Liam Toland: Arthur Tanner shaped us on our rugby journey
This wise professor laid stepping stones, not stumbling blocks, for the men under his care
Dr Arthur Tanner attending to Brian O’Driscoll at the Aviva Stadium in 2014. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The late Leinster team doctor Professor Arthur Tanner. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Isn’t it strange that princes and kings
and clowns that caper in sawdust rings
and common people like you and me
are builders for eternity?
Each is given a bag of tools
a shapeless mass and a book of rules
and each must fashion, ere life has flown
a stumbling block or a stepping stone
The first words Professor W Arthur Tanner uttered to me were not drawn from Robert Lee Sharpe’s Bag of Tools; rather they were: “Tollie, after my in-depth examination, my professional advice to solve your ever increasing ailments is to simply give up; retire”. I retorted that “that is unfortunately not an option, professor, because we have a match on Saturday”.
On Thursday morning, I awoke to the terrible news that Arthur had passed on to his great reward. I don’t know how many players passed through his hands in Old Wesley, Leinster, Ireland and beyond, but no other ‘medico’ I know is owed such a huge debt of gratitude not because he managed our injuries but because of the many times Arthur became that crucial stepping stone to hundreds of rugby players in Ireland.
Often I was the first to arrive to the infamous Monday morning 0700hrs Leinster clinic in Old Belvedere. At which point injured players would jostle for Arthur’s expert attention; an orderly queue it was not. Bright as a button, he’d examine from head to toe the results of the weekend’s battles and start the ball rolling in recovery.
His network knew no bounds and within minutes you’d be sent off in some direction throughout the city towards fitness for the following weekend. Of course, in any elite sporting organisation “two legs good, four legs bad” influenced a tad, and those playing for Ireland at the weekend may have had a fancier carriage laid on than that allowed to mere Leinster players. However, all were pretty much equal in the eyes of the professor.
Arthur was wonderful company in the bowels of the Leinster rugby medical room, on the muckiest of rugby pitches or in the plushest five-star accommodation, such as the one we found ourselves in in the Scottish Borders. In a throwback to Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show, Arthur and the Leinster scrum guru and dentist Roly Meates often battled and heckled each other.
Arthur’s answer to Roly’s accurate observation “isn’t this a wonderful hotel” was the simple “I don’t know, Roly, as my shower doesn’t work”. It was the high-quality establishment, Peebles Hydro, which opened in 1907 and boasted impeccable Edwardian architecture, and it was only a man of TW Roland ‘Roly’ Meates’s calibre and standing that could retort to the professor: “In establishments such as these, Arthur, one is expected to bathe.”
Arthur was known to most rugby audiences as the grey-haired medico that would run onto the pitch aiding a fallen player. But to me he was a man of immense character; a rugby man through and through, but not a ‘fan’. Many who find themselves around the professional game are fans and oft become awestruck by the superstars.
Arthur was clearly a lover of the game but his medical decisions were always couched in his concern for the person and not the player. How many times he could have built a stumbling block but chose a stepping stone. I think of the variety of players/characters who stood in that Monday morning queue.
Some would require a gentle hand; some a fluffing of ego; and some, like Trevor Brennan, total reconstruction. In fact, he declared the only option for Trevor was to stitch a sign onto his chest that read “should not play contact rugby”.
But to each and every player, Arthur was a conduit. Selflessly he’d listen to the needs of the athlete’s body, and he had a wonderful ability to hear the player’s mind and body and gently deliver guidance. Trevor went on to win two Heineken Cups; others won three.
Contepomi’s arrival from Bristol rugby to Leinster was made possible by his dream of European success and his new team doctor, Arthur. Like many rugby players as the end comes closer, there’s a nervousness around what’s next. Very, very few players in their mid-30s chose a medical career after retiring. Dr Byrne, GP, floated the idea but had the bravery and brains to start at the bottom of the medical student ladder.
Like Felipe, Emmet and hundreds more, I’m glad Arthur was much more than a ‘medico’ from the Royal College of Surgeons; he was a man who could guide and mentor us “shapeless masses” as we travelled on our unique journey.
One of my last times to share Arthur’s company was with his wife Ann in Vaughan’s Anchor Inn, Liscannor, Co Clare. The Vaughans have experienced their own loss last week with John’s passing but it was wonderful to meet them both over a quality meal and to reminisce about the great journey rugby’s given us.
Of course, we are all on a journey and for many today the next leg is Edinburgh. This Six Nations will provide Irish rugby with many stumbling blocks but I trust Arthur’s path is now full of stepping stones as he joins the many, many rugby legends.