Stop throwing my players to the lions
Tour doctor is haunted by memories of sharing an ambulance with five players
It was only a partial surprise to James Robson, the long-serving British & Irish Lions team doctor, that Tuesday's announcement of Warren Gatland as the head coach for next summer's eagerly anticipated tour to Australia came with an admission by the manager, Andy Irvine, that there is a concern over player welfare with the tour butting up against the end of the domestic season.
Speaking to The Independent on Sunday, Robson said he was happy that the game was at last addressing the warning signs he has been posting publicly since the 2001 tour. But he admitted there was no guarantee against a repeat of the extraordinary injury rate on the last trip to South Africa, in 2009, after which he raged against the number of injuries and the increasing physical bulk of the players.
Robson, who is expected to make his sixth successive tour as the Lions' doctor in 2013 and is also the Scottish Rugby Union's head of medical services, said he would like to have seen a relaxation in the end-of-season fixture schedule. "I'm not a match administrator, I'm a medic," said Robson, "but my desire would have been for the finals not to be where they are," referring to the Premiership and Pro 12 finals on 25 May, two days before the Lions fly to Hong Kong to face the Barbarians followed by nine further games, including three Tests in Australia.
Gatland reckoned up to half his squad might be involved in the two finals, ruling them out of the Baa-Baas fixture which also clashes with the French Top 14 final, leading to a potential dilemma for France-based players, including Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson, named by Gatland as a possible tourist along with former England centre Mike Tindall.
Robson has vivid memories of the spectacularly entertaining but "brutal" Second Test in Pretoria in 2009 that ended with five Lions, including the Ireland captain, Brian O'Driscoll, in hospital. "That was just unacceptable, five people and myself in an ambulance going to hospital," he said. "Unfortunately there is nothing to say that it wouldn't happen again, though it would be exceptional.
"But by the strategies the International Rugby Board and others are putting in place and the worldwide standards of care, we would hope it wasn't repeated. We have had annual medical conferences run by the IRB, attended by countries way beyond the Lions. There have been changes to the laws, such as use it or lose it and the five seconds to play the ball at the ruck, that will speed up the game. The more muscle-bound players might have had to slim down a little, because you need your mobility, you need your agility and your speed. Certainly the IRB have come out with statistics showing the injury rate has plateaued."
Naturally Robson would prefer the injury rate to go down. A self-confessed Lions devotee, he became well known as the emotional narrator of the Living with Lions video diary of the 1997 tour. That and subsequent editions showed him in his blue surgical gloves punching the air at great tries being scored, in between graphic treatment-room scenes and players in tears at being told their tours were over.
No one knows if the Lions' run of series defeats in 2001 (Australia), 2005 (New Zealand) and 2009 would have been different with a kinder schedule, but it is one they are locked into until after 2017. The upside is obvious. Lions players will earn a basic tour fee of £45,000, rising to £68,000 if they win all 10 matches; the Lions board expect to make £4 million through sponsorship and travel packages, including around 7,500 sets of tickets; each home union receive £50,000 a man in compensation for their players; Australia are predicted to make £39m from 500,000 spectators; among many commercial and broadcasting deals, adidas sold 650,000 units of kit around the 2009 tour. As one former great, Jerry Guscott, put it: "A legend is someone who's played for the Lions and I think it will always be that way."
Robson and Irvine were at pains to recall the players who finished the 2009 Lions tour in better shape than when they started. Gatland, who was there as assistant to Ian McGeechan, is expected to heed the lessons of not training before 10am and having strictly observed days off.
"At least on the tour you are able to manage players with a fairly large, dedicated medical staff," Robson said. "It was just as well we did that in '09 because it was such a physical tour. I'll admit the number of games hasn't changed greatly since 1997 but training has been modified."
Robson still harbours concerns about concussion, notwithstanding IRB trials of better diagnosis and management. He is looking into funding in Scotland to track players' health up to 30 years after their careers end. "We are also trying to raise the standards in immediate injury care," he said, recalling the crucial success in looking after Thom Evans when the Scotland wing broke his neck in Cardiff in 2010. "I don't want people to suddenly think we've solved everything. We haven't."
Out of Africa
Selected but unable to tour in 2009:
Jerry Flannery (Ireland, elbow)
Tom Shanklin (Wales, shoulder)
Tomas O'Leary (Ireland, ankle)
Tour ended while in South Africa Stephen Ferris (Ireland, knee)
Leigh Halfpenny (Wales, thigh)
Ryan Jones (Wales, concussion)
Euan Murray (Scotland, ankle)
Lee Byrne (Wales, foot/thumb)
Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland, concussion)
Adam Jones (Wales, shoulder)
Jamie Roberts (Wales, wrist)
Gethin Jenkins (Wales, cheekbone)
Ronan O'Gara (Ireland, eye)
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