Aidan Smith speaks to ebullient Scotland rugby legend Doddie Weir and discovers he is only looking to one thing - the future.
Photographer Ian Rutherford has snapped Doddie Weir many times but never at his Borders farm on the Southern Upland Way.
The big man fills the doorway when he appears and, with time tight as darkness gathers, Ian asks Weir if, in the photos, he could be holding something agricultural, a crook perhaps. “I can do better than that,” says the rugby great and disappears round the back of the house.
READ MORE: Doddie Weir: I can’t blame rugby for my MND
Your correspondent is in the kitchen with Weir’s sons, Angus and Hamish. What do you say to two teenage boys whose father has motor neurone disease? I don’t know so I remark that I wasn’t aware they made Nutella in such big jars. Weir, whose left knee was smashed by a cynical South African, who was punched in the face by Martin Johnson, who was elbowed in the head by Wade Dooley, who withstood countless other blows during his stirring career, is squaring up to the greatest challenge of his life.
I want to see my sons drive their cars, bring home their girlfriends, go off to uni, be up and away. There’s no doubt that’s my supreme motivation.Doddie Weir
And then, just as you’re thinking what a sombre house this must be right now, Weir chugs past the window on a tiny tractor, grinning at us and waving as he goes, like Mr Bean or Benny Hill. Maybe he’s smiling because he knows that such a big man on such a small ride is sensationally daft – as daft as he must have looked on the back of a pony in his gymkhana days, knocking over the fences with his incredibly long legs. Or maybe he’s smiling simply because he’s Doddie Weir.
The boys, who have a younger brother, Ben, tell me their dad and a friend were leaning on a gate inspecting the beast of burden, a Fordson Dexta which, dating from 1961, is older than Weir and seemed ready for the scrapheap. “Bet I can get it to go again,” said Doddie. “Bet you can’t,” said the pal. Guess who won? Then Weir’s “good lady” Kathy appears, checks my coffee, chastises her sons for using milk which had gone off and nips down to Lauder for fresh supplies.
Meanwhile, Ian is delighted with the tractor as a prop. Doddie has always been a great photo subject and not just because of those trademark tartan suits in psychedelic hues. Ian reminds him of the very first portrait, hands on knees and knackered after a typically brutal training session at Melrose supervised by Jim Telfer in wellies, roaring at him to ruck lower like the All Blacks. “Everything I did in rugby I owe to Jim,” he smiles. Then there was the time at a horsey event when Weir obligingly sat down in a small pond at the water-jump – how many other top sportsmen would do that?
Doddie laughs and says: “That was a cracking photo – I’ve got it in my study.”
The red wheels of his tractor match the setting sun. We’re hurrying to get the pictures before the light disappears but, with the help of the ever-willing Doddie, this race is won.
Back inside the house, after an hour and a half in his company, I’m left in absolutely no doubt whatsoever that he fully intends to win the other race as well. His positivity is phenomenal, his determination to stay alive awe-inspiring. I have come here worrying about a chipped bone in my pinky and a few bills inconveniently arriving together and, within minutes, am scolding myself for such ninnyish self-obsession. When you’re unsure how much time you have left, he says, simple pleasures assume a thrilling aspect. A short boat trip up the Thames the other day was typical, and it’s obvious that being perched on his Dextra at sunset has tickled him. Weir, 47, amazes with his fearlessness in standing up to a terminal disease and his shatterproof belief that, despite everything, good fortune is continuing to smile on him.
His most-used word in our chat round a table covered in family clutter is “lucky”.
He’s lucky he’s fit and able to increase awareness about MND and fundraise for research, although you could argue the luck is with MND here. He’s lucky he’s suffering from this disease rather than one where many forms of treatments are available – “otherwise maybe I wouldn’t be making as much noise as I am and we wouldn’t be getting this amount of sympathy”.
How much is he getting? He quantifies it like this: “1,300 people at last night’s dinner in London, a town that I don’t have much association with, 450 at one in Newcastle three nights before that and, over the weekend up here, right along the road in front of the house, a parade of 200 tractors. The support we’ve had from folk has been truly humbling.”
