Michele Hewitson Interview: Deborah Robinson

By Michele Hewitson

Dr Deborah Robinson will spend 110 days away from home this year with the team. Picture / Paul Estcourt
Dr Deborah Robinson will spend 110 days away from home this year with the team. Picture / Paul Estcourt

A qualification possibly not listed on All Black doctor Deborah Robinson's CV: possessor of a Pollyanna-ish optimism. She says she is definitely a "glass half-full" sort of person.

No kidding. The day we met, the sun came out and, because we were sitting outside, she had to squint into the light. She had forgotten her sunglasses. This was a good thing.

"I thought, 'If I regret not having my sunnies, that's a really good sign'." She really is an optimistic sort.

"I think you have to be involved in sport, especially in New Zealand. We're a small country ... we're always battling against the odds a little bit. But if you're going to be involved in sport, you really have to think the positive thing can be achieved."

She talks about herself as being "in rugby". She is also, in part, or potentially, responsible for our crows, or woes, come the Rugby World Cup.

Will she, possessor of that perennially sunny nature, go into a decline if the All Blacks don't win? "Hopefully I never have to find out! I'll be pretty disappointed, yeah," but "I'd get over it eventually."

In theory, she can take players off even if Graham Henry thinks they should stay on. Hers is the number he "doesn't like seeing" come up on his phone. She is a complete optimist who is the harbinger of bad news.

Imagine having to give old grumpy drawers bad news. Who'd want that job? She says he is sometimes grumpy with her, but he doesn't shout; he just goes very quiet. "Oh, I think sometimes you're giving him news he doesn't want to hear." He's her boss but she's the doctor. Why, I asked, doesn't she give him pills? I have a theory that he's grumpy because he doesn't get enough sleep: He gets up in the middle of the night to work. She is far too diplomatic to comment on my theory. She simply laughed and said, "Well, you'd be changing the habits of a lifetime, and would that be the right thing to do? I don't know."

She is the first woman to be doctor to the All Blacks but she says she is no longer a novelty. You'd think her job, or bits of her job, would still be something of a novelty. For one thing, this year she will spend 110 days away from home, holed up in hotels with a bunch of blokes.

She says people used to be curious about what it was like being the only woman, but that now they are more interested in why so-and-so wasn't picked. People do have a go at her over selections and she never minds because she says it shows how passionate people are about rugby.

So you could say she has done a pretty good job of fitting in. It's the blokes who have adapted. She says, probably because of her age (she is 51), they are very gentlemanly towards her and open doors and apologise for their language.

You can see that they might, because she is very nice - although she is also very stubborn, when it suits. When it suits her to be stubborn (in her very nice way) is if you attempt to ask her anything about her personal life. The job is the job, she says, and she keeps her private life entirely separate. She said she got the job because she "interviewed well". I'd like to have eavesdropped on that interview with Graham Henry - to see which of two stubborn people was more stubborn. My money might be on her.

Her public profile amounts to being brought in to explain why so- and-so has such and such an injury and so can't play. That is PR, according to me. She says it's also about education and, sometimes, reassurance. She is not so comfortable talking about herself; she is a team player.

Not talking about herself extends to not telling me what her partner's name is or what her partner does. She is in a long-term relationship and she and her partner live in her "lovely house" in Christchurch and they have no kids and no pets and that was all I could drag out of her. She laughed when I asked what she got paid. She had (as I well knew) no intention of answering that one either.

She didn't get Graham Henry-ish about being asked - she just smiles and digs her trainer-clad heels in (a perk of the job is she gets all the gear.) She can see why people are interested in her job; she has not the foggiest idea why they might be interested in her.

But, by way of consolation, perhaps, she told me all about her hobbies which are watercolour painting, which she's pretty bad at; and woodwork, which she's getting better at. She is taking classes and, other than sport, this is her great enthusiasm. "I love my woodwork."

