Good doctor takes pride of place

Maybe it’s the occupational hazards involving burst flesh, broken bones, black eyes, torn sinews or displaced teeth, but the sport of rugby and the arts of medicine have long been bedfellows.

There’s a delicious Pythonesque irony in the thought of rugby practitioners such as JPR Williams or Jack Matthews of Wales, John O’Driscoll of Ireland or Rob Wainwright of Scotland filling their Monday morning surgeries with a roster of battered patients of their own making.

One wonders, too, if Jim Burnett, Chas Afuakwah or Chris Gray - all dentists in real life - ever had to say "open wide" to rugby opposition whose teeth they had displaced.

Amateurs all, of course; nowadays you are either a professional doctor or a professional rugby player, but the era of non-stop playing for pay and its attendant demands on protesting human bodies has opened up a whole new world for GPs with an interest in rugby.

Literally, in the case of Dr James Robson, who in between work at a busy practice in Dundee has been tender of wounds, counsellor and friend to hundreds of rugby players since his first Scotland tour, to Canada in 1991. The trip to Australia next year will be his third British Lions’ assignment, and if anyone doubted the importance of medicine in modern rugby, they have not seen Living With Lions, the video documentary of the first professional rugby tour, to South Africa in 1997.

Despite opposition from that relentless ham John Bentley, the growling minence grise Jim Telfer and the Limerick whimsy of Keith Wood, the undoubted, if reluctant, star of the show was Robson. This was partly due to the unprecedented level of injury that included tour-ending damage to Paul Grayson, Robert Howley and Doddie Weir and a frightening near-fatality involving the England centre Will Greenwood, but also to the fact that Robson’s obvious concern and involvement with the players made for a riveting, often moving, documentary - particularly when he had to inform Howley and Weir that the tour was over for them.

The camera was also witness as Robson fought to resuscitate the lifeless Greenwood while the player’s mother wailed in the background: "It still almost brings tears to my eyes; the hairs still rise on the back of my neck when I think back to that."

And here’s a clue, perhaps, why the amiable 43-year-old GP was the first choice of tour personnel for the 2001 Lions manager Donal Lenihan and his committee. "You get close to the players, and you really feel for them," says Robson. "It means so much for these guys like Doddie or Rob to be there, and to miss out is a shame. Having to tell him, after your worst fears are realised about the injury, is the hardest thing. You almost feel it’s your fault.

"You are a confidante and a listening ear, and that’s where being a GP comes in, because it is a normal part of the job. Sometimes players just want to chat about things: they want a different slant on what is going on in their minds."

James Peter Robson - "Yes, I’m proud to say I’m a JPR" - was born in West Cumbria, but has lived in Scotland for 17 years, and he has been a regular part of the international scene for close to a decade. His ancestors, he points out, were "all hard people within the Border area", and his grandfather trained as a dentist in Edinburgh.

Robson himself conducted a physiotherapy practice in the capital before training for medicine and taking up a post in Dundee. His wife, Christine, is also a GP in the city.

"I played rugby at school and joined Edinburgh Wanderers when I moved to Edinburgh - the thirds with odd games for the seconds - but then it was becoming a bit dangerous; people standing on my hands and things, so I packed in. But I was desperate to stay in the game.

"I was lucky in that I got involved with the North and Midlands team, then got a phone call out of the blue asking if I could go as physio on Scotland’s tour of Canada in ’91. Since then, I think the fact that I was a GP with physio qualifications helped.

"The Lions are another level, and it is wonderful being involved in working with all the home nations. You make friends for life, and not just among the players.

"There are more GPs involved in sports tours now because it’s a bit like having a general practice surgery. Players will come in and say: ‘Doc, I’ve got a sore throat’ or: ‘What’s this rash in my groin?’ Or: ‘What’s this on my foot?’ So general practice, by its nature, lends itself well to touring doctors. You have to keep yourself up to date, do resuscitation courses, go to dermatology lectures, but the bulk of my experience that I need for sports medicine comes from within the practice."

With young players far from home, of course, complaints to the hard-pressed medic can be wide-ranging. "It’s hard work on tour, and you are on call from the moment you start to the moment you finish, and it’s not just rugby injuries," says Robson. "You are the first point of contact, even in a foreign land, and you are quite busy in that only you and the manager are contactable 24 hours a day. You will get knocks on the door at 5am in the morning from a nervous player saying: ‘I can’t sleep. Can I have a sleeping pill?’ So you find what they need.

"On a match day we would normally start about 6.30am, because it is important to get an adequate breakfast. Then you attend to the players who are not playing. You need to know that the medical bag is fully stocked, there are liquids on the coach, how far the venue is, liaise with the hotel staff.

"Then the players who are playing will maybe come for a rub: there are team talks, last-minute requests, you have to check the medical facilities at the venue, make sure the room is laid out, and shout at people to get things done. Then all hell breaks loose!

"On long tours things catch up, and at the end you feel like a break but, of course, it’s back to work because you have already taken time off."

Robson is in no doubt that professional rugby has increased the workload of medical staff, and made full-time team doctors inevitable: the RFU are advertising now.

"It’s not just direct injuries; it’s the little niggles because they are doing nothing else virtually, but play or train. Some things are better. On my first Lions tour, in 1993, it was the first introduction of the blood-bin, and you only had five minutes to get a player back on field. That means you either really have to practise your stitching, or you put very big stitches in and have another go later. There’s more time now."

But Robson’s work has already begun for the 2001 tour: "You need to know what supplies are going out, what forms the players have to fill in. We are all thinking ahead. It’s all about attention to detail." You suspect such details will help to win a series.