By Chris Jones
15 December 2023 12:00 Reading Time: 12 mins
Dr James Robson, a British & Irish Lions legend, has announced that he will be retiring after more than 30 years in the sport, stepping down from his role as Scottish Rugby’s Chief Medical Officer after the 2024 Guinness Six Nations.
Robson’s skill and experience underpinned every Lions Tour from 1993 to 2013, putting him at the heart of some of the greatest highs and debilitating lows in the history of the most famous touring team in the world.
Robson has unique skills. He qualified as a physiotherapist and then became a doctor. He is the man who saved Will Greenwood’s life when the young centre crashed onto the rock hard pitch in Bloemfontein on the 1997 Tour.
The anguish and concern felt by everyone was captured on the Living with Lions video which helped Greenwood understand what had happened after he was knocked out. “I have no hesitation in repeating, with the information we got after that injury, that he saved my life,” said Greenwood, who went on to become a Rugby World Cup winner in a 55-cap England career.
That 1997 Tour, which saw the Lions defeat World Cup winners South Africa 2-1, was a mixture of tumultuous triumph and pain and remains Robson’s favourite rugby experience. There was the joy of Jeremy Guscott’s series winning drop goal in Durban, the serious injury to Greenwood and also the desperate disappointment of losing Scotland lock Doddie Weir, whose knee ligaments were ruptured in a mid-week game.
A Lions Tour asks so much of every member of the party. Players and management become a single unit, a family sharing a multitude of emotions and problems and at the heart of this was Robson for six tours that took him to New Zealand (1993, 2005), Australia (2001, 2013) and South Africa (1997, 2009).
Robson received an MBE for services to rugby and in 2010 he was awarded a Fellowship ad hominem from The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, an extremely rare accolade which recognised the Whitehaven-born GP had provided special service to the “art and science of surgery”.
That year he had protected Thom Evans from possible paralysis with the treatment he gave the Scotland wing on the pitch after he was injured against Wales. Evans’ match jersey, presented to the man who helped save him, is the only memento of Robson’s rugby life that hangs on the wall of his family home in Dundee.
I had the privilege of touring with Robson on those six Lions campaigns and presented him with a Rugby Union Writers’ Club tie in 1993 in recognition of the fact he had treated more members of the travelling media for various ailments than players in New Zealand during a particularly wet trip.
His rugby medical journey had started with Dundee High School FP, the North and Midlands, Scotland’s North American tour in 1991 and the first of his Rugby World Cup’s that year.
During his Lions career Robson oversaw remarkable changes in the medical support for touring teams. 1993 was the last undertaken in the amateur era and he has been at the heart of many of those improvements, using his vast knowledge of the demands of international rugby to shape the care and attention that is now standard practice.
However it was very different then as Robson explained: “In the amateur days I was able to help out at Dundee FP, I was both doctor and physio for North and Midlands which was unusual in those days and also covered Scotland sevens, Scotland B and the national team using my holidays.
“For the 1993 Lions Tour I was put forward by Scotland and Ian McGeechan was going to be the coach. My first involvement with Scotland had been sitting on a plane next to Doddie Weir going to Canada (1991) because the Scotland physio at the time was working in the NHS and couldn’t get the time off.
“For the Lions Tour we had one physio – Kevin “Smurf” Murphy – and me as the doctor. What helped me is that in effect we had two physios and a doctor on Tour because of my dual qualification. I learnt so much from “Smurf” and he had a way with the players that I, perhaps, absorbed. He was also a wonderful guy.
“All of a sudden I found I was in the company of legendary players I had only watched on TV which was quite surreal. There were real characters on that trip. That Tour was played in largely awful weather and I have talked to my wife about going back when it’s dry! It is easily as wet as Scotland.
“The flight into New Plymouth in 1993 was memorable. We had to circle the airport because they hadn’t landed a plane of that size on the runway before and I was sitting next to a couple of players, one of whom was offering up prayers. In that series I felt we should won that first Test and the second Test was just an amazing win. The press organised champagne for us after the game back at the hotel. Geech had pre-warned me about becoming quite institutionalised on a long Tour because you are living in that bubble and get drawn in the vernacular. In those amateur days I came back home on the Saturday from New Zealand and was at my practice on the Monday and had to be careful with some of the elderly patients in terms of the language I used!”
