I feel like I’m about to win my first cap for Wales. Six years may have passed since my debut but going into the Italy game there’s that same edge, that sense of nervousness. That can only bring out the best in you.
The last time I pulled on that red jersey was very special, an all-or-nothing game against England at the Millennium Stadium. I remember vividly on 75 minutes we had a three-three scrum split and I got chatting to Alex Cuthbert.
He was shouting at the top of his voice just to be heard over the 70,000 screaming inside the stadium: “Jamie, we’ve won this.” It’s not often you can do that with five minutes to go. I remember telling him to calm down, keep his head on for the last five minutes, but those final minutes and the aftermath were such an amazing feeling.
It was one of the best days Cardiff has seen, in rugby terms anyway, for more than a decade and it was even more special that it was against England. Truly, it was one of the great memories but that’s all it is now, a memory. You gather strength from those memories and you appreciate the hard work it took to get there and feel those emotions. We have to replicate that.
It was in stark contrast to the dark times of our opening game of the Six Nations against Ireland, when we were caught cold. We played poorly and we’ll do everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
A lot’s happened since the last Six Nations, obviously, with the Lions, my move to Paris and my own injury problems. The Lions is a bit of a distant memory now but every now and then a small moment drags you back to that special time.
It happened again this week when Alun Wyn Jones was named captain for the Italy game. I remember doing snow angels with him on the confetti after that third Lions victory – that’s the sort of quirky stuff that he does.
But also I remember him as captain, his speech before we went out and seeing him well up. I could see in his eyes how much it meant to him. It was inspiring stuff – I’ll never forget that. He’s such a sharp guy and he gives it everything he’s got. He’s a guy you look to but also a guy that wears his heart on his sleeve. We’ve been through a lot of highs and lows together, and I have huge admiration and respect for him.
For me personally, it’s great to be fit and playing. Looking back, the first few months in Paris were very hard, fending for yourself in a foreign city with a foreign language. It’s difficult. You want to have a big influence, to make a big impression on your team-mates, but being on the physio table isn’t a place you can do that.
It got to a point where I was seeing the physio more than the boys. Put it this way, our physio’s English has improved a lot! But I was quite philosophical about it all. C’est la vie – isn’t that what they say?
There was a point a few weeks ago when I thought my Six Nations ambitions were over. I was playing for Racing Métro when a maul collapsed on my knee and it just clicked. It’s the knee I had anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction on so you initially fear the worst but, because of the injury, the knee’s used to coping with it; a scan showed it was only a strain so I missed just two matches.
Now I’m back from France ready to give it everything for Wales. Being out of the international reckoning really helps build up that hunger to make you ready to deliver. The autumn was so hard to watch but when you miss something you appreciate it more.
I worried I wouldn’t get back in the team. It’s human nature to question whether you’ll be selected. You never take anything for granted – you’d be a fool to. And I know on Saturday for 80 minutes I’ll give everything because the next player is ready to do exactly that instead.
It’s a new centre partnership for me with Scott Williams and that can be difficult. But you have to adapt quickly, there’s no other option. A lot of it comes from communication, making the right calls at the right times. Scott is a wonderfully gifted player, he’s a good passer, runner and kicker, so it’s been easy to slot in alongside someone like that.
My role is again as defensive captain for Wales. It means barking instructions over the noise of the Millennium Stadium. It’s a constant. Rugby’s a thinking man’s game – as I think someone famous said before me – but it’s so true. Just one single lapse in concentration can cost you the game. I’ll be hammering that home in terms of defence. Personally, I like taking responsibility, making the big calls in big games and delivering in the big moments.
On the defensive side of things, Shaun Edwards is the unsung hero. I’m not overstating it when I say he’s a genius. The mentality he’s brought has made us a well-oiled defensive machine. Looking back, some of the things he’d say you’d think, “What the hell is he talking about?” But it takes hindsight to realise his genius. He’s got a great system in place.
People will say there are tougher ways to start a Six Nations than with Italy at home. That might be the case and I know we’ve not lost too much to them but they’re a strong unit and, if you make mistakes, they punish you. They create things from nothing and, when we played them two years ago, it took us a good 60 to 70 minutes to begin to break them. Today will be no different.
As for the tournament as a whole, we’ve talked a lot this week about history and the possibility of a hat-trick of Six Nations titles. It’s in the back of players’ minds as we’ve tasted success over the last few years and we know how good it feels. It’s a very special moment when you lift the Six Nations Championship. You desperately want to feel that success again but we know it takes a hell of a lot of work.
As a side, I think we’ve got threats across the park. Just look at the back line, the big boys on the wing, Mike Phillips at No 9, our second row, the balance of the back row; I could go on. Throughout the team, we go out with a mentality that we don’t think we’ll lose games. We believe in the machine, the structures that have been created and how Warren Gatland has implemented and executed them.
One thing Gats has told us this week is to put all the issues in the Welsh game on the back-burner, and to ensure we talk about winning Wales, a side desperate to repeat glory.
I’m not naïve enough to think there aren’t problems. It’s a worrying time, definitely. I don’t have the golden answer and, as a player, I’m not going to have an input, so I can’t suggest anything. I just hope for the greater good the right decisions are made.
What I would say, however, is that I think Welsh rugby will come back stronger off the back of it all. The fact the current issues have caused so much outrage shows how much it means to people and that will rally people in the long term.
Wales rugby fans are a passionate bunch. I found that on Twitter when my move to Paris was announced, as I’m sure Sam Warburton did too when he announced his future plans.
People are entitled to freedom of speech. OI feel like I’m about to win my first cap for Wales. Six years may have passed since my debut but going into the Italy game there’s that same edge, that sense of nervousness. That can only bring out the best in you.K, you might get keyboard warriors hiding behind computer screens but they’re allowed to do it and, as professional sportsmen, we know we’re more in the firing line, whether that’s decisions we make or the way we play.
But it’s that passion that makes Wales so special. We’re all united in the same cause this weekend.