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Dr James Robson: British and Irish Lions tours meant everything to me; 2017 omission was devastating

Dr James Robson, British and Irish Lions tour doctor between 1993 and 2013, shares his memories, highlights and 2017 disappointment

A veteran of six consecutive British and Irish Lions tours between 1993 and 2013, Scotland’s Doctor James Robson spoke exclusively to Sky Sports Rugby of his Lions memories, highlights and the devastation of missing out in 2017…

Speaking as a guest on the latest episode of The Will Greenwood’s Lions podcast, Robson spoke of what being a Lion meant to him.

“It’s meant everything,” he said.

“After my family, it’s been the pivotal part of my life.

“I was very lucky. I got on six consecutive tours, and I was very lucky too because I transcended the amateur into professional.

“So going to New Zealand in 1993 and then to the first professional tour in South Africa in 1997, and then seeing how it developed after that has been a real education.

Robson says working with the Lions meant everything to him

Robson says working with the Lions meant everything to him

“I can only imagine the feeling the players get for being chosen, and watching my current crop of players and the delight on their faces when their name gets announced, it’s the same for the backroom staff – there is nothing better than a Lions tour.

“It is, to me, the pinnacle. Rugby World Cups are great, international camp is fantastic, but the Lions is where everybody wants to be, and that includes the medics.”

For 20 years, Dr Robson was a noticeable figure up and down the sidelines of Lions tour matches, rushing on to treat stricken players and celebrating wildly when tries were scored.

For the last 30 years, Robson has done the same at Scotland Test matches. Where does his passion come from?

“I played at a relatively low level, and as well as being a doctor I am a qualified physiotherapist, and I take great pride in that and helping to do bits and pieces with the other physios.

“Of course, that helped me to get my first Lions job because it meant that they had two physios and a doctor effectively.

“The passion comes from the bond you create with the players.

Selection to go on the Lions' tour to Australia in 2013 meant Robson toured on six consecutive tours

Selection to go on the Lions’ tour to Australia in 2013 meant Robson toured on six consecutive tours

“So off the field matters as much as on the field. If you’ve got enough of an interest you attend the team meetings, you listen to the lineout calls, you watch the backs moves, because that’s part and parcel of good game management.

“You can suss out what’s happening and roughly where the contact points are going to come, and that just allows you to be more alert.

“I’ve toned down my celebrations at pitchside a little as I’ve got older. The thing is, I think you have to have a passion for the sport – there’s nothing wrong with that – but at pitchside you have to be ice cool.

“I will often finish the game not knowing who has scored for instance. I’ll know if we’ve won or lost, but your main focus is on injury.

“When I recall games, sadly, I know that you [Will Greenwood] were just five metres short of halfway when you were injured. I know exactly where Thom Evans was on the Millennium Stadium pitch [neck dislocation in Wales vs Scotland Test in 2010]. It’s these kind of things that stick out in my mind.

“As well as that, the highlights do. I’m still amazed that Jerry [Guscott] was in where Gregor Townsend should have been in 1997 and he’s lived off that. He couldn’t have hit it better.”

Dr Robson worked at his 250th Scotland Test during the 2021 Six Nations

Dr Robson worked at his 250th Scotland Test during the 2021 Six Nations

Back to Robson’s first Lions tour in 1993, he had barely worked with Scotland and knew almost none of the players. Was that first tour intimidating or difficult?

“It was scary, but you have to remember back in 1993 it was easy enough for the players to get to know who management were as there was only five of us.

“Ian McGeechan and Dick Best were the coaches, Geoff Cooke was manager and then myself and Kevin ‘Smurf’ Murphy.

“It was a smaller group and there was no hiding place. We did some various bonding stuff and bits and pieces and then you’re on the plane.

“Then it was up to you to get to know everyone, and what Smurf taught me was we made our medical room an open house, and the boys could come in at all times or days.

“You didn’t have dedicated time off, you just made yourself available, and that allowed people to come in and relax.

“Smurf was a fantastic exponent of that environment. Rala [Patrick O’Reilly] from Ireland had that same ethos as kit man on the Lions tours. His room was an open room, he’d provide tea and a bit of sanctuary.

“And it just allows people to open up, and you gain that trust.”