The Lions had to deal with the disappointment of a 2-1 Test series loss in New Zealand, but there were better times ahead.
When the tour party for the first professional trip to South Africa was announced in 1997, McGeechan was again the coach with Robson the Tour doctor and Mark Davies of Wales, as physio.
“Once you have gone on one Lions Tour you are desperate to go on another. We were just into the professional era and were joined by ex-league players such as John Bentley and Allan Bateman. We also had Richard Wegrzyk as masseur.
“Losing Doddie in the Mpumalanga game was a piece of skulduggery and I remember thinking, ‘the ACL has gone’. A scan showed that was the case – it was devastating. That was the most even Tour party I ever went on and you could have had a starting Test XV from anyone in the party. Guys like Bentos [John Bentley] brought a different attitude to training and the other players learnt from the former league guys. The Living with Lions video made such an amazing impact and giving Bentos a camera to carry around was a masterstroke. I had never met anyone like him before and people talk about larger than life characters and he was – and still is.”
Two moments from the video still hit home at every watching – the speech by forwards coach Jim Telfer on the eve of the first Test match and the scenes of real worry as Greenwood was carried from the pitch. While Robson was at the heart of the treatment to save Greenwood’s life, it wasn’t until he watched the video that he was aware of Telfer’s famous speech.
“Jim had gone to one side with the forwards and it was much later that I realised what a momentous speech that was.
“Winning the first Test was followed by the South African press writing ‘wait to the next game’. They were saying the Lions were pussycats and then we got to Durban and Jeremy’s drop goal was the icing on the cake and the series was won. That is undoubtably the best Lions Tour I have been on and has created the longest lasting bonds.”
“When you are on the touchline your focus is on the players and at the game when Will (Greenwood) was hurt, it was clear something was wrong from Rob Wainwright’s reaction because he was medically qualified. It was horrendous really and your medical training kicks in and looking back now, you think ‘did I do that?’. The big thing for me was unlike now, where we have specialist doctors in the stadium on match day, there was just the two team doctors. You realise that ‘I am it’.
“In the medical room we were waiting for Will to come around, protecting his airways while outside the room you could hear his parents and it still gives me shivers. You cannot help thinking ‘what if?’ When you get injured like that you lose the ability to protect your airways so they have to be put into the recovery position. Thoughts go through your head ‘do I have to put a blade through his throat?’ At that point he came around.”
Serious illness has struck down two Scotland players since that 1997 Tour – Doddie Weir and Tom Smith – and Robson has been deeply affected.
“Doddie has been one of the nicest guys I have ever had the pleasure of being involved with and when I heard about his diagnosis I was devastated. The way he has conducted himself has been incredible. We then learnt about Tom’s illness and his continuing treatment and I really don’t think I could have coped the way Doddie and Tom have done with their illnesses. Tom is more of a quiet individual but such a combative prop in the heat of battle.”
The incredible high of the 1997 Lions 2-1 series triumph over the Springboks was followed four years later by the disappointment of losing 2-1 to Australia with Graham Henry, the first New Zealander to take charge of the Lions, as head coach. A wonderful solo try by Brian O’Driscoll lit up the first Test triumph but then a sickening blow to the head of England flanker Richard Hill impacted the second Test which the Wallabies won and they took the decider in Sydney.
“It was a different Tour with a non-Home Unions head coach but there was continuity in the medical and physio team with the three of us touring again. It was trip with a lot of injuries and while all Tours are great, it was marred by injury niggles that started from the first session.
“Richard Hill suffered one of the most severe concussions and didn’t really know where he was and it changed the complexion of the Test match. What I do remember from that Tour was the arrival of the Red Army and by the second Test the Australians were handing out gold scarves to try and match the visiting fans. By the time we got to the final Test we were almost on our knees and had to draft Andy Nicol in on the bench from outside the party. Desolation would be the best way to describe the feeling after the series was lost.”
