Dr James Robson is a British & Irish Lions legend.
His skill and experience underpinned every Lions Tour from 1993 to 2013, putting him at the heart of some of the greatest highs and debilitating lows in the history of the most famous touring team in the world.
Robson has unique skills. He qualified as a physiotherapist and then became a doctor. He is the man who saved Will Greenwood’s life when the young centre crashed onto the rock hard pitch in Bloemfontein on the 1997 Tour.
The anguish and concern felt by everyone was captured on the Living with Lions video which helped Greenwood understand what had happened after he was knocked out. “I have no hesitation in repeating, with the information we got after that injury, that he saved my life,” said Greenwood, who went on to become a Rugby World Cup winner in a 55-cap England career.
That 1997 Tour, which saw the Lions defeat World Cup winners South Africa 2-1, was a mixture of tumultuous triumph and pain and remains Robson’s favourite rugby experience. There was the joy of Jeremy Guscott’s series winning drop goal in Durban, the serious injury to Greenwood and also the desperate disappointment of losing Scotland lock Doddie Weir, whose knee ligaments were ruptured in a mid-week game.
A Lions Tour asks so much of every member of the party. Players and management become a single unit, a family sharing a multitude of emotions and problems and at the heart of this was Robson for six tours that took him to New Zealand (1993, 2005), Australia (2001, 2013) and South Africa (1997, 2009).
Robson, based in Dundee where he lives with wife Christine, also a GP, and their two daughters, is now Scottish Rugby’s Chief Medical Officer. He will be on the touchline as the Scotland team doctor when international rugby returns following the COVID-19 lockdown. Robson received an MBE for services to rugby and in 2010 he was awarded a Fellowship ad hominem from The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, an extremely rare accolade which recognised the Whitehaven-born GP had provided special service to the “art and science of surgery”.
That year he had protected Thom Evans from possible paralysis with the treatment he gave the Scotland wing on the pitch after he was injured against Wales. Evans’ match jersey, presented to the man who helped save him, is the only memento of Robson’s rugby life that hangs on the wall of his family home in Dundee.
I had the privilege of touring with Robson on those six Lions campaigns and presented him with a Rugby Union Writers’ Club tie in 1993 in recognition of the fact he had treated more members of the travelling media for various ailments than players in New Zealand during a particularly wet trip.
Robson’s debut with the Lions
His rugby medical journey had started with Dundee High School FP, the North and Midlands, Scotland’s North American tour in 1991 and the first of his Rugby World Cup’s that year.
During his Lions career Robson oversaw remarkable changes in the medical support for touring teams. 1993 was the last undertaken in the amateur era and he has been at the heart of many of those improvements, using his vast knowledge of the demands of international rugby to shape the care and attention that is now standard practice.
However it was very different 27 years ago as Robson explained: “In the amateur days I was able to help out at Dundee FP, I was both doctor and physio for North and Midlands which was unusual in those days and also covered Scotland sevens, Scotland B and the national team using my holidays.
“For the 1993 Lions Tour I was put forward by Scotland and Ian McGeechan was going to be the coach. My first involvement with Scotland had been sitting on a plane next to Doddie Weir going to Canada (1991) because the Scotland physio at the time was working in the NHS and couldn’t get the time off.
“For the Lions Tour we had one physio – Kevin “Smurf” Murphy – and me as the doctor. What helped me is that in effect we had two physios and a doctor on Tour because of my dual qualification. I learnt so much from “Smurf” and he had a way with the players that I, perhaps, absorbed. He was also a wonderful guy.
“All of a sudden I found I was in the company of legendary players I had only watched on TV which was quite surreal. There were real characters on that trip. That Tour was played in largely awful weather and I have talked to my wife about going back when it’s dry! It is easily as wet as Scotland.
“The flight into New Plymouth in 1993 was memorable. We had to circle the airport because they hadn’t landed a plane of that size on the runway before and I was sitting next to a couple of players, one of whom was offering up prayers. In that series I felt we should won that first Test and the second Test was just an amazing win. The press organised champagne for us after the game back at the hotel. Geech had pre-warned me about becoming quite institutionalised on a long Tour because you are living in that bubble and get drawn in the vernacular. In those amateur days I came back home on the Saturday from New Zealand and was at my practice on the Monday and had to be careful with some of the elderly patients in terms of the language I used!”
The Lions had to deal with the disappointment of a 2-1 Test series loss in New Zealand, but there were better times ahead.
When the tour party for the first professional trip to South Africa was announced in 1997, McGeechan was again the coach with Robson the Tour doctor and Mark Davies of Wales, as physio.
“Once you have gone on one Lions Tour you are desperate to go on another. We were just into the professional era and were joined by ex-league players such as John Bentley, and Allan Bateman. We also had Richard Wegrzyk as masseur.
“Losing Doddie in the Mpumalanga game was a piece of skulduggery and I remember thinking, ‘the ACL has gone’. A scan showed that was the case – it was devastating. That was the most even Tour party I ever went on and you could have had a starting Test XV from anyone in the party. Guys like Bentos [John Bentley] brought a different attitude to training and the other players learnt from the former league guys. The Living with Lions video made such an amazing impact and giving Bentos a camera to carry around was a masterstroke. I had never met anyone like him before and people talk about larger than life characters and he was – and still is.”
Two moments from the video still hit home at every watching – the speech by forwards coach Jim Telfer on the eve of the first Test match and the scenes of real worry as Greenwood was carried from the pitch. While Robson was at the heart of the treatment to save Greenwood’s life, it wasn’t until he watched the video that he was aware of Telfer’s famous speech.
