RORY Lamont is in relaxed and friendly mode as we meet up in a Glasgow coffee shop, but that is hiding a burning desire to get things off his chest.
His left foot is in a medical boot used to aid recovery from ankle injuries, the Scotland internationalist having recently undergone what was his 16th operation during a ten-year professional rugby career. It proved to be one too many for the 30-year-old, who finally called time on rugby in May after deciding he no longer had the will to fight back from this latest setback after more than a year in rehab trying to make himself fit again.
There are some in Scottish rugby and further afield who will nod, and tell you it underlines their belief that Lamont was “a bit soft”; that he lacked the mental strength to deal with the harsh side of modern rugby union. Some qualified medical practitioners and highly-respected coaches will tell you ‘a lot of it was in his head’.
By the end of our interview, and a series of revelations of how he and other top names played for Scotland when seriously injured, and saying so, our concern is absolute at how aspects of modern rugby coaching and medical treatment remain in the dark ages.
Lamont is quick to state that he has enjoyed his rugby career and clutches the memories of playing for Northampton, Sale, Toulon, Glasgow and Scotland dearly. He is a phlegmatic character and, despite what he tells me of his career, has no trace of bitterness or regret. He refuses to say which coaches and medics mocked him or insisted that he play when he was insistent that his body was not up to it.
But this is a story that has to be taken seriously. Lamont retains good relationships in the game and does not wish to finish his career throwing criticism at individuals. Instead, he wants coaches to think twice and thrice when a player says he can’t play, and wants players, above all, to realise that they must stop the lies, the macho approach to hiding injury and simply accepting a coach’s demand to play when injured, and change the culture for the benefit of the players coming behind them.
It might sound grandiose, but once we get into Lamont’s examples of facing the All Blacks, having told the coaches he was not fit, the message begins to sink in.
“These are things I could not say when I was playing,” he began. “But this has to be spoken about because we are involved in a sport that is still only relatively new and where injuries are occurring frequently. Do we know how that is going to affect us as humans in later life? No, we don’t, because the first full-career pros have only just retired.
“It is important for me to say from the start that the game of rugby and the medical side of things have improved hugely in the past decade, and is far better and safer now in many ways, with better rehab, and prehab. I also want to make clear that I believe medics involved in sport and coaches have a very tough job, and you have to accept that mistakes happen to the very best, but the crucial part for me is that players are still not being listened to, and that is a major problem in the game.”
Lamont picks out Dr James Robson, the SRU’s head of medicine, as someone players retain huge faith in, not least because he will often back a player to the hilt in refusing a coach’s demand to play. Furthermore, he insists that the fact his career lasted until this year was down to excellent medical care and expertise from many in the game. But the examples where it was not is what needs addressed.
“This is the stuff that never gets spoken about and the public never get to hear,” he said. “But, in 2010, we played against the All Blacks. I had played against Stade Francais [for Toulon] ten days before and taken a huge hit to the quadricep, and had a massive bleed, haematoma, and could hardly run when I came over to join Scotland for training.
“I tried my best in training but, when I got to 60 percent of my speed, that was my limit. Five minutes into the team run the day before the game, I pulled up and said ‘this is no good’. The thigh went into spasm and I couldn’t run.
“I told them [medics and coaches] I couldn’t play and was looking at pulling myself out. I had done it once before, also against the All Blacks [in 2008], when I had a bad shoulder injury, but they disagreed and said it was in my head.
“So I had medics in one ear, coaches in the other. I want to play more than anyone and my body’s saying ‘no, no, no ...’ Next day, I’m doing the warm-up at Murrayfield and the quad’s stiff, my head is all over the place. I’m looking at the crowds and thinking I shouldn’t be here.
“I put it out of my mind and concentrate on my first job, to sprint from the kick-off and make the first tackle. The whistle goes, and I take off and, after about 15 metres, I feel something go ffffft in my thigh and the pain suddenly becomes excruciating.
“Two seconds into the game. I know if I go off now, this will screw the team, because we only had Nikki Walker covering the entire threequarter line, so we’d be short of cover, and we’re trying to beat the All Blacks for the first time.
“So, I get it treated, let it ease and stay on until half-time. I did my best but I played like shit. I never missed a tackle, because I couldn’t get near them. We lost four tries and Mike Blair to injury. I told them at half-time ‘I can’t stay on’, and they weren’t happy. But I stayed off. We lose heavily, a coach asks me after the game if I have a mental issue with playing the All Blacks. I just shake my head.
“The next day I return to France. I get it checked out and I’ve got a four-inch tear down my quad muscle – out of the game for another six weeks. Brilliant.
“I got hammered in the press for having a shit game. I tell the coach about the tear and there’s no apology or anything. Who cares?”
At club level, he recalls breaking his jaw in the first ten minutes of a game but being told to play on.
“My mouth is spitting blood, my jaw is in agony, I get treated and stay on the pitch. I come in at half-time and say ‘look, I need more painkillers; this is not good’. The response was ‘look, if you’re not interested in playing, we’ll replace you with someone who is’.
“I said ‘I do want to play’, so I get on with it, play the rest of the game, go home afterwards and don’t sleep at all. The next day, I phone the club doctor and say ‘I need to get to hospital now because I’m in agony’. We go, get x-rayed and it shows two pieces of my jaw are split, being held together only by muscle. Again, no apology from the doc or the coach.
“I had plenty of time in rehab but I broke my scaphoid [he points to obvious ugly scar down his wrist] once and played for eight months because every time I complained to the doc he’d say there was nothing serious. When it was finally diagnosed, the doc was ‘oh yes, it’s broken; should really have had that operated on straight away because now you run the risk of arthritis’. And I spent £5,000 of my own money to get the operation I was told I really needed.”
These incidents happened at various clubs in different countries. The issues are not of geography, but born of a culture still in rugby that is at odds with professionalism. It is not an easy issue for coaches, physios and doctors. Injuries are rarely black or white and diagnosis often an art, not a science. How many times do GPs and even specialists get it wrong, and some never see the severity of injuries in rugby which Dr Robson likens to those from car crashes?
Coaches, too, will invariably motivate players by pushing them through fears, when the pain was not as great as a player feared. But with 20-stone athletes crashing into each other, the game now has the potential to be more dangerous and errors of judgment more damaging.
There is a worrying acceptance among modern players that they will suffer serious injury at least once in their career, while a number of leading players have suffered from mis-diagnoses, had recovery periods doubled with changing opinions over the need for operations and been forced to retire through injury. Little is said.
So, Lamont’s testimony has to be welcomed. It comes from someone who knows plenty of pro rugby’s dark side. He says he has never suffered a recurrent problem and none of his 16 operations were for related injuries.
There has been a perception that he can be both brave and foolhardy, but, as one recalls his attempts to beat opponents to high balls, and clash mid-air, his leg once and ankle another time collapsing on landing, or taking a knee flush in the face as he desperately, and successfully, stopped a try by an England winger on the wet Murrayfield turf, many of Lamont’s daring efforts were also of the type that brought Scotland, and club supporters to their feet in raptures. And he was good, undoubtedly one of the best full-backs Scotland has produced in the professional era.
But the recollections above and incidents affecting fellow internationalists have led Lamont to believe in his own instincts. That manifested itself in defying medics and coaches, insisting on his own warm-ups and refusing to play with pain, and earned him a reputation for “having mental issues”.
A large problem in scale or small? It is impossible to tell. But it could be serious for every player affected and Lamont is hoping that by sharing his experiences he could help to effect change.
He added: “Ultimately, a player is responsible for his own body. But they also have to be listened to when they say they are injured or we’ll see more and more players being injured out of the game.”