Interview: Jamie Roberts loving rugby at Racing, loving life in Paris
Wales centre admits Top 14 is ‘crazy competitive’ but he’s not complaining
Jamie Roberts with Racing Metro team-mate Jonathan Sexton during a training session in Toulouse. Photograph: Remy Gabalda/AFP/Getty Images
On a rainy day in Paris an excuse for a long lunch is ready made. “The sun might not come out again today,” Jamie Roberts says cheerfully as he glances at a brooding sky. It hardly seems to matter. The traffic outside Roberts’ favourite restaurant in Saint-Germain-des-Prés is less clogged than usual, as most locals have left Paris for the August holidays, and the Welsh doctor and imposing rugby international can relax while ordering lunch in French.
The only obvious concession to Roberts’ consuming profession, with France’s “crazily competitive” Top 14 league starting this weekend, is sidestepping the steak and red wine on a rare free day. He steers those Parisian delights my way and settles on his light lunch and water. The rest of the afternoon is as leisurely as French club rugby is brutal and intense.
On Saturday evening Racing Métro, whom Roberts joined a year ago as part of the international influx that included Ireland outhalf Jonathan Sexton, open their Top 14 campaign away to Montpellier. “When we played in Montpellier just before the play-off finals we shipped 40 points,” Roberts says wryly. “The win-loss ratio away from home is extraordinary. I can’t get my head around it. But the French are very emotional – you see that in the coaches and players. You lose a game and you come in on a Monday and it’s like someone has died. You win a game and it’s like they’ve won the FA Cup final. I thought we were bipolar in Wales – but it’s nothing compared to France.”
The difference between the vibrant French game and the ruinous divisions of Welsh rugby could not be starker. An immensely rich Top 14 pulses with zeal and shared ambition. In sad contrast, rugby in Wales is defaced by such intransigence that Roberts’ fellow internationals, Sam Warburton and Adam Jones, are training without a team.
The bitter dispute between the union and the regions, over money and power, means that Warburton, Wales’ captain, is devoid of a club as he signed a central contract with the WRU. The regions have a joint agreement that they will not allow any player contracted to the union to represent them. Roberts and Warburton played together for years at the Cardiff Blues and his face clouds as his thoughts drift home.
“I haven’t spoken to Sam or Adam,” Roberts says. “They’re two great guys and two great players and all I can really say is that, for the good of the Welsh game, I hope everything is sorted as soon as possible. What happens at board level is ultimately between the various hierarchies. As players all we can do is turn up every day and deliver on the weekend.”
When asked if this latest impasse marks the lowest point in Welsh rugby’s civil war, Roberts smiles in apology. He needs to avoid becoming embroiled in a spat between stubborn administrators. “I can’t really answer that.”
To anyone with a passing interest in rugby, it wouldn’t be Wales without some simmering discord. “Exactly,” Roberts agrees as his massive jaw unclenches with a more familiar grin. “It’s never going to be rosy all the time. As much as you want to have an input and talk about it as players it’s all above your head. All we can do is enjoy playing. That’s the whole point – we’re here to play rugby, enjoy it and try to win.”
While most home-based Welsh players approach the new season with trepidation and frustration, Roberts revels in the enticing appeal of French rugby. “The Top 14 is full of quality teams and quality players. And so wherever you play it’s a complete war of attrition. It’s brutal. But that’s why we play the game. We love it. We shake hands, have a beer and move on to the next game.”
Roberts is one of four Wales internationals at Racing – alongside Dan Lydiate, Mike Phillips and Luke Charteris – but his singular character fits a club with a romantic French rugby history. In the late 1980s Racing were galvanised by a gifted team, led by Franck Mesnel, who played important matches in provocative ways – whether wearing berets, pink bow-ties, painting their faces in honour of their black team-mate Vincent Lelano or drinking champagne on the pitch at half-time.
“Everyone in French rugby hated Racing because we were from Paris,” Mesnel once told me. “They thought, because we are Parisians, we are all homosexuals. This idea amused us.”
Roberts chortles at the outrageous history. “When you get here you hear all the amazing stories. I love it and Jacky Lorenzetti, the new president, wants to keep that gentlemanly swagger about the club. Our facilities are incredible – very suave. Our supporters wear very nice scarves so we try to keep that classy, gentlemanly feel.”
Is there a risk of Roberts becoming debonair after a year in Paris? “No, no!” he exclaims. “I’ll leave that to Casey Laulala [the former Munster star who plays alongside Roberts in the Racing midfield]. I’m still stuck in Cardiff in terms of my fashion sense.”
