by Andy Baber
July 12, 2022 2:24 p.m.
Reading time: 7 minutes
One of Jamie Robert’s greatest moments on a rugby pitch almost never happened.
A series player in his first Tour with the British and Irish Lions in 2009, injury threatened to prevent the Welsh center from adding to his two Test caps four years later in Australia.
Roberts tore his hamstring in the 47-17 win over the Waratahs just a week before the first Test and then missed the opening two games against the Wallabies.
Click here to buy the new autobiography of Jamie Robert Center Stage
But ahead of the series decider in Sydney, head coach Warren Gatland made the controversial call to drop Brian O’Driscoll in favor of the all-Welsh pairing of Jonathan Davies and Roberts.
The rest is history as Roberts – who previously thought his Tour was over – scored the final try as the Lions beat Australia 41-16 to clinch their first series win for 16 years.
But Roberts readily admits it could all have been so different, having agonized over his fitness in the build-up to the final test after being given the green light by Gatland to start.
“It was kind of a moral dilemma that I faced for this last test,” he said. “Very tough couple of weeks, tearing my hamstrings in that Waratahs game before the first test.
“It’s a very difficult place to be as a player because you have a coach who supports you, he chose you to play. I remember Warren coming to see me in training on Thursday.
“He’s a man of few words but he just came up to me and said, ‘Okay, are you going to be in good shape? I was like “Yeah” and then he left, when I was really in pain, I had hamstring pain.
“Well, I remember waking up the morning of the game thinking, damn it, how am I going to play a test match later today knowing that I have really bad hamstrings.
“I had been picked to play, so on the one hand it’s the biggest game of your career. Your coach is supporting you to play. He picked you, it’s a decisive game for the Test of the Lions in Sydney.
My Lions Moment: Jamie Roberts
“And on the other hand, I have a lot of hamstring pain, do I go out, do I keep playing? If I pull out after five minutes, it’s the most selfish decision ever and I really, really struggled.
“I stirred on it for 24 hours, 48 hours. As I said, the morning of the game I was in a lot of pain, I remember going to see [physio] Prav [Mathema] and I was just like, “Man, what’s the strongest anti-inflammatory painkiller you can give me?”
“So after giving me that and some adrenaline, luckily the hamstrings held up and I was part of the decisive team that won the Lions in Sydney. To date, that decision could have easily gone the other way, I could have pulled out of that game and not been in it.
The story is one of many that Roberts covers in his new autobiography, center stagewhich provides a fascinating insight into the ups and downs he faced throughout his illustrious career.
But the book also explores his life away from the rugby pitch, revealing how he balanced his playing career with his studies to become a qualified doctor.
“I just felt like I had a good story to tell,” Roberts says, when asked about the origins of the book. “It’s a career that’s probably a bit different from your archetypal professional rugby career.
“I had the incredible opportunity to travel with the game, to play in different leagues, the privilege of playing for Wales, Lions and Barbarians as representative teams, but also just being a student and to have this university life during my playing career. .
“I guess part of the book is also hopefully to help inspire the next generation of young rugby players or students who are interested in the sport, and not just rugby players. People of all professional sports who wish to have a dual career.”
Born in Newport, Roberts began his rugby journey at Rumney before enjoying a rapid rise to the international stage after making his debut for Cardiff Rugby in 2007.
A string of impressive performances for the region earned him selection in Wales’ 2008 Six Nations squad, where he cut his teeth – as a winger – in a 30-15 win against Scotland.
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Wales won the Grand Slam that year but the best was yet to come for Roberts, who was named by Gatland in the Lions squad for a tour of South Africa the following year.
“I just remember it like day and you know it happens. You know, it’s announcement day and I was playing well for my club. I just remember that morning,” he recalls.
“I was so nervous, I was so nervous because you know your name is being jerked around by the press etc. and you know about all of this, all your friends are texting you too.
“I just remember going with my best friend to Penarth Pier near Cardiff, just sitting there listening to the radio because you find out about it along with the audience.
“I love it, I love that kind of element of surprise. It was just a huge moment, not just in my career but in my life and it was probably life changing, it was a dream come true.
Roberts grabbed his first opportunity to represent the Lions with both hands, forming a powerful partnership with O’Driscoll in the first two Tests before injury ruled him out of the third.
He was named player of the series despite the tourists’ 2-1 loss to the Springboks, but for Roberts, who was just 22 at the time, the Lions experience was much more than that.
“You learn more about the fact that the game is about relationships,” Roberts continues.
“It’s not about certain plays or how many turnovers you made on the weekend or how many line breaks you made. You have just learned that these are the things you remember.
Roberts: The 2009 Tour changed my life
“You remember the night outs. You remember your relationships with people that last a lifetime and certainly those you establish while on a Lions tour.
“You just learned that no matter how hard you play on a weekend, you’re more likely to win if you’re close to your mate beside you and you get to know your mate beside you.
“The Lions for me defined that and that challenge of getting a group of guys together in a very short space of time to take on the world champions. There was no greater challenge at the time.
“To get a group of guys to bond so tightly, quickly, was just overwhelming.”
Roberts’ stock continued to grow in the wake of the ’09 Tour, helping Wales reach the 2011 World Cup semi-finals before winning a Grand Slam in 2012 and another championship in 2013.
Selection for the 2013 Tour was almost inevitable and while injury nearly ended his Tour early, Roberts recovered just in time to etch his name in Lions history.
“The contrast in emotion was just immense. In 2009 the dressing room was unlike anything I had experienced in my career or experienced since, and then 2013 was total ecstasy,” he said.
“Champagne bottles burst, you just didn’t want it to end. It was just an amazing feeling, which is why you play the game for those moments after the game with your teammates.
“James Bond was in the room, Daniel Craig, which was fun, and knowing your family is there to witness it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment and the Lions haven’t won a Test series since. .
“It’s the only Test series they’ve won since 1997 and it was a very special day.”
And although his career has included so many highs, including three Six Nations titles, two Grand Slams and 97 Test caps, Roberts is still keen on being capped by the Lions above all else.
“That day when I found out I was going to the Tour in 2009 is probably my favorite memory,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that being picked for the Lions changed my life. There’s no two ways about it.
“As a young lad with aspirations in the game, reaching the top of the game in representative rugby was so special and it definitely changed my life and the course of my career.
“When I reflect, I feel extremely, extremely grateful to have worn the Test jersey on two Tours.
center stage by Jamie Roberts, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is available now.