Sir Clive Woodward was handed control of the 2005 Tour to New Zealand and took the largest ever playing squad and recognised the need to increase the medical support taking three physios, two doctors and Wegrzyk again as the masseur.
Robson was in charge of the medical group which included a young Gary O’Driscoll, cousin of Brian who is now the Arsenal team doctor. It was yet another Tour where an injury made the headlines with Lions captain O’Driscoll upended by two All Blacks, landing on his shoulder. It was an injury that ended O’Driscoll’s Tour and Robson remembers: “I can come off the pitch at the end of the game and while I know if we have won, if you ask me who has scored and I wouldn’t be able to tell you. However, ask me who has had an injury and I will know.
“That is where your concentration is during a game and when Brian was injured your senses take a real high until you make your assessment. With Phil Pask, the physio, also there it is like having a comfort blanket and we were making the assessment and it was a small relief to find out it was his shoulder and not his neck which sounds perverse because it is still a very serious injury. I learnt a lot from Clive on that tour, but bigger Tours are not necessarily better Tours because you do lose that touch of intimacy and the Tour was unrelenting.”
Four years later, McGeechan was back in charge with a management that included Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards for the challenge of South Africa in 2009. The party was scaled down. It was a Tour that included a second Test that has gone down as one of the most physically combative in the game’s history.
“We took five Lions players to hospital and I remember saying that I had never been involved in such a brutal game of rugby. Thankfully, we had good medical back up and after that match we started to question the sheer physicality of the sport and the desire to get back to a more skill-based game globally. That was the early days of a concussion protocol.”
Robson’s final Lions Tour took him back to Australia which meant he had completed two whole cycles of campaigns and Gatland was head coach for a series that brought a 2-1 triumph – a fitting finale for the much-travelled team doctor.
“We are blessed with the fact we get to tour in wonderful countries and are treated fantastically well. Gats settled into the role and it was seamless, and as we got a bigger medical team we tried to make sure we had elements from all four countries because that helped with an intimate knowledge of the players.
“By 2013, the players had gained an increased medical knowledge because they are exposed to not only their own injuries but those of teammates. That knowledge base is like chalk and cheese compared to years ago. On that Tour we got to the deciding Test and the Red Army really did play a role with the players performing so well to win the match and the series.”
Robson is able to reflect on six incredible Lions Tours and as he recalled his remarkable service to the cause it’s the intensity of the challenge that stands.
“They are the most draining of times, but also the most exhilarating of times.”
This article was originally published in 2020 as part of the British & Irish Lions Freelance Writers Project.
Chris Jones has covered seven Lions Tours and was rugby and tennis correspondent for the Evening Standard for 22 years. He now writes for the Sunday Times, ESPN, the Mail on Sunday and the Express among others.
Source – British & Irish Lions
The British & Irish Lions Trust has today announced its five charity partnerships all of which have rugby at the heart of what they do and make a real impact on communities.
The two-year partnerships will allow the charities to use The British & Irish Lions digital platforms and the Lions Charitable Trust branding for promotion.
The Lions will also collaborate with the charities on fundraising and awareness events. In addition, merchandise from the Lions Tour to Australia, signed by the 2025 squad, will be provided to each charity for auction.
“One of the key objectives of The British & Irish Lions is to have an impact off the pitch as well as on the pitch, and we are proud to be partnering with five incredible charities who all have a connection with rugby at their core.” said Ben Calveley, British & Irish Lions CEO.
“We look forward to supporting these charities and highlighting the important work they do.”
Gavin Hastings, British & Irish Lions Trust Chairperson, added: “The Lions charity programme was first established in 2021 and has been a great success. It is a privilege to announce the five charity partnerships today and we are looking forward to working closely with each of these outstanding charities to support them raise much-needed funds for their charitable causes.”
Dallaglio RugbyWorks was founded by former England international and three-times Lions tourist Lawrence Dallaglio. The charity grew out of Lawrence’s vision to offer a long-term skills-development programme for young people, based on the values of rugby. Each year, it helps hundreds of teenagers outside of mainstream education to develop the skills they need to get into sustained employment and training.
