Six Nations preview: Welsh star sings praises of youngsters as injuries rob team of top names
IT seems like the perfect starting point, a gentle way in to a chat with one of Europe’s, and the world’s, most formidable players.
Jamie Roberts is in good form, despite the knee injury that threatens to keep him out of Wales’ opening game in the Six Nations, away to Ireland. He’s injured, but he’s optimistic. With each passing day the knee is feeling better, he says. He’s backing himself to be fit for Dublin for a game he is clearly relishing. “If the Irish boys deny that it’s all about revenge after the World Cup quarter-final, then they’re lying,” he laughs. “Great place to go, the Aviva. Brilliant home crowd. Intimidating. I’m looking forward to all our games but, if I had to pick one, then that would be it.”
That’s the pleasantries over. Now the meat and drink of the interview and the somewhat surprising recall for Gavin Henson to Warren Gatland’s squad. This is where we begin, but it’s a mistake. Henson has played a pitifully small amount of rugby this season. He has had more favourable reviews from Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli on Strictly than he’s had from anybody connected with rugby. Nobody reckons Henson should be anywhere near a Welsh squad but he’s there and this is what we want to know. How does Roberts feel about it?
There’s a brief silence and then a sigh. Then he says: “I’m not answering questions about him.” A statement that begs the follow-up: “Why?” That just brings another momentary silence and another sigh. “I’m staying away from questions about him,” is the answer.To which there is only one response: “How come?” More silence, more sighs. “Put it this way, if I talk about Gavin Henson I’ll make the headlines.”
And that’s the extent of his analysis of Henson’s inclusion in Gatland’s extended training squad. Maybe he thinks it’s a fully merited shout from Gatland. Maybe he reckons that Henson has still got the X factor despite spending so much of his time on reality television shows. Maybe. In fairness to Roberts, he could have killed us with blandness, could have said “Gav’s great, he’s marvellous, he’s super”, but he didn’t. Perhaps, by his silence, he told us nothing and everything about how he feels.
So we move on to other things, his knee firstly. He got a bang just before Christmas and hasn’t played since. The sight of Roberts struggling to make the beginning of the tournament is enough to scare the living daylights out of the Welsh, who are already having to live without their first-choice second-row partnership, Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris (one of the stand-out players not just in the Welsh World Cup side, but any World Cup side). Absent, too, is Lloyd Burns, the impressive hooker. Those three leave a hole but it is nothing compared to the chasm left behind after the retirement of the peerless Shane Williams.
Last weekend brought more fretting. When Wales departed for a pre-championship camp in the rock’n’roll environment of the cryotherapy chambers of Spala, Poland, one of their great leaders, Gethin Jenkins, stayed at home nursing a tweaked knee ligament. Jenkins is now officially out of the Ireland game and may miss most of the championship.
Also out is their dashing stand-off, Rhys Priestland, who was sure to be one of the great playmakers of this year’s championship. Dan Lydiate, the back-row, is also a concern for the Ireland game. Given all the carnage, Wales desperately need Roberts to recover in time for Dublin.
He’s upbeat, though. Now that we have left Henson behind in the rear-view mirror, he’s chatting. “There’s a lot of new faces in the training squad we picked and that’s a good thing,” he says. “It’s young guys who have been playing really well for their clubs and they’re getting recognised. I look at Harry Robinson [the 18-year-old Cardiff wing] and I see him very much in the Shane mould. Shane has left his legacy and it’s very important that one of the young wings carries it on now. We’re looking for the next generation to step up. We all have to. It’s important to raise the bar in everything we do. At Test level you need to keep improving or you come unstuck. Simple as that. Individually and collectively, you have to improve your skills, your conditioning, everything.”
It’s odd to think back and remember the state Wales were in this time 12 months ago. They went into the 2011 Six Nations on a run of seven Tests and no victories. Sure, the losses were to the most formidable nations – New Zealand three times and South Africa twice, for instance – but they were also held to a draw at home by Fiji. Gatland is untouchable now but, back then, there was doubtful talk in the air. Plenty of it. Their Six Nations campaign was average. Many forecast an early exit at the World Cup. How wrong.
“The World Cup was a special time in the lives of our team,” says Roberts. “When I think back on it in years to come it’ll always be a mixture of emotions for me. Firstly, positive. As an experience we thoroughly enjoyed it. We exceeded expectation with the way we played. But the France semi-final proved that you have to take your opportunities when they come. They don’t come around very often in your career. It’s just horrible thinking about the chance we had. In the same breath, we played some great rugby. We won the hearts of many fans around the world with the brand of rugby we played. That was a very pleasing thing. So you come back, you reflect and then you move on. It’s a professional sport and you can’t dwell on it too much. That’s the nature of the game we’re playing.”
The World Cup is the only thing in rugby that tops the Six Nations, he says.
“It’s got great spice. You can really feel the extra energy in a stadium during the Six Nations. As players you rise to that. It’s pretty special. You have very fond memories. The Scotland match two years ago, for example. The Millennium stadium was unbelievable that day. It was the most exciting finish to a game of rugby I’ve ever been involved in. Those memories will come flooding back when we host them this year. That had to be one of the maddest games there’s ever been in the Six Nations.”
He won’t make a prediction, because he can’t. There’s too little to choose between the sides. He mentions the fact that everybody will write off Italy, but Italy beat France last season. “If you were to put the favourites tag on anybody it would have to be France, I suppose. The strength of their league, the quality of their players, they got to the World Cup final, but we play them at home.
“England? It’s a very exciting time for them, albeit they’ve had their upsets in recent months. The slate has to be wiped clean there. Fresh faces in the set-up and a great chance for them to start over. Scotland should be very good. The most important thing for Scotland is that their club teams are going very well this year. They have a lot of players in form and they’ll be dangerous. Ireland will be hell-bent on revenge after New Zealand. Their guys will be hurting. And these are the challenges you love. It’s what being an international rugby player is all about.”
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: West