Falvey the flying doctor

Beyond the work, the pressure and the spotlight, Eanna Falvey enjoyed the ride.

It’s clear from the first memory you ask for that the man from the Sports Surgery Clinic got a kick out of every moment of the Lions tour. Every experience.

“We had a bonding day in London, and just meeting everyone, Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree, Warren Gatland, Andy Irvine . . . that was pretty cool. Just standing around having a coffee with Rob Howley at that, for instance, brought it home.”

They got from bonding to business pretty quickly: “We had a week together in the Vale of Glamorgan with players from teams which weren’t involved in the last games their clubs had, and that was full on.

“There was also the sheer amount of gear. We had a huge consignment of medical orders and equipment, for instance, that all had to be packed away and sent out.

“We’d had a meeting in Sion Park where we were measured for kit, but seeing the boxes and boxes of medical gear . . .

“That was one of the big things that struck me about the tour. The Lions tour is a real behemoth. Fifty-three staff, four full-time security guys, media, marketing people — the sheer size of the operation is staggering.

“I’ve been away with Ireland at a World Cup, and you have some idea of what’s involved, but this is another level.

“For instance, you were buried in a dusty room for a whole day just sorting out your own gear – though that was pretty enjoyable.”

He points out there’s an obvious dividend in having someone like James Robson heading up the medical team; Australia last year was the well-known Scottish doctor’s sixth Lions tour.

“The fact that James had been there so often is a huge benefit. Heading up a tour like that without having done one in the past . . . you could do it, of course, but it’d be bloody tough. Having the structure in place from previous tours was a huge help. The logistics are frightening, particularly when it comes to playing two games a week. The day before a game you’re shipping most of your stuff onto the next game; for games like the Combined Counties we would only have sent a fraction of our gear to Newcastle for that one: most of the gear went between the bigger cities.”

The Irish influence was significant here, too. Ger Carmody from the IRFU was on board and made a major contribution. “Ger’s quiet, very understated, but he has it all under control. Guy Richardson was Lions head of logistics, but Ger was the enforcer. He’d go on ahead of us to the next location and make sure everything was sorted ahead of time.”

So Ger would be the man to consult if you were thinking of moving country? “No, if Ireland was moving country Ger would be the man to consult.”

The medical team didn’t need to wait until Australia to see players who needed attention. The difference with a relatively short tour, though, is that attention can quickly become a matter of making decisions.

“The first day in the Vale of Glamorgan we had players coming in with bad injuries,” says Falvey.

“These were injuries so bad the question was, would they tour or not?

“That gets complicated further in the case of a prop, say, because you’re telling the coach, ‘look, this guy can’t do contact for two weeks and probably can’t scrummage for three weeks’, and the coach says ‘well, I’ve only got two loosies, I need to know’, so the questions start early.

“We brought players on tour who had injuries, but almost all of these guys are operating with pain all the time during the season.

“The way it works is this: the first call, what’s the injury? The second call is, will he be ready for the first game? And the third call is will he be ready for any games?

“Tommy Bowe was the classic case. We said ‘he’s going to miss the first Test, he might make the second Test but we’re pretty sure he’ll make the third Test.’

“The coaches took the view, ‘fair enough, this guy’s a world-class winger, we’ll keep him on tour.’ And as it was, he got two games.”

At the tour’s end there was plenty of praise for the medical team, but if you cast your mind back to the time Bowe’s injury occurred, there was a general consensus the Monaghan man’s tour was finished.

“Was it surprising he recovered? It was,” says Falvey.

“I feel bad about this one, because I’ve seen reports since of Tommy saying he came to the sideline and someone said ‘tough luck’ to him. That was me.”

As soon as Bowe picked up the injury in the game against the Queensland Reds he came to Falvey, who caught the winger’s hand and felt the bone move: broken.

“You never say to a guy ‘it’s over’; you say ‘it’s not looking good’, you break it to him in stages. Usually after the imaging you know, and the imaging didn’t look good for him. It confirmed a spiral fracture.”

If there was one chink of light for Bowe it was where the injury occurred, says Falvey. The Reds play in Brisbane, which is rugby league country.

“The other thing was it wasn’t badly separated, and in fairness, it would have been in the Aussies’ interests to mess us up, but they were super.

“The radiologists and doctors there would deal a lot with rugby league, so the surgeon would have been used to sports injuries.

“At midnight we got the image sent to his house and he was positive: ‘Nah, I’ve fixed a good few of these in league’.

“There’s a different attitude in rugby league, a ‘this is your job’ attitude, out you go and do it — which isn’t to say player welfare is lacking in the game — but there is a sense that you play unless you absolutely can’t.

“The surgeon said he’d put the bone together, and if it didn’t hurt, then Tommy could do what he needed to do.”

After the operation (“He did a lovely job,” says Falvey) it was down to Bowe to rehab the injury.