He continues on the lucky theme: “In August, on an MND walk round Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, I met a man who’d only been diagnosed in May and was in a wheelchair already, so that makes me lucky. The other day I was able to walk 25 miles along Hadrian’s Wall. I felt bloody horrendous the next day but I can still use my legs, still talk, still eat – so I’m lucky.
“I’m lucky to have time, although I don’t know how long. I can make some plans and have some fun with my good lady and the boys.
“All those poor sods who – boomph – die sudden deaths are denied such things, although of course that could yet happen to me. You see: I’m lucky.”
I don’t really see but Weir is a very persuasive fellow. He wants to do all he can for MND and that includes quizzing the CEOs of pharmaceutical companies about why there’s only one drug available to sufferers and it’s 22 years old.
“Isn’t that ridiculous? It’s like sending your car to a garage but you’ve got to do the repairs.” But it’s closer to home where he really hopes his luck holds.
“It’s what you are in this world for,” he says of being a husband and father. “I want to see my sons drive their cars, bring home their girlfriends, go off to uni, be up and away. There’s no doubt that’s my supreme motivation.”
Doctors describe motor neurones as the body’s domestic wiring. Developing MND is like pulling the plug from the wall. The connection from the brain to the nerves is lost and you can’t control the muscle anymore. Half of the UK’s sufferers die within 14 months of diagnosis. Weir found out he had it last December.
As a rugby man – Stewart’s-Melville, Melrose, Newcastle Falcons, the ill-fated Borders pro outfit and 61 caps for Scotland – he wondered how much more of the oval ball he might see. “These Autumn Tests? I’m going to make them. The Six Nations? I want to be there. The World Cup? I’ve never been to Japan but I’ve got a friend who works at Hitachi and I’m hoping he might take me.
“When I was diagnosed the specialists said that if I was still around for me to see them in a year’s time it would be in a wheelchair. That’s next month and I’m determined that I’ll be walking back to meet them.”
How’s MND affecting him? He thinks his handshake is weaker, although it seems pretty firm to me, and he didn’t crash that toy tractor. “Fastening the buttons on my waistcoat can be a challenge and whereas in the old days I could carry four pints of lager any distance you liked, now I’d probably struggle taking one to that door over there, especially now the cold weather’s here.
“I think I might have lost a bit of power from my shoulders but because I’m a rugby boy I reckon the MND has found it harder to crack into me. Among all the tests I had to undergo there was a lumbar puncture but the doc had to use ten times more anaesthetic than normal to push the needle into the right place because the ligaments were so strong. If I was to get ten years that would be fantastic.”
He’s trying to beat the disease physically and emotionally, with that classic Doddie joie de vivre. Three of his appearances in dark blue came against the great Springbok Joost van der Westhuizen who died in February after a six-year battle with MND. “Joost told me: ‘I’ve tried everything and nothing really worked. The best thing, big man, is positive thinking. That’s how you’re going to win.’”
This wasn’t a stretch for the 6ft 6ins Doddie. He’s always been a glass-half-full kind of guy, as the suits of many colours confirm. “We’re here to enjoy ourselves and I’ve never been to a bad party in my life,” he says. “My attitude is that you should do what you can today and worry about tomorrow when it comes, although I like to credit Gary Armstrong with instilling that philosophy in me. This is the card I’ve been dealt so I’ve just got to crack on.”
Weir and Kathy kept the MND from the boys until after Christmas and some school exams. “Our eldest, who could Google it, struggled at first but we cope as a family and discuss everything now.” And he kept it from the world until he was on the far side – in New Zealand for the Lions tour. The original plan had been for the family to follow the famous red shirts next time round in South Africa, where Weir represented the Lions. MND persuaded him to bring the big holiday forward to this year, although you won’t be surprised to learn that he’s not giving up on a return to the scene of the triumphant 1997 expedition.
In New Zealand Weir bungee-jumped. Indeed he made the whole family follow him over the bridge. “Two of my three sons will never do it again,” he laughs. Were these the actions of a man who’s had intimations of mortality? He thinks not, that this might have been typical malarkey, which sounds about right.
