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'THE SHACKLES ARE OFF'

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: February 22, 2013

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ROME may not have been built in a day, but, according to Jamie Roberts, the confidence of the Welsh backs has come flooding back over the course of a single afternoon.

Criticism was aimed at almost every red-shirted player behind the scrum after the 30-22 defeat by Ireland on the opening weekend of the Six Nations three Saturdays ago.

Recall Jonathan Davies and Roberts himself seeing passes end up in touch instead of in the hands of team-mates.

Remember, if you will, Alex Cuthbert being turned inside out by the bewitching skills of Brian O'Driscoll.

At one point the 6ft 6in wing somehow contrived to have his back to O'Driscoll and the ball. Wales usually employ the blitz defence, but Cuthbert appeared to be doing the Poznan.

It is reasonable to assume Shaun Edwards wouldn't have been pleased.

The strike runners who went into the campaign with such big reputations didn't exactly light up the Paris sky a week later in a drab encounter against France, either.

But Wales did manage to arrest a desperate run that had seen them go 11 months without a victory over a Test nation. And that single triumph has liberated the backs, reckons Roberts.

"A win can do a huge amount for confidence," said the 6ft 4in, 17st 4lb centre.

"It can also do a lot for the way you play the game.

"When you are on a run of eight successive defeats, as we were heading into the France game, you can play not to lose rather than going all-out to win.

"Now that monkey is off our back there is more focus on the backs expressing themselves.

"There is definitely more to come from us. Rob Howley is good at devising set plays that use the strengths of different players and so hopefully we will have the chance to show what we can do in Italy.

"The important thing is we utilise the strengths of everyone involved — from nine to 15, and whichever subs get on."

Roberts himself had a better game against France.

He was Wales's top ball carrier and also fronted up in defence, some of his collisions with Mathieu Bastareaud coming close to shaking Stade De France.

How much the win meant to him on the occasion of his 50th cap could be seen in a TV interview after the game when he filled up with tears as he discussed the stick that the players and coaches had taken.

Within days a psychologist was wheeled out to say that today's generation of players are under greater pressures than those of previous eras, a theory that might come as a surprise to those from the 1970s, who found that however many trophies Wales won during that era there was always expectation of more.

Twitter and other forms of social media do give supporters more outlets to vent their feelings, but often players are praised as much as criticised. If they are happy to accept the bouquets, the argument goes that they should be willing to take the brickbats.

But credit Roberts. He later defended supporters' right to have their say.

And, while his display of emotion wouldn't have been cheered by all, it showed exactly how much playing for Wales meant to him.

"I've taken a bit of stick from the boys for that, but anyone who knows me knows I can get emotional," he said.

"It's part and parcel of sport. I shed a few tears — I was in a good place and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

"It was one of the best days I've had in a red jersey with the 50th cap, but even more so for the team after all the hard work and pressure we'd been through.

"I don't read the papers myself.

"Being in Wales you are always going to have people expressing their opinions on rugby, but the things that count for me are the opinions of the coaches and players.

"It is a rollercoaster in Wales and it can be difficult to control negative things.

"That said, it's the same when you win as when you lose. You just have to try to focus on what you can control and keep things in perspective.

"We would be very stupid to believe our own press after winning one game.

"Winning away in France is a great achievement but we won't fall into the trap of believing the hype."

On his own displays of late, Roberts said: "I am happy with my form.

"I was disappointed with the Ireland game where I did not really get into the match as much as I hoped, but France was better.

"It was a physical game and our defence was magnificent."

Roberts has a big month in front of him, with his final exams in medicine scheduled for the week of the game against England.

"It's about managing your time," he added.

"I've been working hard for the past two or three months. Anyone would say I am mental to try to do it all, but I don't have other options.

"It will be the end of eight years and the student days will be over."

The cramming can wait.

For the time being it is hard running that will occupy the minds of Roberts, Davies, George North, Cuthbert, Leigh Halfpenny and Co.

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