Jamie Roberts is relishing the chance to be back involved with Wales
Jamie Roberts returns to the Wales side this weekend and admits watching the autumn internationals from the sidelines was a bitter pill to swallow.
When I first found out I was injured and I was missing the autumn, the Six Nations was the next big target for me
The giant centre has struggled with knee and ankle problems since joining French club Racing Metro from Cardiff Blues last summer but is now fit to start for Warren Gatland's men in the RBS 6 Nations opener with Italy.
Saturday's clash with the Azzurri is the first step for Wales as they look to secure what would be a historic treble of Championship titles. Gatland may be without the experienced Ryan Jones and Ian Evans in the pack but the availability of Roberts is a huge boost to the defending champions. He partners the inform Scott Williams in midfield against Jacques Brunel's side and failed to hide his delight at the prospect of running back out at the Millennium Stadium.
"Having missed the autumn, I found it very hard watching - I can assure you of that," said the 27-year-old.
"It's nice to have the chance to play again. When I first found out I was injured and I was missing the autumn, the Six Nations was the next big target. I've always kept that in the back of my mind as I've been doing my rehab. I had a bit of a hiccup with my knee injury but I'm thrilled to be back in this Welsh team.
"I've played alongside these boys for the last three, four or five years. We're a well-oiled machine and I think that's a good way of putting it, especially after the last two campaigns. We know if we get our big players fit and firing then we're a dangerous outfit."
After Italy got the better of both France and Ireland in last year's campaign, a win over the men in blue is no longer a foregone conclusion. Having said that, Roberts reckons Wales must embrace the tag of favourites for this year's title.
"This first game up is a huge test. Italy as we say every year are a vastly improving team and looking back two years ago, it took us a good 60 or 70 minutes to crack them," he said.
"There is no doubt it will be the same this weekend, they're a tough outfit with some very serious players.
"But there is a lot of experience in the squad and after the last two Six Nations campaigns, we go into this one full of confidence. We're favourites, rightly so, and we have to train and prepare that way. Warren has spoken about having a strut and being confident as well as humble but we have to go out and express ourselves and not go into our shells on the pitch."
Roberts warmed up for this Saturday's Six Nations opener by helping his club side to a morale-boosting 25-5 win over Toulouse at the Stade de France. Domestic teammates Mike Phillips and Dan Lydiate were also to the fore in that victory, a game which gave Roberts a timely boost going into the next few weeks.
He added: "It was a new thing for me going back to play at the weekend but the timing was good, especially after my knee injury. It was nice to be able to play in a big game leading into the Six Nations.
"To play at the Stade de France and beat Toulouse quite comfortably was nice and it was a big confidence booster for me, Mike and Dan. I've suffered a bit of bad luck with injuries but you just have to chuck yourself back in and I was delighted to come back unscathed."
With back-to-back clashes with Italy and Ireland on the horizon, Roberts is now firmly focused on international duty. It all starts with the Italians with lock Alun Wyn Jones leading Wales out on Saturday. Roberts joined Jones on the successful British & Irish Lions tour last summer, with the Wales lock skippering the Lions to the third Test win over Australia.
"I've played with Alun for a long time now and he plays with his heart on his sleeve," said Roberts.
"He is 110 per cent in everything he does, whether that's training or playing. One of the best ways to lead is to lead by example and I remember his speech before the third Test with the Lions and it sent the hairs on the back of your neck standing up.
"To see a bloke who is literally in tears giving a speech, I remember that very, very vividly. He's a very passionate Welshman and deserves to have the captaincy."
On the prospect of forming a new centre partnership with Williams, the Racing Metro man added: "Scott is one of the most improved players in Welsh rugby and he's taken another step forward this year. His performances for his region have been up there with some of the best in Europe this year.
"He shone during the autumn and is a good distributor, a good rugby player and hopefully we can put him into some space. If you give him a sniff, he's a dangerous finisher so I'm looking forward to playing alongside him as part of a strong and experienced back line."
Nearly 40 players were involved in the first Wales Under 18 training session of the season. WRU National Performance Manager Gethin Watts is excited at the potential shown by the group and expects the Regional Under 18 Championship to hone their skills even further.