As the new season approaches it’s time to welcome our two summer signings into the fold and have a look at what they will bring to the Cardiff Blues. First up is Jack Roberts, as the 25-year-old centre joins up from Leicester Tigers.
Hailing from North Wales originally, he attended Llandovery College and became a part of the Scarlets academy before being shipped back to Llandovery’s Premiership side, scoring 18 tries in 48 appearances for the Drovers.
From there he moved to English Championship side Rotherham in the summer of 2013, scoring 11 tries in 38 appearances in a solitary Yorkshire-based season before being signed by Aviva Premiership giants Leicester. 36 appearances across three seasons at Welford Road followed before his switch to us here in Cardiff.
A career so far encompassing many different levels of the English and Welsh game but a career that, despite belonging to a 25-year-old, doesn’t bring with it much professional experience.
Only last season did Roberts really make his breakthrough at the highest level of the domestic game, appearing 16 times in the Premiership and a handful of times in the Champions Cup pool stages, meaning as he arrives at the Arms Park not a whole lot is known about the under the radar Welshman.
Focusing largely on two Champions Cup games, against future Pro14 opponents Munster and Glasgow, I’ve had a look at what he will bring to the Cardiff Blues midfield.
Looking at Roberts’ physical stats you could be forgiven for questioning whether he’s a centre at all, and certainly if he’s one in the professional game. Standing at just 5ft8 he is only an inch taller than Shane Williams and the same height as current full-back Matthew Morgan.
However, at 91kgs he is significantly stockier than the two Welsh internationals, and with a tackling technique from straight out of the textbook he is no liability in the defensive side of his game.
Up against opponents such as Scottish internationals Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett, and Springbok Jaco Taute, the centre completed 15 tackles across the two matches, co-leading Leicester’s defensive effort against Munster and being one of only five starters not to miss a tackle in 0-43 loss to Glasgow.
Off first phase attacking ball for the opposition he fronted up well against the big ball carriers coming down his channel.
Two main points from these clips are how Roberts goes low into all three tackles, taking momentum straight out from underneath the ball carrier and killing the first phase attack dead, a complete opposite from the chest high tackle that we see from Rey Lee-Lo and Willis Halaholo which is such a weakness among Pacific Islanders.
Secondly, which is particularly prevalent in the final clip, is his ability to meet the ball carrier early, bring him down with the low hit and setting him up for the jackal as the opposition’ s support struggle to get around the corner. A dream for the likes of Sam Warburton or Ellis Jenkins.
Roberts’ technique doesn’t let him down from open play either, where he’s assisted by an athleticism that belies his frame.
His pace to blitz and cover breaks from big ball carrying forwards serve him well in the first two clips, but the third clip is highly impressive in the way his lateral movement ends any hope of Stuart Hogg being able to break on the outside. So close to the line that is a try saving tackle.
Perhaps the best quality Roberts possess though is an ability to read the game defensively.
A player who knows when to solo blitz, which fits in nicely with the defensive pattern Cardiff Blues try to employ, but can also read an opposition’s move like a book, as he spots the inside pass in the second clip, again killing a promising looking attack.
The third clip is an interesting one as Roberts doesn’t actually make a tackle. However, track his run behind the defensive line and the way it eventually suffocates Tommy Seymour of space and Glasgow of an overlap. Another try saving piece of play.
To compliment the centre’s defensive capabilities is an attribute that’s treasured highly in Cardiff, and especially on the Cardiff Rugby Life, a player prepared to work hard.
Playing 80 minutes in both games watched, Roberts did not stop working throughout, and that showed in his kick chasing and the way he was able to mop up lose balls, almost as a secondary flanker.
It’s all well and good being able to read the game, but unless it’s coupled with a decent engine then it’s a worthless skill to have.
The first two clips are self-explanatory in terms of chasing down the kick and executing the tackle, as well as stealing in on the loose ball and making it stick.
It’s the third clip that is the most impressive though, despite appearing the most regulation. After reading the chip through and possessing the pace to cover it, then to have the presence of mind to shovel the ball into touch rather than carry it dead is testament to the rugby brain he possesses.
Jack Roberts is more than capable of playing inside and outside centre, but so far the defensive leadership side of his game certainly lends itself to the 12 jersey, with a Lee-Lo or Halaholo outside him being protected while without the ball, and allowed space to attack.
However, a selection headache occurs for Danny Wilson when we look at Roberts’ offensive game, and his tendency to attack more in the wider channels of the pitch.
Three clips where Roberts is stretching his legs looking for space rather than taking the ball into contact, and by the final one he spots the gap and makes good yardage. The low centre of gravity coupled with a sharp turn of pace meaning he can go through holes in the defence that other centres might not even consider.
What that leaves you with is someone who can score tries from nothing.
Having said all that above about Roberts’ attacking, he does bring the physicality shown in defence to his ball carrying, but he’s not going to offer you a crash ball option. That style of play is slowly leaving the game, and it’s certainly not something that Wilson wants for Cardiff.
What Roberts can offer is the ability to almost bounce out of tackles.
And when you add the power, pace and agility all together, you get a try out of the highest possible draw.
To conclude, what we have in Jack Roberts is something different. He increases options in an already high quality midfield that can go with the Lee-Lo/Halaholo partnership that worked so well at the end of last season, bring in Steve Shingler as a footballing second five-eighth, or utilise Roberts for a bit of dynamism.
In terms of what shirt he’ll wear, I think we’ll see him start the season at outside centre with Halaholo inside him. What I’d like to see though, and this goes for if Lee-Lo is involved, and even Garyn Smith or Harri Millard, is the centres being given a license to play, to mix things up.
Take this try scored away in Ulster towards the back end of last season, this should be the yardstick for our midfield attacking play.
Rey Lee-Lo comes from outside centre on the direct line to wander straight through a hole made by the dummy runs from Alex Cuthbert and Willis Halaholo, fed by a beautifully timed pass from Gareth Anscombe.
You could switch Anscombe for Shingler or Jarrod Evans, Cuthbert for any one of Tom James, Rhun Williams or Dan Fish, as well as Jack Roberts for either Lee-Lo or Halaholo.
This is the depth of exciting attacking talent we can call on this season, and Jack Roberts looks a fine addition to that. Come on Cardiff!!