It was a terribly poignant moment when Doddie Weir was introduced to the fans before Scotland’s game against the All Blacks. He had delivered the match ball before, during the early stages of his battle with motor neurone disease, when he walked onto the pitch with his three handsome, strapping sons. This time, though, he was confined to a wheelchair.
Today’s opponents are Argentina who 32 years ago were the first international team to encounter the special and idiosyncratic talents of the “mad giraffe” - and the arm round his shoulder in the dark blue middle row was Gray.
“It was so sad,” says Weir’s old sidekick. “To see someone like Doddie who was so full of life, who used to run around like a loony on the park and was such a laugh off it … to see him now he’s battered.
“He was giving MND hell, having a bloody brilliant go at fighting it. He’ll still want to fight it and try and beat it but his body - and this isn’t a medical term - is knackered. I hope this will be a small comfort, though: just him being there really inspired the team.”
Doddie, an agonising loss against New Zealand, the challenge posed by the Pumas - memories of 1990 are vivid for Gray and if that year sounds familiar then of course this was all immediately post-Grant Slam. Last Sunday’s 23-31 defeat chimed with the ’90 tour’s second test in Auckland when similarly David Sole’s Scots were leading until late - in their case the 72nd minute - only to succumb 21-18.
“For me that was the best Scotland tour,” says Gray, now 62. “We found out about it minutes after we’d won the Slam. In the dressing-room Geech [coach Ian McGeechan] said: ‘Congratulations, lads, your prize is we’re going to New Zealand in the summer.’ We were like: ‘Bloody hell.’
“In the first test in Dunedin we played well but the All Blacks won convincingly [31-16]. Afterwards I admitted to Fin [Finlay Calder] that, standing in the lineout, I’d been in awe of their guys. I knew I shouldn’t have been thinking like that but I actually didn’t feel I deserved to be out there.”
Still, the 22-cap lock managed to score one of Scotland’s tries, impressing the Kiwi TV commentators with his effort to keep up with play. As we talk on Zoom, he chuckles. “Our back row claimed I nicked that one from them. Fin, JJ [John Jeffrey] and Whitey [Derek White] said: ‘That was ours, you great git.’ I said: Well, where the hell were you? You couldn’t keep up. I had to do your jobs for you!’”
During the days between the tests Gray was among those who visited a primary school in Wellington founded by Scot. “The kids were right cocky. ‘You’ll never beat the All Blacks,” they said. I think for any of the guys like me who were feeling a bit self-conscious, there suddenly came the realisation: ‘They’re rugby players like us. Great ones, but we can take them on.’ And in the second test we did.”
It was a pulverising affair. “My word, that’s tough stuff,” remarked the men at the mic as Sole took two blows to the head. “Like all-in wrestling.” But the Scots, they insisted, had been “brave, gallant and very popular” tourists with Gray again “outstanding”. These were Sean Fitzpatrick’s All Blacks but they were given a huge fright that day, eventually prevailing thanks to Grant Fox’s surefire kicking. “Aye but they won with the dodgiest penalty in the history of our sport!” roars Gray.
“It was a hard, hard game but I wouldn’t have said dirty. Anyone in the wrong place and near the ball was going to get kicked - that was rugby back then. I think the All Blacks came to the conclusion: ‘These guys aren’t complaining, they’re really fronting up.’ We could ruck like them. Creamy [Jim Telfer] had taught us well. On a Lions tour he’d seen a bunch of big Anglo-Saxons destroyed by Otago’s little guys. He studied the height and angles of their rucking and hammered those techniques into us. I can still hear the thump, thump of his orders. You’d be constantly looking around for another dark blue shirt, sticking out your arm, then the pair of you would drill into the ruck together.”
Gray lives in the village of Beeston with his wife Judith. He’s the father of two boys, Jamie and Nick, who’ve long since shot past the 6ft 5ins Gigantor who used to stand at No 2 in the lineouts. The accent is “Eh up!” on account of him being in the English Midlands for so long, but his roots are in East Lothian, in a house not far from the beach in Dunbar, when it was always “Sunny Dunny” until the family moved when he was seven.
Did we mention drilling? Gray has just retired as a dentist after 38 heroic years peering into other folks’ gobs. What a strange job, I say. “Bloody strange if like me you were terrified of dentists as a kid, going under the gas.” His parents were suitably stunned by his career choice, but his reasoning was straightforward: science lessons had been the only ones he really enjoyed at school and he was good with his hands, his “carries” in the loose being testimony to that (albeit that a much more delicate touch would be required in the surgery).