Zenna Hopson, CEO, Dallaglio RugbyWorks said: “We are thrilled to embark on this incredible journey as a new partner of The British & Irish Lions Trust. Together, we are aligned in our values, our mission, and also the power of rugby to make a lasting impact for young people, fostering resilience, and positive change. This partnership symbolises our shared commitment to harnessing the transformative spirit of the sport, creating a legacy that extends far beyond the field, to ensure that despite our young people being excluded from school, they will not be excluded from society.”
LooseHeadz is rugby’s mental health charity on a mission to place a mental health lead in every rugby club around the world, using rugby as a vehicle to tackle the stigma and help the rugby community talk openly about what can be a challenging subject.
The charity provides each partner rugby club with a toolkit of free resources to support the mental fitness of players, coaches and supporters. LooseHeadz currently works with around 1,000 rugby clubs in 20 different countries to help get people talking and #TackleTheStigma.
Rob Shotton, Co-Founder, LooseHeadz said: “LooseHeadz started as a conversation at the end of our local rugby club bar whilst watching the Lions Tour of New Zealand back in 2017. Just 6 and a half years later, to partner with the Lions is a monumental milestone in our journey. When we first penned our ambitious 10-year business plan, the vision of joining forces with the Lions for this Tour was a cherished dream. And now, as this dream becomes a reality, it stands as our crowning achievement. This partnership, deeply rooted in the very essence of rugby, ignites our fervent belief that alongside an organisation as iconic as the Lions, we can take LooseHeadz to the next level. We’re excited to join the pride and tackle the stigma together.”
The Matt Hampson Foundation inspires and supports young people seriously injured through sport. Through expert physiotherapy, specialist personal training, wellbeing support, mentoring and advice, the Foundation helps people with life-changing injuries to get busy living again.
The Foundation was established in 2011 by ex-England and Leicester Tigers rugby player Matt Hampson OBE, who himself experienced a life-changing injury in 2005 leaving him paralysed from the neck down, aged just 20.
Matt Hampson OBE, Creator of Matt Hampson Foundation said: “We are incredibly grateful and excited to be named as an official charity of the Lions Trust. As rugby fans, it means such a lot for us at the Foundation to be involved with a name known throughout the world and we look forward to working closely with the team to increase awareness of both our Foundation and the Trust as well as, of course, supporting the squad on their 2025 Tour. The British & Irish Lions stands for so much that is good about the game of rugby and their values of respect, unity, integrity and friendship reflect how our Foundation works to bring people together in a special and supportive community.”
The My Name’5 Doddie Foundation was founded in November 2017, following former Scotland international Doddie Weir’s diagnosis with motor neuron disease (MND). Doddie Weir earned 61 caps for Scotland, along with representing The British & Irish Lions on their 1997 Tour of South Africa. The Foundation aims to raise funds to aid research into the causes of MND and investigate potential cures, and to make grants to individuals suffering from MND, to enable them to live as fulfilled a life as possible. To date, My Name’5 Doddie Foundation has committed over £11 million to MND research, as well as providing grants to support people living with the disease.
Jill Douglas, CEO, My Name’5 Doddie Foundation said: “Partnering with The British & Irish Lions Trust in 2021 was an incredibly significant moment for My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, and one that meant a great deal to Doddie too. To be asked to be a charity partner again for the 2025 Tour to Australia is an honour and one that will make a real difference as we seek effective treatments to MND. We’d like to thank The British & Irish Lions Trust for their ongoing support and look forward to creating an exciting calendar of activations with them.”
Wooden Spoon, the children’s charity of rugby, aims to positively transform the lives of vulnerable children and young people through the power of the rugby community. Projects include specialist playgrounds, sensory rooms for children with autism, out of school educational programmes and specialist adapted sports equipment.
Sarah Webb, CEO, Wooden Spoon said: “The British & Irish Lions gravitas in the rugby community is legendary and this partnership’s endorsement of Wooden Spoon’s grant making activities, really bolsters the ambitions of our volunteers and supporters. The Lions embodiment of coming together to support each other to succeed, resonates deeply with Wooden Spoon’s own community who tirelessly raise awareness and funds to positively transform the lives of children and young people facing disadvantage, through the power of the rugby.”
