush of young blood to the head, England under Andy Robinson picked Mathew Tait, the day before his 19th birthday, in Cardiff. One dump tackle from Gavin Henson later, the tyro was hauled off after 60 minutes and dropped while the leg-waxing Henson's winning penalty made him a Grand Slam hero.
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