Stop throwing my players to the lions

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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)

Sport
premier leagueLive: All the latest news and scores from today's matches
News
politics
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker