Few Lions can claim to be lifesavers as well as legends but Dr James Robson is among that select band.
The numerous tourists who achieved similar feats in armed conflicts obviously did so away from the field of play, as did Wales forward and 1910 squad member Harry Jarman who threw himself in front of a runaway coal truck to prevent it crushing a group of children.
But Robson stepped into the breach while on duty with the Lions back in 1997, stopping Will Grenwood from passing to the other side after the young centre swallowed his tongue having being flung to the ground by Jaco Coetzee against Free State.
That intervention will live long in Lions folklore given the seriousness of the situation but Robson’s reputation goes far beyond that one heroic incident.
The 55-year-old is practically part of the furniture when it comes to the Lions. After he takes his place on this summer’s tour of Hong Kong and Australia, only Sir Ian McGeechan will have been involved with more Lions adventures.
The trip to Oz will be Robson’s sixth in total and his second to Australia – just one tour behind Lion King McGeechan who toured twice as a player and five times as a coach. But whereas Geech had a 12-year-gap between his last tour as a player and his first as a coach and then sat out the 2001 tour in the middle of his coaching involvements, Robson’s selections have come on successive adventures.
Having first had the call up in 1993 when the Lions headed to New Zealand, Robson was involved in South Africa in ’97 and Australia in 2001, before starting the cycle again in 2005 and continuing on in 2009. A famous five tours in a row was a record that Willie John McBride set in 1962, 1966, 1968, 1971 and 1974 but one that no one had matched until Robson completed a full handful four years ago. McBride added another to his tally with his role as manager in 1983 but even he didn’t celebrate six in a row with the Lions.
Dr James Robson is closing in on Sir Ian McGeechan's record of seven Lions tours
Robson may not have had too much to celebrate in terms of series successes in his Lions career to date but there have been plenty of highs along the way. The 2-1 victory over the Springboks 16 years ago obviously stands out, but the second Test win in ’93, the first Test triumph in ’01 and the latest Lions win in the third rubber in ’09 must come close.
But while he freely admits he loves being a Lion, his role does bring plenty of hardships. Telling a player that their Lions tour is over prematurely or working from 6am til midnight trying to get players back on the park is no easy ride. Only the head coach and tour manager can really match the lead tour doctor in saying they are never off duty.
A shoulder to cry on as well as an expert in his field, Robson has had to respond professionally and personally to an almost endless list of injury setbacks soon set to span three decades. When Rob Howley’s tour came to a depressing end in 1997, it was Robson that had to break the news; when Brian O’Driscoll was spear tackled by Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu in 2005, Robson was first on the scene; and when the Lions pack fell foul to injury after injury in the second Test in Pretoria four years ago, it was Robson who was left picking up the pieces.
It’s likely that more of the same will follow this year, but Robson will no doubt respond in the sensible but sympathetic manner that has made him a favourite with the Lions family. He may not have been a star player or a big-name personality prior to his involvement with Britain and Ireland’s elite, but Robson gets the Lions. He understands the unique ethos of the world’s most-famous touring team and he appreciates better than most the complexities of a demanding trip to the other side of the world at the end of a long hard season.
So what did Robson do before he became ‘Dr Lions’? Well, understandably given the fact that the Lions only tour once every four years, it’s more a case of what he still does rather than what he did.
Robson is currently the head of medical services / national team doctor for the Scottish Rugby Union and he also continues to work as a General Practitioner, roles that ensure his time in between tours is almost as hectic as the two months he spends away with the Lions.
His route towards the top began when he initially qualified as a physio from Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh before he spent a further six years studying medicine at Dundee University.
His first official post in rugby came in 1991, when he took up the role of Scottish team physio on their tour to Canada – a position he held until 1996. He then graduated to become the Scottish team doctor at the start of the 2002/03 season, having filled the same role with Scotland A between 1998-2002 and been the doctor/physio for Scotland 7s from 1996-2001.