Lions physio Prav Methima knew Bowe from the Ulster man’s Ospreys days and put him through hand therapy a couple of times a day, and within ten days Bowe was able to pass the ball.

Two weeks after the operation Falvey brought Bowe back for the all-clear, and when the player was able to do press-ups on the floor of the office, the surgeon said fair enough: Bowe was back in business for the second Test.

“The bone hadn’t healed in that time,” says Falvey, “But it was held in place by the metal the surgeon inserted, and Tommy was able to play.

“Tough man.”

Is that an attitude a team doctor has to fight against generally – the player’s desire to play no matter what?

“No, not to the extent you might think.

“There are two pictures involved: the game, and the career, and I think at times it can be slightly easier in a professional game for fellas to take the long view.

“With GAA, for instance, the do-or-die element is there, but if a guy is earning his living from sport, his tools are his body.”

There were other medical triumphs. Jamie Roberts getting back from his hamstring injury was equally spectacular, he says.

“I don’t want to give Prav a big head,” laughs Falvey, “But he was hugely involved in getting Jamie back. The scan wasn’t good — not good at all — and getting him back on the field was a huge achievement.

“But if you take a look at the whole tour, it was amazing to have as few injuries as we did. You’d like to think the work the lads put in with strength and conditioning, physio and so on contributed to that.”

Roberts’ return, of course, meant another centre had to make way. Falvey recalls the lead-in to the controversial dropping of Brian O’Driscoll.

“It was a big surprise. The night before the team was announced I was having a chat with Paul O’Connell in the hotel, and Brian was playing table tennis with Rob Kearney in the same room.

“I said, ‘do you think there’ll be any surprises with the team’, because we knew that Jamie was fit and in contention.

“And Paul said, ‘nah, he (O’Driscoll) wouldn’t be playing table tennis here if he wasn’t on the team’. We found out the next day.”

Other surprises included the infamous Kurtley Beale slip in the first Test: “I was sitting on the subs’ bench, and when he missed it was surreal. We were looking at the ball — we didn’t see him make contact, we just saw the ball fly off, and then, looking back, he was on the ground.

“We were wondering what had happened – had someone given him a belt off the ball or what?”

The Aussie fondness for sledging was less of a jolt, even if it didn’t always reach the required standard.

“Jonny Sexton came off during one game and one of the Aussies sitting in the stand shouted out, ‘Sexton, you’ve got shoulders like a snake’.

“One of the lads turned around and said, ‘In fairness lads, that’s shit banter’, and they held their hands up — ‘yeah, you’re right, sorry about that’.

“It was a great place to tour in that sense, they’re a crowd you could have crack with.”

Éanna could have had a bit more crack himself, of course. Take the visitor to the dressing room after the final Test.

“Phil Pask was one of the physios, he’s a story in himself. He played for Northampton, broke his neck and took a year out of rugby, taking up swimming so seriously he came second in the British Triathlon Championship.

“He trains every day. Every day. I trained with him almost every morning — apart from the day of the final Test. I wanted to be sharp for that, I didn’t want to feel tired, so I left Phil and the lads off that morning.

“Off they went down to the gym and who fell in with them for the bike session: Daniel Craig. Missed that, which was a pity. But the extra hour in bed was probably worth it.”

The win that evening must have helped. Craig made it into the dressing room (“A very nice guy”), as did the champagne.

“I didn’t realise there was a TV camera there, every shot I was in seemed to show me with a bottle of champagne. The phone was fairly busy on that one.”

Away from the games, the personalities remain with the Cork man.

The likes of Geoff Parling, Tom Youngs, the Leicester crew: “Hardy, tough men.”

Seeing Ian Evans go through a whole tour without a physio session, “when other fellas would go in twice a day if they could”.

Graham Rowntree: a “top man” who welcomed a debate. Andy Farrell explaining the Irish enclaves in places like Wigan.

And the head man, of course.

“Warren (Gatland) was very straight to deal with, took the advice on board,” says Falvey.

“He was mindful of what we said and took it on board. The fact that the medical team worked well together helped and we got a good buy-in from him as a result.

“The day of the O’Driscoll dropping he said to me, ‘I suppose I won’t get much of a welcome the next time I go through Dublin Airport.’

He carried on: ‘I might just have to head away out to Galway, I hope I’ll be still welcome out there’.

“It was a big call, but not as big as we think. As he said himself, ‘we’ve come full circle, haven’t we?’”

True. The circle meets again in Dublin on the eighth of February, of course, though Falvey himself didn’t have to wait six months for a reminder of the tour.

A fortnight after he returned to work there was a delivery to his office: Tommy Bowe’s Test jersey, signed by the Monaghan man as a thank you for getting him match fit.

A classy touch, is how Falvey describes it. He might be talking about the tour itself.


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