Source – British & Irish Lions
Figures from the rugby world and beyond have come together to pay tribute to Barry John following the British & Irish Lions star’s death aged 79.
John, nicknamed “The King” due to his brilliance from fly-half during the 1971 Tour of New Zealand, was considered one of the game’s greatest-ever players.
He was influential when the Lions beat the All Blacks 2-1 in a historic Tour and formed a legendary half-back partnership with fellow Welshman Sir Gareth Edwards.
Speaking to BBC Radio Wales Breakfast, Edwards said: “He was a one-off, no doubt about that.
“He was carefree but had such vision when it came to playing the game. Even under the most immense pressure he would just stand there, look up and do something unbelievable.
“He was friendly and always wanted to chat, but he was also lethal on the rugby field when he decided to do something.”
Along with his five appearances for The Lions across the 1968 and 1971 Tours, he earned 25 caps for Wales in a hugely successful period for the national side, winning three Five Nations, a Grand Slam and two Triple Crowns.
He called time on his career aged just 27 but provided inspiration for many who have gone on to wear the famous Wales or Lions shirts.
Former Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton said: “What he contributed to the game, even now, 50 years later, still transcends rugby across the world and he hasn’t picked up a ball for 50 years.
“They are heroes for so many people. The legacy that they’ve left Welsh rugby means when you pick up that shirt that you’re following in their footsteps.”
His outlandish talent brought many new eyes to the sport, and a year before he retired, he finished third in the 1971 BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award, pipped only by Princess Anne and George Best.
Much like Best, he was not just adored on the field but loved off it with many stating he was rugby’s first star.
Saddened to hear of Barry John’s passing. We’ve lost another giant of Wales & Lions rugby, an icon of his era and an inspiration for a generation to get into rugby. Condolences to his family, friends & welsh rugby community.
— Sir Bill Beaumont (@BillBeaumont) February 5, 2024
Only one rugby player in history could have hung out and done photoshoots with George Best without appearing ludicrous. RIP Barry John 🏴 pic.twitter.com/OMpq6ygRSy
— Graham Thomas (@Graham_Thomas) February 4, 2024
— Jonathan Davies OBE (@JiffyRugby) February 4, 2024
My greatest idol of all time has gone, RIP Barry John I fell in love with rugby because of you. Another legend has left us but you and Gareth were the greatest of all time As a 6 year old boy I started watching him and only a few years later he had retired and I cried all week🙏 pic.twitter.com/OcK0Nh4so2
— John Devereux (@DevereuxJohn13) February 4, 2024
Along with his established international career, he brought joy to Cefneithin, Llanelli, Cardiff and Barbarians fans across the country.
It is with a heavy heart that we report of the passing our very own “Brenin” Barry John. Born and raised in the village, Barry went on to achieve greatness on the rugby field as well as serving as club president. Our thoughts and prayers are with Barry’s friends and family 💚💛 pic.twitter.com/0JemkLIbjG
— Cefneithin RFC (@CefneithinRFC) February 5, 2024
We are deeply saddened to hear about the passing of the great Barry John
Barry played 87 games for the club across four seasons and was fly-half when we beat Australia in 1967
An icon of the game, our thoughts are with family, friends and former team-mates at this sad time pic.twitter.com/YhYkpWeQer
— Scarlets Rugby (@scarlets_rugby) February 4, 2024
We are absolutely devastated to learn of the passing of Barry John. One of the greatest players to pull on the Blue and Black and what a partnership he shared with Sir Gareth.
— Cardiff Rugby (@Cardiff_Rugby) February 4, 2024
Very sad news as rugby loses another legendary talent & wonderful character.
RIP Barry 🏉
— Barbarian FC (@Barbarian_FC) February 4, 2024
Barry John’s famous words to Gareth Edwards are remembered as “You throw it, I’ll catch it”.
In reality, they spoke Welsh with each other and he actually said, “Twla di fe, ddala i fe”. 🏉
He floated across the field with ease.
