The unfinished assignment: Jamie Roberts on his second chance at Lions glory

“It’s incredible,” confesses Jamie Roberts candidly, lowering his voice and leaning forward in a chair that looks laughably small. “I can’t remember the past three months – not in detail anyway. It all seems like a big haze.

“Bits about the Six Nations normally stick in your mind – the flight up to Murrayfield, maybe the coach journey between the hotel and Millennium Stadium for home games. I don’t recall anything like that.”

Roberts, a hulking specimen who deals in the currency of eye-watering on-field collisions, would previously have attributed this odd amnesia to some stray elbow, knee or hip to the head.

History could certainly vindicate that view – head to any bar in Cardiff and you will hear the well-worn tale of how he played on for 10 minutes against Australia in 2008 with a fractured skull.

This time, though, Roberts’ memory is waning under the weight of raw emotion, disorientated by what he calls “an awesome rollercoaster”. At the start of this month, his last game at Cardiff Arms Park before a summer move to Racing Metro was marked with the decisive try of the Blues’ 28-13 win over Zebre.

The next morning, he finally earned his nickname – “Doc” – upon learning he had passed an eight-year medical degree, the final six months of which required an unrelenting schedule of 4.30am study sessions.

underarmourNow, Tuesday’s selection in this summer’s British & Irish Lions party has presented a chance to put right the pain of four years ago in South Africa, when despite winning the tourists’ player of the series award, his homebound luggage did not include a winning Test jersey.

It is a shame that Roberts cannot summon the finer points. However, his appreciation is no less. The excruciating alternative – a Lion-less summer preparing for June re-takes – was sufficiently spiky to spur that.

“I set myself two goals last September – getting on this tour and graduating,” continues the unthinkably impressive 26 year-old. “I had a little word with myself, because I really needed to get my finger out. That was when the early starts began.

“This feeling I have got now after achieving them is great, but I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t visualised the end product while I was going through the pain.

“Failure was a massive motivation and there were some fine lines. If I hadn’t performed in the game against England, there is a high likelihood I wouldn’t have been picked. The exams were the same – if my focus wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have passed.”

Many have branded Roberts a refreshing throwback to the amateur age for his emulation of legendary rugby-playing doctors such as Jack Williams and JPR Williams. But his feat in today’s era of professionalism merits praise on an isolated plane for ferocious focus alone.

Away from the books, he is right to pinpoint the Grand-Slam denying defeat of England. Perhaps hindered by a saturated mind, Roberts was below his considerable standards in the first four fixtures of the Six Nations.

Then, apparently awoken by the earth-shattering chorus of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau the fateful evening, he exploded out of obscurity. Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt were shackled with intimidating ease, while Roberts also used his 110-kilogram frame to better effect in attack, hurting the visitors with some careering carries.

In a 37-man squad that is very much Warren Gatland’s, the hero of 2009 is among a blend of backs incorporating those that thrived four years ago – Tommy Bowe, Mike Phillips, Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney – and some deserving new faces. Scotland’s Sean Maitland is an intelligent addition alongside Glasgow Warriors clubmate Stuart Hogg to complement the more experienced men.

Roberts reckons Tuilagi is a “devastating” weapon that will benefit immeasurably from Rob Howley’s “meticulous, personable” approach and, as Wales defensive captain, is very much looking forward to discussing strategy with Andy Farrell. As he acknowledges with typical pragmatism, those battle-plans will need to be thorough.

“Australia are a very talented side,” Roberts ponders. “They play a fast-paced game from all areas of the park. It’s so important when you’re playing against them – more so than any other team – that you are completely disciplined in the basics. That means things like the breakdown and the kick-chase especially.

“I look back at Wales’ summer tour there last year – obviously my knee meant I couldn’t go myself – and we were only at 80 or 90 per cent in those facets. That just wasn’t good enough. You have to be at 100 per cent for 80 minutes because anything loose – playing in the wrong areas, not getting a decent shoulder into a tackle – will be punished.

“Will Genia is a superb player and he’ll be at the heartbeat of everything they do. They also have the likes of Quade Cooper, Berrick Barnes, Ashley-Cooper, Digby Ioane – the list is endless

“It is a country that has massive pride in their sporting heritage and rightly so. There will be some gamesmanship and a bit of fun and games in the press, too, but I’d like to think our boys are mentally strong enough to look past that.”

Qualification in tow, Roberts is free to immerse himself in Parisian culture once he returns from a high-octane encounter with the Wallabies. A newly-purchased Vespa means even the traffic won’t slow him down. But that can wait.

underarmour 2Unlike in 2009, surprise was not part of Roberts’ reaction on Tuesday, and not just because a kind-thinking teammate in the Cardiff clubhouse told him the good news before he had the chance to rewind Andy Irvine’s announcement and watch as though it were live after training. Still, another shot at rugby’s “ultimate” is reward enough. Especially with something personal at stake.

“The last Lions tour was an amazing experience for me, but I look back at 2009 as a year of what-ifs. That started with the last game of the Six Nations against Ireland when Steven Jones missed a penalty by a matter of metres to give them the Grand Slam. Then there was the Heineken Cup semi-final with the Blues that we lost to Leicester on a shootout.

“Of course to finish it off there was the second Test against the Boks at Loftus which is remembered as one of the most brutal matches ever. I’ve never seen a changing room like that after the game. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen a hospital waiting room like that after a game either.

“It was pretty savage to lose in that fashion and it’s important to get the Lions back to winning ways. Ultimately, I’ve got unfinished business.”

Encouraging sentiment for all involved in Gatland’s crusade – it will have taken a few years, but Roberts tends to finish what he started.

By Charlie Morgan

Follow Charlie on Twitter: @CharlieFelix

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