Jess Roberts from Ammanford is testament to the rewards of leaving one’s comfort zone.
Of all things, it was the pandemic that accelerated her need to see just how far she could go in her rugby career. The 26-year-old had helped Barnsley Ladies – the club which had done so much to help her settle into her new life in Yorkshire – to successive promotions, but last year saw a stop to all but the elite level of the game.
“I still wanted to play rugby despite lockdown, and Sale Sharks was a brilliant opportunity for me,” she says of the September move. “Despite loving playing for Barnsley, for a few years I’d felt I could push for more in the game but never really had the chance. I wanted to see if I could compete at the top level.”
Once her breakthrough moment came with the North West outfit, a succession of confidence-building starts in the number nine jersey followed. All of which brought her to the attention of the new Wales Women coach, Warren Abrahams, who handed Roberts her international debut against France on the weekend.
Despite the humbling experience in Vannes, Roberts is unbowed by the result. After all, as Abrahams commented post-match, this is the beginning of a new journey for his team. “I know the result wasn’t great but I actually enjoyed every single minute, despite being on the back foot,” she admits. “The experience of playing for your country is so emotional. It is a shame about the result, but we’re all working so hard to be able to do this.”
Indeed, Roberts, like some of her teammates from North Wales, has been doing regular eight-hour round trips to training in the Vale in the build-up to the Women’s Six Nations. For her personally, that will often mean arriving home in Barnsley in the early hours of the morning, before getting up at half six for work as a cover supervisor in Parkside Primary Academy.
There may be a distance of 260-odd miles between Ammanford and Barnsley, but the towns have more in common than meets the eye. “I couldn’t believe the similarities between the two when I moved there,” says Roberts. “They’re both coalmining towns and the people are very friendly. When I talk to my partner Alix’s grandad about his life down the pit, it’s like I’m talking to my own grandad.”
The Anglo-Welsh connection looks set to get stronger. Not only has Roberts introduced the Welsh language to the Parkside curriculum, but she also gets to use it at Sale Sharks with teammates Molly Kelly, Gwenllian Pyrs and Teleri Wyn-Davies.
Being brought up with Welsh as her first language, Roberts attended Dyffryn Aman school, which catered to Welsh and English speakers alike. It was there she picked up the rugby habit, first in the sevens sense, although not before notable achievements in hockey and football. That exposure to multiple sports has held her in good stead, she believes.
“I played hockey for South West Wales, and my initial goal was to get into the Welsh squad, but then I found my love for rugby. I also played football for Llanelli Reds and West Wales. Those sports can offer you an awareness on the pitch which is very transferrable, and playing in a team environment gives you confidence around different sorts of people.”
From Dyffryn Amman, her abilities as a scrum-half were taken to the next level at Cardiff Met. Ever the rugby powerhouse, her Archers team featured in the BUCS Final at Twickenham on two occasions – with one win and one loss on her record. (In 2019, Roberts made a try-scoring return to the venue as Yorkshire won the County Championship, defeating Sussex.)
“I was actually involved with Wales’ senior squad when I was 18, but I was enjoying the social side of university quite a lot, so I didn’t want to take my rugby that seriously. I didn’t think I’d have enough time to do both.”
After a fairly rapid rise from elite rugby to international honours, it seems Roberts is making up for lost time.