She is enthusiastic about slightly odd things. Her idea of a real perk of the job is getting to do things that most people never get to do. "Like when we were in Toulouse, we went to the Airbus factory!" That's her idea of an interesting thing to do? "Don't you find planes interesting?" I'm afraid not. "Oh dear! That wasn't a good one to mention!"

We met at the Blues training grounds and I knew before asking that she wasn't about to say anything interesting (or anything at all) about Kurtis Haiu. I know so little about rugby that I wasn't even sure he was a Blues player, but although she is a complete "sports jock" she didn't seem horrified. She is kindly, which is a good thing in a doctor.

All she'd say was that she doesn't know "anything about it", meaning the assault allegations. "You see, I don't get involved in the other side: of players who have been in trouble with the law and then ended up in the cells overnight ... It's dealt with by other people in management."

She was similarly mum on Sonny Bill and whether he should be allowed to box. "Look, I don't think that's a simple question to answer, but his contract says he's allowed to box. So I'll support Sonny Bill and will be making sure that he does that to the best of his ability." That's a good management line. "But in reality all those decisions were made a long time before I ever met Sonny Bill. So you're putting a question to me that's actually really difficult to answer."

She must have an opinion. "You've just got to make sure you cover off everything ... and then we cross our fingers! But you know, we cross our fingers a lot! The last time he boxed, on that same weekend Conrad Slade broke his jaw on the rugby field, it wasn't in the boxing ring."

She is good at PR. But to say she is also partly a psychologist would be to draw a long bow, she says, but, certainly, she has an interest in the players' emotional and psychological welfare. So what, I really wanted to know, does she make of Dan Carter's predilection for dressing up in Super Hero costumes? "I don't know anything about that! Well, you know, if that's all he's dressing up as, that's probably not such a bad thing!"

She is about to be honoured as Diocesan School's Alumna Merita for her contribution to sports medicine. She is really, really chuffed about that. She thinks it's "a bit like winning Lotto!" She means she thinks of the Alumna Merita as something that is awarded to other people. She is "a bit overwhelmed, really".

She went to Dio as a boarder at 13, as a kid from Gisborne, and remembers being nervous and choking down hard-boiled eggs for breakfast on her first morning. Did she think the school would be full of snooty rich girls? "That never occurred to me!" I was assuming she wasn't a snooty rich girl. "I'm from Gisborne!"

She was a prefect and head girl of the boarders and so must have been a good girl. She says she was, mostly, but that she would have to be a bit careful about telling me what she did get up to.

"I was a good girl. I worked hard and played sport and was a bit naughty from time to time." In what ways? "We'd probably push the boundaries a little bit." This was hard to imagine. "No. I can't say!"

But she did. Sometimes she'd sneak out with her mates at night and prowl the streets. With boys! Heavens.

So some things haven't changed. Except that these days the boys she hangs out with are very well-behaved. Of course they are. She does have a drink with them, after games, but nobody, least of all her, gets drunk. She says she has been drunk (hmm) but she can't remember the last time. Well, she is a doctor, and has to set a good example. And she has had media training.

She is never starstruck over rugby players. Not even Dan Carter? "Look, I get starstruck by sports stars. But not rugby players! I remember walking past Ian Thorpe at the Olympics and going, 'wow!' We used to have a competition - when you'd come back to the medical room - about who was the biggest star you'd seen that day. And, in fact, when we went to have a team photo taken, we pulled up on the bus and on the next bus was Muhammad Ali! And that's very cool!"

She was like a sports-mad kid who had spotted Dan Carter at the supermarket, which was rather sweet. She doesn't, obviously, get excited about seeing Dan Carter because she sees him all the time and "the thing about Dan is that I started looking after him when he was 21 and they're just normal people then". And then what happens to them? "No! They are normal people and the good thing is you get to know them as normal people."

She doesn't watch for signs of medically dangerous, rampaging egos. "No. I think somebody else jumps on them before I do!"

You couldn't accuse her of developing a huge ego by way of reflected glory. She has a brisk, kind, common sense, which is what you want in a doctor. Her only shortcoming, as far as I can see, is her failure to put Henry on happy pills.

- NZ Herald

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