Interview: Ex-Scotland lock Doddie Weir relishes Melrose Sevens

Doddie Weir at The Greenyards, where he will commentate on the Melrose Sevens. Picture: Greg Macvean
Doddie Weir at The Greenyards, where he will commentate on the Melrose Sevens. Picture: Greg Macvean
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I’ll be the tall guy with the big lugs,” says Doddie Weir as we arrange to meet up for a chat ahead of today’s 126th hosting of the Melrose Sevens, where he’ll be on BBC co-commentating duties at his beloved Greenyards, as if the 61-times capped former Scotland lock would be hard to miss.

Weir is the epitome of the phrase “weel-kent” and we touch base for lunch at a renowned 
Melrose eatery where, as you would expect, everyone knows his name. Later, as photographs are taken back down at the famous old ground where he honed his prodigious young talents, greetings are exchanged with dozens of familiar faces in the space of around 15 minutes. The place is a hive of activity as preparations are made for the latest staging of the world’s oldest sevens tournament – the biggest day in the town’s year – and all and sundry, from the junior players wheeling pallets of bottled water hither and yon to the ladies boiling up vats of steaming soup in the kitchen, get a quick word and cheeky quip from the man Bill McLaren famously christened a “mad giraffe”.

Weir considers himself a bona fide Melrose man but, in a part of the world where towns command the kind of loyalty most nation states can only dream of, his background is rather, well, cosmopolitan.

Born in Edinburgh, raised on a farm near Fountainhall, a village north of Galashiels, schooled at Stewart’s Melville College and now residing in Stow, Weir diverted from his father and two brothers Chris and Tom (or “Christopher” and “Thomas” as “George” refers to them) by pulling on the black and gold of 
Melrose rather than the maroon of the family club Gala.

“We’re not actually from Gala so I feel no guilt about it whatsoever,” says the 6ft 6in Weir with a grin as he tucks into his chicken goujons and chips. Rugby and horses dominate the leisure landscape of the Borders and it was the latter which impacted on the former for the now 46-year-old.

“Saturday afternoons were pony club after playing rugby for the school in the morning so I couldn’t play for Gala in the afternoons,” he recalled. “A gentleman called Sandy Fairbairn at the pony club suggested I should come and play for Melrose on a Sunday instead and the rest is history.”

That put him on a path to a few tasty encounters with his brothers down the years, which are recalled with relish.

“It did introduce a bit of sibling rivalry and fun and games. The Gala-Melrose rivalry can be as intense as Scotland-England. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. But, thankfully, in those days Melrose always came out on top. But I have to say that I truly believe Thomas was probably the best rugby player in our family in terms of ability. He just got injured at bad times and was maybe a few inches too short at 6ft 3in.”

Tom Weir won the Melrose Sevens with Gala in 1999 alongside a youthful Chris Paterson and Nathan Hines, six years after Doddie achieved a feat he still cherishes as one of the finest moments of his glittering career.

He was part of a 
Co-optimists select, who return as one of the guest teams this year, alongside the likes of Gregor Townsend and Andy Nicol, who triumphed in the 1993 tournament.

“It is up there with my most treasured memories in rugby,” says Weir. “It would have been more special if I’d done it in a Melrose jersey but it was still a helluva buzz. Very special. My old mate Carl Hogg also got a medal with the Co-ops that year, though he never touched the ball, and went on to win it again with Melrose in ’97 and ’98. He claims to be the only Melrose man to have three Melrose Sevens winner’s medals. I’ve never been bothered enough to check if that’s true. But I’ll give it to him I suppose.”

The game has changed a lot since that afternoon 24 years ago when Weir got his hands on the Ladies Cup but the Melrose Sevens retains its place as a hallowed date in the Scottish rugby calendar. The likes of Campese, Serevi and the Scottish international stars of the day may no longer be on show but the crowds keep pitching up every year and the fizz still flows on 
Melrose Sevens day.

“I keep trying to answer why Melrose is so special and I think the reason is it’s because it’s where it all started and that is always a special thing in sport,” says Weir, referring to the fact butcher Ned Haig famously invented the abbreviated game here in 1883. “It’s like at St Andrews with golf, or Lord’s with cricket. For club players too, the ones who didn’t play internationally, playing in front of a 12-15,000 crowd made it a unique and special experience. The atmosphere is electric, the games are fast and action packed, lots of tries, and it’s also a social occasion. It’s just a great day out and even better to be involved in on the field.”

Sevens is usually associated with the speed merchants but mobile forwards are always just as vital a cog in any successful VII and Weir took to the shorter form from a young age.

“I was quite a slight lad for a forward, not one of those fat blokes,” he says with a smile. “Being at Melrose since the age of 14, sevens just becomes part of your DNA.

“There’s no doubt it helped me as a player. Ball in hand, space, it certainly developed my skills, which even as a forward you needed to have at the top level.

“It’s bloody hard work, though. I’d sometimes be at the stage where I’d get the ball in space, look down and the posts seemed a mile away and I’d be frantically looking around for someone to pass to. But a great, fun form of the game. You’d done the hard yards through the winter in the cold, sleet and glaur and this was the razzmatazz at the end of the season, hopefully with a bit of sun on your backs.”