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“Jim had gone to one side with the forwards and it was much later that I realised what a momentous speech that was.
“Winning the first Test was followed by the South African press writing ‘wait to the next game’. They were saying the Lions were pussycats and then we got to Durban and Jeremy’s drop goal was the icing on the cake and the series was won. That is undoubtably the best Lions Tour I have been on and has created the longest lasting bonds.”
The Greenwood injury
“When you are on the touchline your focus is on the players and at the game when Will (Greenwood) was hurt, it was clear something was wrong from Rob Wainwright’s reaction because he was medically qualified. It was horrendous really and your medical training kicks in and looking back now, you think ‘did I do that?’. The big thing for me was unlike now, where we have specialist doctors in the stadium on match day, there was just the two team doctors. You realise that ‘I am it’.
“In the medical room we were waiting for Will to come around, protecting his airways while outside the room you could hear his parents and it still gives me shivers. You cannot help thinking ‘what if?’ When you get injured like that you lose the ability to protect your airways so they have to be put into the recovery position. Thoughts go through your head ‘do I have to put a blade through his throat?’ At that point he came around.”
Serious illness has struck down two Scotland players since that 1997 Tour – Doddie Weir and Tom Smith – and Robson has been deeply affected.
“Doddie has been one of the nicest guys I have ever had the pleasure of being involved with and when I heard about his diagnosis I was devastated. The way he has conducted himself has been incredible. We then learnt about Tom’s illness and his continuing treatment and I really don’t think I could have coped the way Doddie and Tom have done with their illnesses. Tom is more of a quiet individual but such a combative prop in the heat of battle.”
The incredible high of the 1997 Lions 2-1 series triumph over the Springboks was followed four years later by the disappointment of losing 2-1 to Australia with Graham Henry, the first New Zealander to take charge of the Lions, as head coach. A wonderful solo try by Brian O’Driscoll lit up the first Test triumph but then a sickening blow to the head of England flanker Richard Hill impacted the second Test which the Wallabies won and they took the decider in Sydney.
“It was a different Tour with a non-Home Unions head coach but there was continuity in the medical and physio team with the three of us touring again. It was trip with a lot of injuries and while all Tours are great, it was marred by injury niggles that started from the first session.
“Richard Hill suffered one of the most severe concussions and didn’t really know where he was and it changed the complexion of the Test match. What I do remember from that Tour was the arrival of the Red Army and by the second Test the Australians were handing out gold scarves to try and match the visiting fans. By the time we got to the final Test we were almost on our knees and had to draft Andy Nicol in on the bench from outside the party. Desolation would be the best way to describe the feeling after the series was lost.”
Sir Clive Woodward was handed control of the 2005 Tour to New Zealand and took the largest ever playing squad and recognised the need to increase the medical support taking three physios, two doctors and Wegrzyk again as the masseur.
Robson was in charge of the medical group which included a young Gary O’Driscoll, cousin of Brian who is now the Arsenal team doctor. It was yet another Tour where an injury made the headlines with Lions captain O’Driscoll upended by two All Blacks, landing on his shoulder. It was an injury that ended O’Driscoll’s Tour and Robson remembers: “I can come off the pitch at the end of the game and while I know if we have won, if you ask me who has scored and I wouldn’t be able to tell you. However, ask me who has had an injury and I will know.
“That is where your concentration is during a game and when Brian was injured your senses take a real high until you make your assessment. With Phil Pask, the physio, also there it is like having a comfort blanket and we were making the assessment and it was a small relief to find out it was his shoulder and not his neck which sounds perverse because it is still a very serious injury. I learnt a lot from Clive on that tour, but bigger Tours are not necessarily better Tours because you do lose that touch of intimacy and the Tour was unrelenting.”
Four years later, McGeechan was back in charge with a management that included Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards for the challenge of South Africa in 2009. The party was scaled down. It was a Tour that included a second Test that has gone down as one of the most physically combative in the game’s history.
Robson was in the middle of the maelstrom
“We took five Lions players to hospital and I remember saying that I had never been involved in such a brutal game of rugby. Thankfully, we had good medical back up and after that match we started to question the sheer physicality of the sport and the desire to get back to a more skill-based game globally. That was the early days of a concussion protocol.”
Robson’s final Lions Tour took him back to Australia which meant he had completed two whole cycles of campaigns and Gatland was head coach for a series that brought a 2-1 triumph – a fitting finale for the much-travelled team doctor.
“We are blessed with the fact we get to tour in wonderful countries and are treated fantastically well. Gats settled into the role and it was seamless, and as we got a bigger medical team we tried to make sure we had elements from all four countries because that helped with an intimate knowledge of the players.
“By 2013, the players had gained an increased medical knowledge because they are exposed to not only their own injuries but those of teammates. That knowledge base is like chalk and cheese compared to years ago. On that Tour we got to the deciding Test and the Red Army really did play a role with the players performing so well to win the match and the series.”
Robson is able to reflect on six incredible Lions Tours and as he recalled his remarkable service to the cause it’s the intensity of the challenge that stands.
“They are the most draining of times, but also the most exhilarating of times.”
This article is part of the British & Irish Lions Freelance Writers Project.
Chris Jones has covered seven Lions Tours and was rugby and tennis correspondent for the Evening Standard for 22 years. He now writes for the Sunday Times, ESPN, the Mail on Sunday and the Express among others.