So much has changed in rugby over the course of the past three decades, from the move into professionalism to changes in player welfare.   

Coaches have come and gone, from Jim Telfer to Ian McGeechan; Matt Williams to Andy Robinson and Vern Cotter to Gregor Townsend, players have retired and for some, their sons now wear the national team colours.   

But throughout that time, the one constant in Scottish rugby has been that Dr James Robson has led the national team’s medical staff.   

That was, until Saturday, when after 284 Tests, he oversaw his final match as Scotland’s team doctor in Dublin. 

Ahead of his final game, Robson sat down with the press to reflect on a 33-year career with Scottish Rugby.   

The 66-year-old said: "I looked after North & Midlands before I got a call from Scotland. I took over there from a rubs man who used to have a bucket and pale at the side of the pitch.   

“It was literally a cold water sponge. Things have evolved immensely over that time. Nothing stands still.” 

He looked back fondly on the initial phone call he received from the late Donald Macleod, then the SRU’s medical officer.   

He admitted what has turned out to be a decades-long labour of love started “by accident”.   

Scotland Rugby News: James Robson sings Flower of Scotland for the final time at MurrayfieldJames Robson sings Flower of Scotland for the final time at Murrayfield (Image: SNS)

Robson said: "I was doing obstetrics and gynaecology in my training. I got a call from Donald who said ‘James, we’ve been watching your career. Is there any chance of you going with Scotland for three weeks as a one-off?’  

“The physio who was supposed to go couldn’t get time off the NHS.   

“He asked where I was working and who for, because everyone knows everyone in medicine. He said he’d send something in the post to try and help me get the time off.   

“While I was away the physio who was supposed to be looking after Scotland was head-hunted by Rangers to become their first full-time physio. It was World Cup year, so they came back to me and said ‘is there any chance of getting between six and eight weeks off?’.   

“I went to see my trainer and he was a Scotland fan... really it was an accident." 

During his career, he’s covered eight Rugby World Cups and been on six tours with the British and Irish Lions.   

His favourite, to South Africa in 1997, threw Robson into the spotlight. A behind-the-scenes documentary followed the squad, and saw the doctor administer life-saving treatment to England centre Will Greenwood.   

Scotland Rugby News: Will Greenwood attributed James Robson with saving his life after he stopped breathing for several minutes following a collisionWill Greenwood attributed James Robson with saving his life after he stopped breathing for several minutes following a collision (Image: Getty Images)

He also had to break the news to a young Doddie Weir, who seemed destined for a place in the Test side, that his tour was over after a horrific stamp to his knee by Marius Bosman.   

“That was heartbreaking,” Robson recalled.   

“Doddie has a special place in my heart. He was such a gentle giant and would do anything for anybody.

For somebody who was in such a rich vein of form, he needed that information but it was devastating for him.

It was a clinical feeling - somebody said to me at the time, ‘why didn’t you wait for the scan?’ But I just knew his knee had gone, and it was such a dastardly act. So that was one of the worst.” 

Robson has dealt with thousands of injuries during his time with Scotland. His expertise also helped to save Thom Evans from paralysis when he was injured against Wales in 2010.   

"You knew as you got to him pitch-side that something was really seriously amiss.   

“Thom said to me, ‘James, I can’t breathe’. I said, ‘Thom, you can breathe because you are speaking to me. I said ‘anything else?’ and he said ‘I can’t feel my legs’.   

“That is just the worst thing you can possibly hear. We had to get a young man in his prime, from nose down to face up, onto a stretcher, triply immobilized without moving his neck.   

“The surgeon who operated on him that night said there was literally millimetres of leeway.  It goes without saying that once you analyse it, it becomes more horrendous.” 

Robson has also been heavily involved in the advances in pitchside care.

He acknowledged an incident in the 2009 Six Nations when Simon Webster was knocked out started a shift in his mind towards head injury procedures.   

“What we learned from that was video, and people observing the game can actually help to inform the medics," he said.  

Scotland Rugby News: Simon Webster's injury against Wales in 2009 was a turning pointSimon Webster's injury against Wales in 2009 was a turning point (Image: SNS)

“Then you get the HIA advancements, now we’ve got the mouthguards.   

“We're moving forwards and I hope we continue to move forwards because we can never rest on our laurels.   

“We endeavour to make the game as safe as we can, I will hope that my successors will continue the work we’ve done.” 

Later that year, the second Lions Test against South Africa, a match Robson describes as “the most brutal” he was ever involved in was another turning point.   

The tourists had Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts and Tommy Bowe all taken to hospital. 

He added: “I remember being almost quite angry about what was happening in the game with the collisions and the brutality.   

“I think that came across and we started to move away from just running into each other after that. I believe that game was quite critical in that respect.” 

There have been criticisms levelled at Scottish Rugby’s medical care of Siobhan Cattigan, the Scotland forward who died aged 26 in November 2021, but Robson would not discuss the issue when asked.   

“There are things you simply can’t discuss in public at the moment I’m afraid so I’m going to,” he said.   

Despite ongoing discussions about the safety of the sport, particularly around brain injuries, the doctor remains optimistic.   

Robson added: "I do believe everybody is striving to make it safer and therefore preserve it. We should never shy away from the discussion that is happening – about whether children should be tackling, at what age kids should be.   

“I remember a few years ago when someone asked me if I was worried it would put people and parents off when you are talking about injuries.   

Scotland Rugby News: While Robson said there is still work to do, he said player safety, including the introduction of head injury assessments, has improvedWhile Robson said there is still work to do, he said player safety, including the introduction of head injury assessments, has improved (Image: SNS)

“You’ve got the people who think rugby should be banned altogether, and you’ve got people who think rugby has gone soft. There is a large swathe of us in the middle and we’ve got to find a way through. 

“Do we want everyone sitting in front of the TV? I think physical activity and exercise is paramount to the nation’s health. Rugby is a small facet of that. Rugby teaches people all sorts of skills by being in a team environment, as do other sports.   

“We have to continue to examine the game and try to make it as safe and attractive as possible.” 

Robson’s final game at Scottish Gas Murrayfield last month saw him hoisted aloft by prop Pierre Schoeman as he lifted the Calcutta Cup following Scotland’s win over England.   

It was, he reflected, a “truly unbelievable” experience.   

He said: “I was standing at pitchside delighted that we’d won and that we didn’t have any serious injuries and all of a sudden Finn said ‘doc, take the bib off, you’re coming with us’.   

“I thought I was maybe going to get the privilege of standing to the side but they ushered me round central and next minute Schoe [Pierre Schoeman]’s head pops up between my legs, [then] Finn comes and gives me the cup, it’s like a dream now.   

Scotland Rugby News: James Robson parades the Calcutta Cup around MurrayfieldJames Robson parades the Calcutta Cup around Murrayfield (Image: SNS)

“I thought I’d get that over with, get down off his shoulders and that’d be me done, but the boys said ‘you’re coming with us round the pitch’.   

“It was truly magical for me and for my family.” 

Robson also paid tribute to his wife Christine, and plans to spend time with her travelling during his retirement.   

But he’s hopeful of remaining involved in rugby in some capacity. 

"Christine and I are going to do some travelling. It’s payback time for her now," he admitted. "We have devoted 33 years to rugby as a couple – make no bones, it’s the families that are left behind who make the sacrifices because the benefits we get from being in this environment is just phenomenal.   

“I hope to stay involved in some aspect of player welfare, particularly brain health. I’m mulling over that and in negotiations with a few people.”