Dr Robson says creating bonds with the players and a sanctuary for them to relax on tour is huge

Dr Robson says creating bonds with the players and a sanctuary for them to relax on tour is huge

Thinking back to the six Lions tours he worked on between 1993 in New Zealand and 2013 in Australia, Robson was asked by Greenwood to select what comes to mind for each:

1993 vs New Zealand – “Being asked to play scrum-half in training for the forwards, receiving the ball off the top of a lineout, and getting absolutely melted. And I can’t remember who did it!

“I think it was Wade Dooley but I really can’t remember.”

1997 vs South Africa – “It has to be in Durban and that final whistle, and knowing we’d won the series. It was absolute mayhem. I was then stuck with a player who couldn’t pass urine for the anti-doping test, and so we were late to the celebrations and my vivid memory is walking into the team room as Keith Wood was shaving Ian McGeechen’s head.

“I think I was the only person who was awake on the plane from Durban to Johannesburg [for third Test], and I remember looking round and thinking we’re just flying on fumes, and it’s not aviation fuel.”

The Lions' sea of red fans is something that remains with Robson from working on the tours

The Lions’ sea of red fans is something that remains with Robson from working on the tours

2001 vs Australia – “The overriding memory there was the first sea of red. It was the first true, everywhere-you-move Lions support being there.

“People would come up to you in the street and chat Lions, and it was just a crazy time. The friendly nature of the tourists is my overriding memory there.

“Jason Robinson’s try in the first Test is also one of my all-time favourite tries as it came down our side, and we had a grandstand view.”

Dr James Robson: British and Irish Lions tours meant everything to me; 2017 omission was devastating

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2005 vs New Zealand – “Absolutely freezing rain in the first Test, and Brian O’Driscoll’s shoulder injury.

“There was sleet, snow, people suffering from hypothermia.”

2009 vs South Africa – “The second Test. Arguably the most brutal, physical Test match we’ve seen in many respects.

“Other people have said that, but I remember saying to the press afterwards that it truly was brutal and we needed to start looking at how we could take people out of the gym, take a bit of size out, the fact collisions were getting bigger and bigger and how we would return to the heyday of skill and seeking space.

The second Test in South Africa in 2009 remains the most physical match Robson has seen

The second Test in South Africa in 2009 remains the most physical match Robson has seen

“That wasn’t really, truly a medical issue, but it was prompted by the fact that game was so physical. We ended up taking people to hospital, as did they.”

2013 vs Australia – “The sea of red again and the multiple tries in the third Test win.

“And just wow: the skill level was everything. On the night, it just appeared there were no Australian supporters there.

“It felt like a true red army.”

In 2013 in Australia, Lions supporters again come to the forefront of Robson's mind

In 2013 in Australia, Lions supporters again come to the forefront of Robson’s mind

Lastly, Robson touched on his acute disappointment of missing out on the 2017 tour to New Zealand:

“It was devastating.

“I never truly had a handle on players not being selected, but not being selected for what would have been my seventh Lions tour was absolutely devastating.

“I remember the phone call and I remember being absolutely distraught.

“I phoned Gregor Townsend, who had just been appointed Scotland coach for the summer tour coming up, and I said: ‘I’ve not been selected for the Lion tour, I’m hoping you’ll take me on the Scotland tour?’, and he said: ‘It’s their loss and our gain.’

Since missing out for the Lions on their 2017 tour to New Zealand, Robson has continued to work for Scotland and picked up an MBE in 2018

Since missing out for the Lions on their 2017 tour to New Zealand, Robson has continued to work for Scotland and picked up an MBE in 2018

“That made me feel really good, and I enjoyed that summer because it was Gregor’s first as a Test head coach, and allowed for new bonding. I’d looked after him as a player and we do have a special bond. But not to be selected was devastating.

“I have no regrets and I wish everybody on the 2021 tour all the best, because once a Lion always a Lion, you cannot have anything but admiration for what the guys are doing.

“I’m delighted this year that we’ve got far more representation from Scotland on the tour, and some of the guys will realise that the stories I’ve said over the years, it’s all true and it’s a wonderful place to be, albeit curtailed a little with no supporters or travelling support.

“It’s still the best tour to be on.”


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