Has MND changed him emotionally? “You mean do I hae a big greet now? I’m a Borders boy, a farming boy and a rugby boy so that kind of thing isn’t part of the normal vocabulary – but meeting folk I haven’t seen for a while can be tough. Even good friends have not known what to say to me. That’s understandable because this is a terminal illness, it’s serious stuff. With another rugby boy there might be a bit of banter but I’ll be able to tell that he’s struggling and so will I be. So we might just have to walk away for a few minutes then come back and resume the conversation.”
There was a bit of that the previous evening at the gala dinner organised by Kenny Logan and compered by his wife Gabby. During a chat with Telfer, Weir could see the sadness in the great coach’s eyes for his former charge’s plight. “But it was fantastic Jim was there along with everyone else.” Rory Bremner and Kevin Bridges entertained the gathering of rugby royalty – “Rory’s impersonations of Gav [Gavin Hastings] were hilarious” – and when the proceeds from the auction are tallied an impressive sum will be channelled into his foundation, Doddie Weir’5 Trust, to fund research in the hunt for a cure. A local farmer sold his beloved 1947 John Deere tractor (they like their ancient agricultural machines around these parts) and handed over £8,000. Another raised £5,000 from the sale of a gimmer, a young ewe. “I’ve been knocked out by the number of folk who want to help,” he adds. “I’m getting lovely letters on a daily basis.”
One rugby fan wrote from Wales to remind Weir of the night in Cardiff when he and his wife in her newly-purchased frock were being turned away from a party until the giant lock came to the rescue. Another letter said: “You’re on my fridge with my daughter. She loves rugby because of you.” These are people whose lives he has touched and of course, for Bill McLaren, Doddie was a dream. “The lamp-post of the lineout,” the commentator dubbed him. “He’s on the charge like a mad giraffe!”
“I’ve lived the dream,” Weir says, “the life cycle has been incredible. Flying with Scottish Schoolboys to New Zealand – then being told that if I played that bad again I’d be flying straight back home. Scoring eight tries in one game for Melrose Colts. Back to New Zealand, business class, with the big boys of the senior team. Seeing the world with rugby. Playing in three World Cups. Visiting Santa Claus’ Lapland and private game reserves in Nairobi. Driving fast cars round Knockhill. Turning up on TV and even the catwalk… who’d have thought a big galoot from the Borders would ever become a model?”
For obvious reasons he doesn’t want to dwell on the past. He’s thinking about all the things he’d like to do with what time is left. “For years I’ve been promising Rob Wainwright I’d visit him on the island of Coll and now’s the time.” First things first, though: he’s still holding down the day job, which for Weir means drains and waste.
“Tomorrow I’ll be sorting out the sewage tank of a local Scout troop. That’s quite a comedown after the big bash where ‘Doddie’ was spelled out in letters as tall as me. But I like to keep busy. As my chiropractor says, if you don’t use it, you lose it. If I was to sit down and let MND get to me, I’d be in trouble. You’ve got to fight it. There’s no other option with this disease, no plan B.”
MND is indiscriminate about the parts of the body and senses it attacks, and in which order. For the day he might no longer be able to speak Weir has organised voice banking so that via an iPad the sound of Doddie will still be heard. “It’s quite limited, unfortunately: 400 sentences, ‘Hello it’s a sunny day’, but so far I haven’t been able to record me saying ‘bawbag’. I’m not giving up, though!”
And Doddie Weir isn’t. He says he doesn’t fear death – “You see loads of it on farms” – just as long as he’s able to sluice drains, watch his boys grow up and meet old, cauliflower-eared chums and watch rugby. Last question: is he religious?
“If you’d asked me that a while back I probably would have said no. But I’ve been thinking about a car accident I had 20 years ago when my Discovery rolled right over in Stow. Every panel was bashed and the driver’s door flew off but I walked away with hardly a scratch. Maybe on that day Him Upstairs didn’t need a rugby player.
“Recently we lost my brother-in-law, Michael Dunn, a sheep farmer from down the road, so I guess that was because He required a shepherd. Right at this moment I’m hoping I’m more use to Him down here. I’m hoping He’s decided: ‘We need Doddie to be doing something about that MND’.”
He shows us to the door. It’s pitch black now and he says: “Let me get the outside light for you.”
The funny thing is, with the big man waving goodbye, we can see just fine.