With less than a fortnight until Wales welcome England, Jamie Roberts put in a tremendous display for his French employers. We analyse his efforts against Northampton.
Brace yourselves, because the beginning of the Six Nations will inevitably bring a torrent of clichés. And the majority of them always seem to concern France. According to well-worn maxims, Les Bleus are unpredictable as well as mercurial and mysterious. Of course, they do not travel well either.
Well, Racing Métro comprehensively defied the final of these truisms in the European Champions Cup on Saturday, conquering Franklin’s Gardens to brush aside a rather subdued Northampton Saints 32-8 and book a home quarter-final.
With Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell watching on from the stands, it was also a rather troubling day for England’s upcoming campaign. Tom Wood hobbled from the field, Dylan Hartley picked up a yellow card and Luther Burrell looked slightly uncertain. One of few plusses for the hosts – a rampaging display from Welshman George North – hardly provided consolation.
Jamie Roberts, another man sure to be a key protagonist on February 6 when the tournament gets underway in Cardiff, was extremely effective as well. British & Irish Lions legend Sir Ian McGeechan calls him a “Test match animal”. Undoubtedly, he does appear to thrive when the intensity rises.
This weekend was no different. Here is a run-down of Roberts’ impressive afternoon in the East Midlands.
5:07 – Territorial tussle
All Black Ma’a Nonu added a sound kicking game and decent distribution to brute force as he rose to the pedestal of world’s best centre. A poorly-weighted stab at Twickenham last season showed how Roberts’ boot has been a work in progress for a while.
However, in the early stages of a tense contest, this well-aimed grubber was very nice, allowing chasers to come though onto James Wilson. The Saints full-back positions himself well and negotiates the threat, but it is still a considered, neatly-executed play from Roberts.
9:00 – Organisation and breakdown annoyance
In every team he has been involved in, Roberts has assumed a leadership role in defence. Although he does not make the tackle here, he is right at the heart of driving line speed, as this screen shot demonstrates:
Of course, not making the challenge does mean he can contribute to the breakdown, so when Hartley is felled by Racing fly-half Benjamin Dambielle, Robert can jackal and slow down Northampton’s attack. He does not win a penalty, but certainly saps some momentum by getting in this position:
10:26 – Fatal attraction
In attack, Robert’s unique selling point is uncomplicated trucking up – he is a master amid heavy traffic and a commander of the collision. What that means is he makes a superb decoy, at set-piece or otherwise.
Here, Racing use him in precisely that manner. Watch how three Saints are held (with even outside centre George Pisi turning inward) before Maxime Machenaud fires a pass behind Roberts, allowing the visitors to make use of expanses out wide.
11:18 – First blood
Roberts’ made 13 carries, two of them fashioning clean breaks. This was the first, and is typical of him in a lot of ways. With Racing raggedly attempting to spark a counter, an unfussy change of angle from the 64-cap Welshman hauls the Top 14 side from back foot to front foot.
Isolating the moment Roberts cuts his line with Wood harrying, we can get an idea of his composure, intelligence and incision:
15:08 – Pinpoint pass
Racing’s ambitious approach brought out the variety of Roberts’ skill set. From the restart following their first three points and Hartley’s sin-binning, this long pass created problems among Northampton’s ranks.
The reverse angle is perfect from which see how George Pisi is sucked in and beaten by Roberts’ midfield partner Henry Chavancy:
18:58 – Hands free
Punters often label the offload as a purely dextrous skill, but power is also vital. If you dominate the contact area, it is easier to free the arms and get the pass away. Roberts manages just that here, linking with blindside flanker Wenceslas Lauret.
24:47 – Turning circle
A mighty shift from Roberts did not come without one glimmer of encouragement for the England set-up. North’s grubber in behind here sets Burrell in a straight foot race with his opposite number. As a replay clarifies, he easily outstrips Roberts and should have scored:
It will be interesting to see if England deploy a few short kicks in midfield to look to turn Wales’ lynchpin.
28:31 – Hard yards
As Racing pressed in a prolonged period before half-time, Roberts was prominent. This bulldozing truck-up left 105-kilogram lock Sam Dickinson prone. A closer look gives you an idea of the impact’s velocity:
35:24 – Ghosting through
Such is his strength and scything line here, Roberts does not need to be flat. Instead, he receives the pass from Dambielle far behind the gain-line before swerving into space.
His presentation on the floor is worth noticing – the ball is laid on a silver platter for scrum-half Machenaud and the movement can continue apace.
41:54 – Scrambling back
Ken Pisi did his very best to spark Saints into life shortly after the break, and this run was sublime. However, Roberts tracked back to make the hit.
From the next phase, Juan Imhoff hacked a loose ball through and scorched away to score.
42:46 – Tidying up
Given the importance of restarts in the modern game and how accurate contestable kicks can be, winning ball after a score and clearing your lines is vital. The trendy term is ‘exit strategy’.
Stephen Myler’s effort causes carnage here, but Roberts swoops to secure possession. Not all of his contributions were Hollywood ones.
47:35 – Guarding the gain-line
England’s lineout is largely a fruitful source of front-foot ball, so Stuart Lancaster will want to see a great deal more of this situation at the Millennium Stadium.
Even as Burrell explodes onto Myler’s pass though, Roberts stands firm – almost babysitting Dambielle.
52:04 – Jackal Jamie
In the face of the strongest defences, teams can overplay their hand in an attempt to break free of the claustrophobia. Northampton do so here, attempting a quick 22-dropout, becoming isolated and allowing Roberts – with excellent technique – to win a holding penalty.
59:10 – Off the laces
This match resembled a personal highlight reel for Roberts at times, and a stooping pick-up and slicing break, with an offload to Chavancy added in for good measure, topped the bill.
A reverse angle shows just how impressive the handling is…
…while an aerial shot underlines another fine angle from depth:
60:39 – On the scoresheet
The aforementioned break led to a penalty and, after Racing went to the corner, Roberts had another chance to rumble. Linking with countryman Mike Phillips from the back of a driving maul, he barrelled through four challenges to dot down.
Sheer upper-body brawn is at work here. Roberts does not mind heading down route one.
68:50 – Rushing up and cutting off
With the bonus point sealed, it would have been so easy for Racing to slip back into second gear and cruise home. Instead, they refused to ease the pressure on Northampton and ensured the defeat was a heavy one for Jim Mallinder‘s men.
The above clip may seem innocuous as George Pisi loses the ball in the tackle, but it comes about from Roberts’ work off the ball at the top of the screen. A screenshot here shows how he bolts in front of his teammates in the line, stopping any possibility of a wide pass to North:
Such unselfish graft, alongside the eye-catching plays, amounted to a very influential outing for Roberts. Wales will want more of the same when England cross the Severn Bridge. A fascinating evening awaits.
Thanks to BT Sport for the footage. You can purchase tickets to the European Champions Cup final here.