Nos da Barry John 🏴 pic.twitter.com/8PlgfUrLa3
— Cymru Wales 🏴 (@Cym_Wal) February 4, 2024
Former players and journalists from across rugby also shared their memories of one of Wales’s greatest athletes.
ITV’s Chris Skudder said: “He was so gifted as a fly-half, it was said he could side-step a player in a telephone box.
“There was only one Barry John.”
Newyddion trist iawn 💔
Another one of our great rugby sons leaves us.
Thank you King Barry John for the memories.
— Jason Mohammad (@jasonmohammad) February 4, 2024
— Mike Pearce Rugby (@MPsportsdragon) February 5, 2024
Very sad to hear the news of the passing of BARRY JOHN – ‘KING JOHN’ – LEGEND OF RUGBY LEGENDS and one of THE nicest guys I ever had the privilege of spending time with. What a gentleman and a lovely man. #BarryJohn #BarryJohnTheKing pic.twitter.com/LzGw4CZUiq
— Paul Trevillion (@PaulTrevillion) February 5, 2024
RIP Barry John, the King. Another legend of the game lost – very sad.
— Brian Moore (@brianmoore666) February 4, 2024
Welsh Rugby Union’s president Terry Cobner added to the tributes, he said: “To be crowned ‘The King’ in New Zealand when every back row forward in both the North and South Islands is trying to take your head off is quite some accolade.”.
“For me, he has got to be right up there among the greatest outside halves who have ever played the game – probably the greatest.
“He was a glider, rather than a sidestepper, who had a subtle change of pace and direction. Coming on top of the recent deaths of Brian Price and JPR Williams, this is another huge blow for Welsh rugby.
“After what he did for Wales and the Lions in 1971, those of us who followed him into both teams always felt we had huge shoes to fill. He was and will remain a legend of our game.”
Source – British & Irish Lions
British & Irish Lions CEO Ben Calveley hailed confirmation of the first-ever Lions Women’s Tour in September 2027 as a significant milestone in the touring team’s 136-year history.
The inaugural Howden British & Irish Lions Women’s Series will take place in New Zealand, the home of the current world champions, following a feasibility study commissioned by Founding Partner Royal London.
After a three-part process, the Tour is projected to be commercially sustainable for all stakeholders and Calveley believes this is only the start of what is set to be a monumental journey.
“We do believe this is a historic milestone in our 136-year history and we’re really pleased to be announcing the 2027 tour,” he said.
“It brings with it sell-out crowds, we’ll have passionate fans in full stadiums.
“There will be a high media footprint, we’re seeing high levels of interest and importantly it is commercially sustainable, not just for the Lions but for the hosts in New Zealand rugby as well.
“We want the bulk of the matches to take place in another location, a country that we can travel round and have lots of community impact.
“We wanted to make sure we were taking decisions that were in the best interest of the Lions and the best interest of the women’s game. This is day one for us and we’ve got lots of decisions to make.”
The Howden British and Irish Lions Women’s Series will retain the idea that a Test series will take place at the end of a Tour and its squad foundations will be based upon merit-based selection.
As Lions, We Are One 🦁
A milestone moment for the Lions 🤝
— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) January 16, 2024
Founding Partner Royal London will also oversee player development through an elite players’ Pathways Funding grant which will support the elite women’s player pathways in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England.
The moment of parity was particularly poignant for Chair of The British & Irish Lions and the Lions Women’s feasibility study steering group, Ieuan Evans, who featured in three Tours with the Lions between 1989 and 1997.
“I’m fortunate to have gone on a number of Lions Tours which, in many ways, shaped me and to a large extent defined me as a person,” Evans said.
“It is an opportunity for women now to sample that exciting experience of being on a Lions Tour.
“Going out there to take on the world champions, the Black Ferns in New Zealand in three and a half years is going to be special.
“It is an incredibly humbling moment for me to deliver something genuine, authentic and real which will enhance the women’s game and the Lions as an entity as well.
“It is heaped in tradition but the Lions Women will be ploughing their own furrow – it’s something really palpable, even this far ahead of the tour.
“This is for all those people who are training now and for young girls to watch this in a few years and be inspired, just like I was growing up.”
Source – British & Irish Lions
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