Weir now works for his father-in-law’s sewage business. If he was playing now he might be coining in the kind of big six-figure salary that would make him for life but he has no pangs that his time came too soon.

“I don’t think I could handle it now,” says Weir. “I think I got the best of both worlds in that I was brought up in the amateur environment, when the focus was on enjoyment, and then had a little taste of the professional experience with Newcastle Falcons and the Reivers and was lucky enough to make a few bob from doing something I loved. It was a wrench to leave Melrose for Newcastle but I’m a great believer in taking the opportunities life presents you with. Nowadays everything is so serious and the pressure is so intense. I’m sure that there are lots of guys out there who are actually not very happy doing what they do and just plough on because of the financial imperative. That’s not what rugby should be about.

“Everything is so regimented and all this sports science has come into it which I’m not sure is always healthy. Don’t get me wrong I’m all for being professional and maximising yourself as an athlete. At Newcastle we had a fitness guru called Steve Black, he also worked with the Newcastle football team, Wales and the Lions, and I consider him, behind only Jim Telfer, as the biggest influence on my rugby career.

“But things can go too far. They have these GPS tracking systems now but I’m a great believer in the old Ally McCoist and Gary Lineker thing of being in the right place at the right time and doing the necessary. You might run 100 miles in a game but do nothing useful. They also have these heart monitors to see if players have expended their maximum energy during a game. They might well have, does that make them a good rugby player?”

Melrose will always be his first love but Weir also formed a strong emotional bond with Newcastle Falcons and he goes to all their home games. He reflects fondly on those heady pioneering days of professionalism under Sir John Hall and reels off the “lovely side” he was part of that brings to mind the star-studded Saracens outfit who saw off Glasgow last Sunday. Alongside the likes of Tim Stimpson, Alan Tait, Inga Tuigamala, Rob Andrew, a young Jonny Wilkinson (who was then playing centre awaiting Andrew to retire) and Pat Lam, Weir won the English league title in 1998.

He finished his career at the ill-fated Border Reivers and, ten years on from the third pro-team’s demise, he has not, like his former team-mate Townsend for example, found peace with that decision.

“No I still think it was wrong,” he says bluntly. “I believe they should have created a real sporting hub in Galashiels, got the Gala Fairydean football and the [Heriot-Watt] university involved and built something. People point to the crowds we were getting and how Glasgow are doing now but they only started getting the crowds when they started winning. I’m sure we could have got six, seven thousand and more to Netherdale if the team started doing well.

“It’s a shame because I honestly don’t see where the opportunities are for young Borders boys when there are only two teams. Special talents like Stuart Hogg will always find a way through, you’d like to hope, but you look at England and they have 12 professional clubs in the Premiership and another 11 in the Championship. A talented 15-year-old from Kelso, or St Boswells or Melrose just doesn’t have the chances that a kid with similar ability in Leicester, Northampton or Newcastle has. And I think a lot of them just give up.”

Weir enjoys his days out at Kingston Park but doesn’t spend too much of his spare time glued to the game in which he proudly represented his country from 1990 to 2000, preferring to watch the games of his teenage sons Hamish, Angus and Ben.

He still follows Scotland’s fortunes closely, though, continuing in his long-time role as corporate hospitality host at Murrayfield internationals. Like many, he is sad to see Vern Cotter leaving.

“I still don’t know the reasons behind it to be honest,” is Weir’s assessment. “Vern brought a lot of pride back to the Scotland team and the fans. I think he did a fantastic job. I totally understand Gregor coming in at some stage, he’s a great guy and a fantastic coach, but it seems a bit rushed to me.

“I think it will be difficult for Gregor because you always want to come into these things and replace someone who’s just finished bottom of the class, but that’s not the case here with Vern going so well. That said, we did have two defeats this year, one of them a pretty bad one down at Twickenham, let’s be honest, so there is room for improvement and things for Gregor to move forward.”

Weir reckons that “bad one at Twickenham” – a 61-21 hiding in an otherwise promising Six Nations – has ruined a few Scots chances of emulating him and pulling on the red of the British and Irish Lions, which he did in 1997 before his tour was prematurely ended by the knee-smashing thuggery of Marius Bosman. The moment he was told the bad news by Dr James Robson was one of the most famous scenes of the era-defining film Living With The Lions.

“I think it was unique because we were professional rugby players but we still had that amateur mindset to touring,” said Weir of that iconic documentary. “They’ve tried to do similar things since but I think it just ends up looking staged. With us it was completely natural. I’m still incredibly proud to have been part of that tour and hope we get a few Scots this time.

“I think after the Wales game we were looking at a decent number. Hoggy [Stuart Hogg] obviously, a couple of the wingers maybe, a centre might have pushed into the frame, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw, the Gray brothers and even someone like [flanker] Hamish Watson. But that England game was a killer and I think that number will have dropped back down.

“I still think Jonny Gray should be waiting by his letterbox, though, or however it is they are told now. I used to have to go on Ceefax to see if I was in the Scotland team!”

Changed days, but same old Doddie.