‘Dr Deb’ working to make the game safer

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Lynn McConnell     20 Sep 2018     Getty Images

Debbie Robinson, known as 'Dr Deb' to all who had dealings with her during her seven years as All Blacks medico from 2006-2013, had an active sports portfolio before stepping up to the Test rugby role which included the Sydney Olympic Games and three years with netball's Silver Ferns.


Her success with the All Blacks saw her elevated to a role with World Rugby's council in 2017 and while it is still early days in that she is in a strong position to make recommendations for the future of the game in its entirety.

Robinson's own background included playing stints in provincial hockey for Marlborough and Canterbury.

Once qualified in medicine, her colleague Rob Campbell was looking after the Crusaders while Robinson was working in the netball area in Christchurch.

When Campbell needed to drop the role he asked Robinson if she was interested. When first asked she lacked the confidence to take it on with a team at that level.

But 12 months on he said he did really need to finish and asked again if she was interested. This time she said she was happy to have a go.

Before the Crusaders she had a stint with Canterbury in the NPC in 2001 and the two coaches that year were Steve Hansen and Aussie McLean.

"Steve was really good about integrating me into that environment, he thought it was good for the team to have a female and that made the whole thing quite a lot easier. It wasn't necessarily that I was chasing rugby, it was that I was sports mad and enjoyed my job and team associations."
She felt 90-95 percent of rugby people were happy with her involvement while Hansen had told her to get involved and she backed herself to make decisions that she didn't put people in awkward situations.

"I'll never forget one conversation with Mark Hammett when he said to me a couple of years later, 'You know I wasn't sure when you came on board but I just loved having you and it's worked really well.' He didn't say anything at the beginning but he did later on. So that was really cool."

Rugby players were not difficult to cope with, compared to other sports, she said.

"On the whole rugby boys just get on with things, they are truly sort of undemanding. Certainly I would say there are some other environments, sports-wise, that are more demanding than rugby, and I would say rugby is probably one of the less demanding ones. Guys just get on with it."

But there were demands in rugby that were helpful in her professional development.

"Rugby was really good at teaching me decision-making, then and there. Because often in hockey and netball you had a bit of time up your sleeve and you weren't getting the significant contact injuries you were getting in rugby. With rugby you had to get used to making good decisions then and there based on player welfare which hockey and netball probably didn't pose as much."

And it's not always a case of dealing with physical injury. Her combination with Gilbert Enoka had been important on the occasions some pastoral, psycho-social care was needed for some players and they had developed that side of things through those years.

Different aspects of that role were representative of the different cultures enveloped in the All Blacks.
"The All Blacks do have a very multi-cultural environment with players from incredibly different backgrounds and I think people don't stop and think about that enough," she said.

So far as the increasing profile and programmes for women's rugby were concerned she felt it was a touch early to make comparisons on the sorts of injuries experienced in the men's and women's games. At the moment the good women players were coping well through the Farah Palmer Cup and the number of Tests they were playing a year was still small and as a result their workload was still quite manageable. That was a challenge for the future.

"I think the women's game will continue to develop to suit itself. We have some heated discussions at the top level about whether we're trying to play like the men and what I just say is, 'It's rugby, it's going to have its little nuances and the game will just keep developing those to suit itself," Robinson said.

The women's game had advanced for several reasons around the world but in New Zealand the growth and move toward semi-professionalism had provided options for players and also for those not built to play netball or hockey.

But through other aspects of rugby generally, including concussion and player workload, there was still a lot of work to be done across the world to ensure players were not playing too much.

"When players are fatigued and tired then they are more at risk of injury," she said.

World Rugby was trying to make the game safer and it was unfortunate that the amount of work going on behind the scenes to make decisions was not understood when criticisms were made in the media.