Deb Robinson: Overcoming “the perfect storm” to be part of incredible success stories

A Rugby World Cup winner with both the All Blacks and Black Ferns as team doctor, Deb Robinson has experienced many highs and lows in her 16 plus years in the sport working with some of the world's best players and coaches.

Given the All Blacks will travel to Japan in September as back-to-back Rugby World Cup winners, it is easy to forget the pressure the team was under to win the first of those on home soil in 2011.

The agonising quarter-final defeat to France four years earlier was still fresh in New Zealand’s collective memory bank while the recollection of the team’s 1987 triumph was fading fast.

So, when Dan Carter was ruled out of the tournament with a groin injury at a time when captain Richie McCaw was suffering chronic foot problems, the stakes were raised for the players, coaching staff and team doctor, Deb Robinson.

“We were under significant pressure and a lot of that was medical because we obviously lost first five-eighths in a row (Colin Slade would also be forced to withdraw from the squad),” Robinson said.

“We always used to say going into the World Cup if there’s two people you didn’t want to get injured it was Dan and Richie, and they both got injured. So, that was very stressful.”

McCaw feared that he had broken his foot ahead of the semi-final against Australia, but trusted Robinson – who he had worked with for a decade with Canterbury, the Crusaders and the All Blacks – implicitly and the pair devised a plan that would allow him to play.

“We just had a good understanding that I wasn’t going to put him in a position which would create long-term issues for him,” Robinson remembered.

A proud moment 

“That he would make his decision about whether he felt he could do his job, and that the selectors would pick him or not based on what they saw [and] whether he could do his job or not.”

Clearly Graham Henry and his coaching staff were happy with what they witnessed in training as McCaw was selected for both the last-four defeat of the Wallabies and the nervy final victory over France – playing 80 minutes in each game.

For Robinson – who had endured the “perfect storm” of Cardiff in 2007 – helping the All Blacks earn a slice of retribution remains the highlight of a career in rugby that started with Canterbury in 2001 and also included a stint with the Black Ferns for their Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 success.

“To get to the end of the competition and have won the World Cup was a proud moment because it had been a difficult tournament,” she said.

“As times goes by, you forget the difficult bits and you just remember the good bits of it. But when I look back sometimes I think of some of the little moments during that time when we had injuries we were trying to deal with that made it particularly difficult.

“You forget the trials and tribulations until you look back in detail but to get the win on home soil was just so important.”

The path that Robinson took to Rugby World Cup glory was not necessarily a straightforward one. Although a keen supporter of the All Blacks, she admits she did no more than “dabble” with rugby as a player.

Welcome to rugby 

However, when Rob Campbell made the decision to step down as team doctor for Canterbury and the Crusaders in 2001, it was his practice colleague that he recommended as his replacement.

Robinson had gained some experience as a doctor in hockey and netball environments, and also played the former with the wife of Steve Hansen, who at the time was Canterbury head coach and Crusaders assistant.

Hansen assured her that she would be a valued member of staff and allowed to “get involved in everything” to do with the two teams. Along with captain Todd Blackadder, the future All Blacks coach helped her to settle in.

“[Hansen’s] welcome was critical to my entry into the game,” Robinson explained.

“Also then Todd Blackadder as well. Todd, it was his last year for Canterbury and he was very welcoming, as far as coming up to the front of the bus and sitting down and saying hello.

“I think those guys, just their personalities and the way they behaved was really critical to my integration.”

Robinson’s introduction to elite rugby union was a successful one. In her first season, Canterbury won the National Provincial Championship, in her second the Crusaders claimed the Super Rugby title.

Preparation not good fortune

Of the World Cups she experienced with the All Blacks and Black Ferns, 2007 is the only one that wasn’t won.

“I’ve been very lucky I’ve been involved in environments where we’d won a lot of rugby matches,” she said.

Her success has not, of course, been the result of good fortune. Behind the ‘luck’ has been preparation, hard work and an ability to earn the trust of the people she has worked with.

Robinson sought advice from an old college friend, Waratahs Chief Medical Officer Sharron Flahive, before stepping into Super Rugby. Their chat helped crystallise her approach to working in the sport.

“I made sure in my own mind that I was happy with what it might look like and she (Flahive) was really helpful,” Robinson said.

"Some of the women [on the Council] are just amazing. I think rugby’s really lucky about the calibre of woman who has now become involved. Both from a practical sense but also from an experience sense."

Deb Robinson

“I kind of knew that although there might be some things that were a bit different to what I’d come across in the past, I knew that they weren’t insurmountable so I think doing my research had helped me.

“And then I felt that if I could do my job, so if I could be a good rugby doctor that would go most of the way towards being a part of something good.

Rugby's really lucky  

“I knew that if my skill set was good and I could have good communication around what I was doing as a rugby doctor then that would smooth the path.

“So, I made sure I did my core role well, and then I also knew, just through experience, that if I was the person I was then I would, on the whole, get on well with people and that would help as well.”

Those are attributes that Robinson has taken into her latest role, as the first female representative of New Zealand Rugby on the World Rugby Council.

She is one of 17 Council members appointed in 2018, all of whom are women.

“Some of the women [on the Council] are just amazing,” she said.

“I think rugby’s really lucky about the calibre of woman who has now become involved. Both from a practical sense but also from an experience sense.”

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