Unsung heroes of the tour keep close eye on the warring Lions
It would be easy to say that the players are the heroes of this Lions Tour. There is no doubting that the likes of the now injured Captain Sam Warburton, Jonathan Sexton, Tommy Bowe, Leigh Halfpenny and George North are the stars of the show. However, they could not shine so brightly if it was not for the efforts of the backroom staff.
The coaching staff occupies plenty of column inches too. Yet there is another team within the squad who make cameos on the pitch but have a lower profile. With this latest injury disappointment to Warburton and Bowe and North’s incredible recoveries – the importance of the medical team has never been greater.
Lions head doctor James Robson, who is in charge of medical services for the Scottish Rugby Union, explains that he experiences the same feelings of nervous excitement as the players do, “The most rewarding part and the biggest buzz for us is to be working pitch side on match day.”
“Test match rugby is just fantastic. It is very exciting every match. I always get nervous the night before. On the day of the match, the sense anticipation is just unbelievable, I just can’t wait for kick off on match day, it must reflect the way the players feel.”
Physiotherapist Prav Mathema whose day job is with the Welsh Rugby Union concurs, “Match day is definitely the biggest buzz.”
Robson and Mathema are just two members of the Lions medical team, which also includes two more physiotherapists; Phil Pask and Bob Stewart as well as a soft tissue massage therapist, Richard Wegrzyk. The Irish are represented in of Dr Eanna Falvey; the Ireland rugby team doctor.
The overwhelming feeling you get from speaking to the doctor and physio is a great sense of teamwork and camaraderie that the medical team share, as Robson puts it, “It is an interesting mix and it works well, it is the same of bringing any team together. I know Prav and Phil very well from working with them in the last Lions but we all know each other professionally anyway. Eanna is the newcomer and he has slotted in beautifully.
“Putting aside any inhibition and as a group I think we gel very well as we can be both self-deprecating and be quite mischievous towards each other, that helps to relieve a lot of the tensions.”
The doctor goes on to explain that by having a multi-disciplinary team makes for much smoother care of players’ injuries, “there is a breath of experience between us. The beauty of a team like this is that we can bounce ideas off each other and that way we can give the player the most complete care. We are rarely stumped because there is such experience between the group.”
Anyone keeping a keen eye on training will sometimes notice one or two players working alone with a physiotherapist, while the rest of the squad trains. During the tour Rob Kearney trained alongside Jamie Roberts under Mathema’s watchful eye.
Robson sees this as being part of the beauty of bringing the four home nations together, “Isn’t that is what the Lions is all about? Having the Irish fullback train with the Welsh centre with the physio from Wales with Scottish and Irish doctors looking after them.”
This psycho-social aspect to recovery is much more than a bonding exercise as Mathema explains, “The whole psychological aspect of injury and recovery is really important rather just the physical.”
“We have three physio on tour, so we are lucky to afford one on one care to players, which is by far the best way of managing someone’s injury. But for me if you can get players working together, as appropriate, as part of their recovery, it can create a bit of a competitive edge which will drive players that little bit further.”
Irish rugby fans should be particularly thankful to Mathema, who spent eight years as a physiotherapist working for Queens Park Rangers before switching codes going to work for London Wasps and on to his current role at the WRU, as he was the prime carer in charge of Tommy Bowe’s recovery from a spiral fracture through the metacarpal bone in his hand.
Mathema again emphasises the psychological component of recovery, “When a player like Tommy gets injured, he is devastated, lower than a snake’s belly. But then you give him the news that the glimmer of hope if he gets surgical intervention.”
“The player just wants to get back as quick as possible and he does not really care about anything else. It is our job as a team to structure a plan that the player can physically see and every day there is a marker he has to hit. There is a goal, so every time the player hits that target there is a psychological boost for that player.”
Bowe was set a “three week plan by the surgeon and we segmented it into half weeks”, Mathema expounds.
“The first most important thing for us was that his wound was nice and clean and that it did not get infected because that would have been a disaster and would have called off everything.”
“Then the next marker was that he got a full range of movements in his hand, which he got actually very, very quickly and he beat his marker by two days, which was a huge psychological boost to him.”
“Then Tommy made the marker to grip a ball two days ahead of schedule and then the next marker was to catch and pass the ball and again he made that marker two days ahead of time. When you keep on hitting markers two days ahead of time, you know the guy is going to be absolutely on cloud nine.”
Although Mathema is visibly proud of his role in helping getting the winger test match fit again he is quick to point out the team effort, “working with an athlete and getting them back against the odds on to the pitch, that just gives you such a buzz but it is not just one person. It consists of everyone; the strength and conditioning guys, the sports scientists, nutritionists, the coaches.”
Teammate Robson chips in, “Then you have the media team helping out too, putting out positive messages. I think we counted there were probably upwards of 20 people involved in Tommy’s care overall. There is a team approach to everything we do.”
Seeing Robson and Mathema together is similar to watching the players on the field, they are part of a team working towards a common goal. Their enthusiasm for their work and positivity is infectious. This as well as their medical expertise has obviously aided the likes of Bowe, North, Kearney and Manu Tuilagi.
Much has been made of the positive and united atmosphere amongst the players and coaches. The medical team are very much part of this positivity. If history can be made on Saturday in Sydney, these men will have been integral in creating that success.