Dr James Robson MBE warns against a rush to return to action

Scottish Rugby's highly experienced and respected Chief Medical Officer believes that rugby cannot resume until the NHS has the capacity to cope

Dr James Robson says that there will be no quick return for rugby after the Covid-19 lockdown. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Dr James Robson says that there will be no quick return for rugby after the Covid-19 lockdown. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

DR JAMES ROBSON MBE – Scottish Rugby’s highly experienced and respected Chief Medical Officer – believes there are no shortcuts to getting rugby back onto the currently barren sporting calendar.

It is now five and a half weeks since the last game was played in Scotland, and after four weeks of the national lockdown the desire to return to some sort of normality is understandably beginning to really gnaw away at both fans and participants of the game.

For administrators – at amateur and professional level – there is also a financial imperative for a quick return to action. Ultimately, the longer the sport is on cold ice, the harder it is going to be to get the show back on the road.

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The Irish government appeared to take a step towards a return of sport in a controlled manner earlier today [Wednesday] when they announced that mass events with crowds over 5,000 would not be permitted until September, which opened the door to the prospect of games being played behind closed doors or in front of restricted crowds.

However, Robson points out that while measures can be taken to try to minimise the risk of spreading Covid-19 at sport events, the games themselves still run the risk of putting unnecessary extra strain on the nation’s medical services at a time when they are already stretched beyond breaking point.

“Taking matches behind closed doors just takes away the logistical problem of having a crowd, and it alters what you need to put in place to cope with that crowd, [but] it doesn’t change the physical nature of a particular game,” explained Robson, who has been to six World Cups as Scotland team doctor and on six Lions tours in the same capacity. “It changes some aspects but it doesn’t fundamentally change the likelihood of injury. And really, we can’t contemplate going behind closed doors until we get some semblance of normality back to our NHS and private care providers.

“A lot of routine things have been cancelled in the NHS to free up beds. Beds have been unblocked in an unprecedented fashion and they have quadrupled the ICU capacity, while imploring the nation to cooperate with the lockdown.

“Physical activity is now a key strand of maintaining population health – it helps with reducing obesity, cancer and diseases like diabetes – but we have to balance the fact that while an increase in any physical activity is good for you, it comes with a risk of injury,” Robson reiterated.

“It’s not just elite sportsmen and women who are prone to injury, but those people at other levels, so it’s not just about professional sport but the community as a whole. Professional sport might help with the sanity of the nation by giving us something to watch but everyday sport has a lot to contribute to the fabric of our society, so it’s about helping those sports to get back too. But we’ll be guided by our NHS colleagues.

No quick fixes

Robson is keen to stress that he is “just a doctor who is very keen on sport”, not an “epidemiologist or immunologist”, so he is understandably reluctant to give anything that might be interpreted as a definitive answer about when he thinks sport can return to our daily lives, and stresses that the SRU will respond and comply with government advice on the issue.

But he does point out that the nature of rugby is such that even when social isolation/distancing measures are relaxed, and the NHS has the spare capacity to cope with a return of sport, it will still be several weeks before competitive action resumes.

“If you’ve got a sports person who’s had Covid-19, how does their return look compared to someone who’s not had it? There are also certain sections of the population who are not even aware that they’ve had it. And we’re also beginning to get to grips with the possible post-viral complications.

“The bottom line is that you can’t just rush players back. When we’ve had a break of any significant period you have to do it in a step-by-step fashion in the same way that you have a graduated return for people who’ve had concussion. When we get a handle on when we might start playing matches, or when we might get back to training, we will need to instruct the players what they need to do to get ready.

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“When they come back after the summer holidays they don’t just go straight back to playing rugby, there’s a period of individual training, then group training, then a prolonged period of physical contact, so there’s quite a sustained period of time required to get players back into training in a contact sport.”

“You would be taking around four weeks to be ready, perhaps five weeks, but as the lockdown goes on that may increase. Any typical preseason evolves over six to eight weeks. It’s very difficult to know at the moment just what they’d be required to do.

“We are working on guidance from the World Health Organisation, other governing bodies and more locally our NHS, as to when we may be able to restart.”

Focusing on staying positive

In the meantime, Robson’s priority is on making sure that players are adapting, not just physically but psychologically, to the sudden change in circumstances they have experienced.

Despite all centrally contracted players now being in furlough, meaning that they are not allowed to do any work for the employers (Scottish Rugby), there is nothing to stop Robson and his colleagues keeping in touch with individuals – many of whom live alone and are many miles from home – to ensure that they are coping with these unusual and worrying times.

“We’ve looked very carefully at that because lockdown, as the government have flagged up, will lead to an increase in mental health issues and sports people are perhaps even more vulnerable because their usual routine has been quite significantly curtailed and they’re usually a gregarious bunch,” says Robson.

“We’re well versed in listening and as we’ve come into the lockdown, we’ve made sure we’ve communicated very quickly and got stuff for the boys they can access. The government have quite rightly put money into increasing their service but we have our own service. In addition, each of the team doctors for the pro teams, myself and team doctors from the other groups like U20s and the women’s team, are all accessible to the players should they wish to contact us.

“Nobody would fault you for seeking a human voice and care, because we’re all stumbling. Not just the players but the staff, we’re all struggling with the change in our regime.”

On the plus side, Robson is comforted by the fact that this unexpected enforced lay-off will allow some of the country’s leading players an opportunity to step out of the usual endless cycle of rugby seasons.

“There is an unintended [positive] consequence of enforced lockdown equals less stress on the players from my point of view,” he said. “It’s quite nice that the boys can enjoy a period of rest and recuperate just as long as they don’t succumb to the virus. This season was the World Cup year, and they have the Lions on the horizon which will be quite a physical and mental tour, so it will be good for them to maximise that rest in my opinion.”

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About David Barnes 2761 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.


  1. In fairness to the SRU, they’re sports administrators, not public health experts. I think we all had a feeling at the time that ‘if it was that bad, the government would have done something.’ The decision to ban mass gatherings needed to come from the gvt, not left to sports clubs and bodies.

  2. Nice piece.

    Taken with the England CMO comments that social distancing measures will be in place for at least the rest of 2020, I have my doubts about any resumption of rugby this year.

    Of all the contact sports we are pretty much up there with full on contact – snot and all. How would we ensure players didn’t have symptoms or were infected? Likely have to rely on testing and unlikely that resources will be freed up for sport when we so obviously struggle to test NHS workers.

    Here’s hoping we can accelerate a vaccine.

  3. Liverpool vs Athletico Madrid on 11 March under scrutiny. Scotland vs France on 9 March should not have taken place either! But SRU wanted the money so hey ho.


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