Now, the last sportsman-wallies fixer to appear on these pages was Lisbon Lion Jim Craig. He told me that women patients could become mildly infatuated with their dentist, the process being such an intimate one requiring a fair degree of submission. Another guffaw from Gray: “I didn’t get anything like that, probably because my nose was broken so many times and my ears were too mashed!
“But being 6ft 5ins and intimidating is, I think, useful for a dentist. I was able to scare kids who weren’t looking after their teeth to start brushing them. I did scare some grown-ups as well. They’d have a tight grip of my arm until I pointed out this could affect my chances of avoiding the drill going through their lip. Some didn’t like needles. I’d tell them that the sharper they were the less they would feel them, but sometimes that would increase the fear. One woman was too terrified to sit in the chair. She stayed stuck to the back wall of the surgery, 12 feet away. ‘Are you going to hurt me?’ she said. I said: ‘Madam, not even I can hurt you from all the way over here.’
“But I could have good banter with a lot of patients and tried to make the experience fun. They gave me a few nicknames, such as Lurch [the unfeasibly tall and square-jawed manservant in The Addams Family] and Mr Incredible [the unfeasibly tall and square-jawed patriarch of the cartoon superhero clan]. But over the 38 years I probably heard “Is it safe?” a little too often - bloody tedious!” (That was the incessant inquiry of Nazi dentist Laurence Olivier in the movie Marathon Man, just before attacking another of Dustin Hoffman’s perfectly healthy gnashers).
Gray, who played his club rugby for Edinburgh Accies and Nottingham, remembers being straight back to work after the Grand Slam showdown against England. Now, I’ve said this once or twice or a hundred times before: what a fine, noble and self-effacing era that was for the game. The prospect of attaching glitz to the glaur was but a twinkle in a marketing man’s eye. “One patient I saw that day didn’t even know I played rugby,” he adds. “Had I seen the game on Saturday? I could tell he was grumpy about the result. I told him: ‘I was one of those perishers in the dark blue shirts!’”
One more thing before we leave teeth - what does he make of the mild abuse Stuart Hogg has endured on Twitter for having had his whitened? “Well, I’m glad social media wasn’t around in my day. If you respond to what’s said about you then others will only have a go. I don’t have a problem with cosmetic dentistry, and I’m not just saying that because it brought my practice more work. People are taking more care of their appearance in lots of ways. Is it vanity? I remember when Gavin Henson started shaving his legs and fake-tanning them - he took some stick about that. Mind you, he was a back. As we forwards will always say, what do you expect of that lot?!”
A win for Hogg’s Scotland against Argentina this afternoon will make the current team feel better about themselves - but Gray reckons they’ll continue to rue those missed chances against New Zealand for a while yet. “That’s what we did. In history we rarely get that close to the All Blacks. Like in our game they did what truly great sides do - they managed to find a way to win. The changes they made in the front row and at scrum-half turned Sunday’s game their way. But Scotland played really well and seem to be on the right road.”
Gray’s match-up with the Pumas in the November of the Slam year was the first official meeting of the countries and the first game back at Murrayfield for the history-makers. Did they feel ten feet tall? Again, it’s modesty to the fore: “We’d given a pretty decent account of ourselves on the summer tour, knocked seven bells out of each other at training and felt quite good about ourselves. We didn’t know much about Argentina but expected a tough game. The previous weekend against England, Paul Ackford stood on one of their guys’ hand. The guy got up and decked him and was send off while Ackford had to be carried off.”
In the end Scotland won in a canter, 49-3, plundering seven tries. Hooker Kenny Milne grabbed a double and there was another score for our man. “We brought in a few new boys who integrated well - Alex Moore, Graham Marshall, George Buchanan-Smith and of course Doddie.” And although commentator Bill McLaren didn’t christen Weir the mad giraffe that day, his long-legged contribution to the best try, which also involved Gray and was finished by Craig Chalmers, was a hint of how he would amuse and thrill.
“When Doddie first came into the squad I was surprised by how young he was. I thought he must be good and of course he was. By the time of his debut he’d been in New Zealand with us and had integrated really well: a gangly, smiley, happy-go-lucky soul, sometimes the daft laddie, but serious about his rugby. I was used to locking with Damian Cronin who, because he was such a big guy, would stand an arm’s length away. Suddenly I had this long drink of water right up alongside me and I’d say: ‘Doddie, you’re standing too close!’ But we got the hang of it eventually and what a player. He was way better in the lineout than me and we’ve all got such wonderful memories of him running free. I loved playing with the guy.”