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.”