Lorenzetti’s extravagant financial investment, which allows Racing to compete with Toulon, the champions, has added a pragmatic edge. The president insists that none of his players, apart from Roberts, can live in Paris. They are instructed to base themselves instead in the suburbs around the club’s lavish training ground.
Roberts managed to convince Lorenzetti last summer that his three-year contract would work only if he was free to live in Paris. “It’s hugely important that I stay in the city. Ultimately, if I lived in the suburbs, I could be anywhere in the world. I could still be in north suburban Cardiff. When I do leave here I can say I’ve lived in the centre of Paris and had a great time. I love Paris. It’s an awesome city.”
“I love going out with the boys for a few beers after a game on a Saturday night in Saint-Germain. There’s a bit of a rugby feel then. But with general meandering around Paris no one has any idea who I am. They think I’m this tall, oddly-shaped dark-haired beast who commutes on my scooter. I love Cardiff but I needed to move away to realise how obtrusive [his fame as a player in Wales] can be. I got stopped more times in my first 10 minutes back in Cardiff than in my whole first year in Paris.”
Roberts’ enthusiasm for the pleasures of Paris is obvious. So there is some irony in the fact that Lorenzetti only permits Roberts to break the club’s ban on living in Paris. He might have more fun than most modern rugby players but, at the same time, few can match the Welshman’s intelligence and discipline. Lorenzetti was clearly impressed by Roberts’ achievements in May 2013 when he sat his medical degree final exams in the very week he helped Wales win the grand slam. It showed a remorseless appetite for hard work, intellectually and physically, and a rounded character which makes Roberts such a distinctive figure in world rugby.
“Before the Six Nations decider against England [which Wales won 30-3] I had my finals on the Monday and the Thursday of that week. They’re massive exams because you cover everything. I remember coming out of the exams hall on the Thursday, driving immediately to the Vale [Wales’ training base], parking next to the pitch, putting my boots on and doing the backs session in preparation for England. It was surreal.
“For four months I’d been coming into the Vale hotel at half five in the morning to do two-and-a-half hours’ study before training. In November I said: ‘Right it starts now – this is it. This is four months of your life you have to completely sacrifice.’ And it paid off.”
He is now a fully qualified medical doctor – Dr Jamie Roberts MBBCH BSc (Hons) – but had he felt confident after his last exam? “The problem with medicine finals is that a lot of questions are multiple choice. They’re not black and white answers and, unless you know your subject well, they will catch you out. You come out just praying that you’d done enough work. Luckily I did.
“I had my practicals on the next Monday so I was disappointed I couldn’t do the Super Sunday. We’d just won the Six Nations and obviously all the boys spent the day celebrating. I had one beer and then drove home and worked in the library before the practicals. I sat the finals in March, got picked for the Lions in April, got my results at the end of May and went off to Australia and we won the series [with Roberts overcoming injury to score the first try in the decisive Test]. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Roberts is now concentrating fully on rugby and, after an “awesome” first year without the rigours of study, he admits: “I’ve started to miss not having something else in my life. I love learning. I’m a geek when it comes to science and I loved my time at med school. We’ll see what the future holds but for as long as I’ve got something left in rugby it’s best I focus on just playing now. We all know how suddenly it can just end.”
The 27-year-old, who has played 63 internationals, can diagnose on-field injuries. “When I fractured my skull against Australia [IN 2008]my nose was bleeding and I’d just hit my head. The old taste of salt water in the mouth was a giveaway. I knew that meant brain fluid. It was a cerebral spinal fluid leak. I thought: ‘Hmmm, this is a bit dodgy.’ I could feel this squeaking in my head [after he had collided with Australia’s Stirling Mortlock]. That was quite frightening. Luckily it wasn’t displaced. It was just a hairline fracture through my skull.”
Roberts grins. “But that was also the last time Wales beat a southern hemisphere team. I did my skull, came off after quarter-of-an-hour but I took their captain out of the game. So I did my bit!”
More seriously, does Roberts feel concern about the savage physicality of professional rugby? “Concern is not the right word. As they say in France: c’est la vie. Boys are getting stronger, fitter, faster but the medical world is advancing as well. Everyone is moving forward. You’ve just got to move with it.”
Roberts’ move to Paris, however, had a fraught start. “It didn’t help that in my second game I had an ankle injury that needed surgery. It was tough because you want to make an impression and I was watching the guys train from the physio room. Factor in the reality that you’re in a different country with a different language and the first few months were very difficult. I won’t lie about it. You get up three times a week and ask yourself: ‘Was this the right thing to have done?’ But you have to get through those times to reap the rewards. You have to be mentally strong.
“I’m starting my second season more competent in French and knowing all the players. I feel totally settled. And how can you not love Paris – and rugby in France? I’ve got the best of both worlds. I’m very lucky.”