Robson shows no signs of slowing down, either. He was his usual affable and enthusiastic self when Warren Gatland announced his coaching team in Edinburgh in December and he brought that same energy to Australia when he joined director of operations Guy Richardson and co on their latest recce.
Such is his likeability and longevity that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him match McGeechan’s landmark of seven tours in 2017. In fact it would be more of a shock if he wasn’t there. After all, with his sixth tour looming and close to 60 games already under his belt, it’s hard to imagine the Lions without their star doctor cum life saver.
Dr James Robson's Lions lowdown
Date of birth: November 24, 1957
First Lions tour: 1993 to New Zealand
Most recent Lions tour: 2009 to South Africa
Future Lions involvement: already chosen for 2013 tour to Australia
Head coaches worked with: 4 (McGeechan, Henry, Woodward and now Gatland)
Lions Tests: 15
Lions non-Test appearances: 42
Total Lions appearances: 57
Robson has had to deal with a vast casualty list on his five tours so far
Did you know?
The Lions didn’t take an appointed doctor on tour until 1980 when former centre Dr Jack Matthews made the trip to South Africa.
Dr Robson on creating special bonds
“We are a very close-knit family on tour and there are no secrets. Our medical room is the team room because the boys like that. They like to share their problems. Yes, there are one or two confidential things that you need to go behind closed doors to discuss but, by and large, the boys are incredibly open with each other, to the point of embarrassment for me because I work in an environment where confidentiality is paramount.
“As a medical team you tend to see everybody. The coaches are dealing with the players as a group, whereas the doctor tends to see them as individuals.
“So it's incumbent on the doctors as well as the more senior figures to help gel the party together – there are very few tours where someone will have had had no contact with the doctor.”
On the unique medical challenges of touring Australia
“One of the main challenges of the 2001 tour were the distances we covered, because, for every hour you change through the time zones, you need a day to recover.
“We also had some pretty reasonable heats to start with, particularly in Townsville, and Australia has some of the most venomous animals in the world to watch out for.
"I remember at a training session one of the players sitting down by the side of the pitch and leaping up with a yell, saying they had been bitten.
“We found several ants there but you immediately thought of redback spiders! Just because you're training for a rugby match doesn't mean a spider won't bite you.”
Preparation is a lengthy process for Robson and his medical team
On the constant demands on a doctor’s services
“In the evening, there may be a management meeting, more rehab work or the need to liaise with the media officer if there's a medical matter in the headlines.
“Finally, you won't get through a tour without a crisis during the night. We've had a couple of bad asthmatic attacks – or maybe someone just needs a sleeping tablet. They all say, 'You weren't asleep were you, doc?!'
“You are permanently on call. Only the manager, head coach and doctor are never off tour. It's hard work but the rewards are an equal balance because the buzz of being on a Lions tour is incredible. The workload isn't a hardship.”
On the physical demands on players on a Lions tour
“Coaches realise when you go on a Lions tour that the players are at the end of a long season. They’re at the end of a long campaign that’s usually gone from World Cup to a Lions tour with international tours in between.
“Lions coaches usually back off some of the physical nature of the training because the boys are battle hardened when they arrive on tour. They’ll have plenty games right up until we leave so there’s no need to do the kind of pre-season stuff that you sometimes see.
“This is a new coaching set up so it’s going to be interesting but I think they realise that it’s a fine balance between delivering in training and still having people fit to play on Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday."
On potential pressure to declare injured players fit to play
“I’ve never had a problem saying to coaches that a particular player isn’t fit to play. The biggest problem I have is persuading players that they’re not fit to play.
“If you actually get inside a player’s head and get them to realise that it’s a team sport not an individual sport, and if they think there’s the potential to let their colleagues down, that’s a more powerful message than letting themselves down.
“I’ve certainly never had pressure from a Lions coach saying, ‘He needs to play’. What you say to them is, ‘You either have this guy who’s slightly less skillful but is fully fit or you have this guy who might be slightly more skilful but isn’t fit. You tell me what the right way to go is’. There isn’t a massive gulf between the players on a Lions tour.”