TRIBUTES from across the rugby world and from throughout British society were directed last night towards Doddie Weir, who has died after a brave five-and-a-half-year battle against Motor Neurone Disease.
The 61-times Scottish capped second-row and sometime No 8, who toured with the Lions in 1997 but was cruelly robbed of chance to compete for a place in the Test team though a knee injury inflicted by a thuggish act during one of the warm-up matches, faced his diagnosis and subsequent deterioration in health with characteristic dignity, and he showed his indomitable spirit by dedicating his final years to raising money and awareness in the fight against a disease which would ultimately claim his life.
His death was announced in a statement issued on behalf of his wife, Kathy, yesterday evening. “Doddie was an inspirational force of nature,” she wrote. “We are lucky to have shared our lives with him and we cherish all those memories: his love and warmth, his support and advice, his quick wit, and his terrible jokes. It is difficult to put into words how much we will miss him.
“MND took so much from Doddie, but never his spirit and determination. He battled MND so bravely, and whilst his own battle may be over, his fight continues through his foundation, until a cure is found for all those with this devastating disease.
“Hamish, Angus, Ben [his sons] and I would like to thank everyone for your support and for respecting our privacy at this difficult time.”
A proud son of the Borders, Weir was born in 1970 and educated at Daniel Stewart’s and Melville College in Edinburgh. Upon leaving school he became a key member of the formidable Melrose side which dominated the Scottish club game in the early 1990s, and went on to win the first of his 61 international caps in a record 49-3 win over Argentina at Murrayfield in November 1990.
“I remember in that game when he got his hands on the ball and threw me a great pass for a try near the end – second-rows didn’t do that in those days,” recalled his friend and former Melrose team-mate Craig Chalmers, who was at stand-off that day, and who was keen to highlight last night that there was more to Weir as a player than just being 6ft 8ins line-out target.
“You wouldn’t have ever thought it by looking at him, but he held his own at a time when there was a lot more casual violence in the game,” Chalmers added. “He’d have that big smile on his face as he was throwing a punch.
“He was quite thin so he couldn’t really hit very hard, but he was respected by everyone he played with or against.
“Wade Dooley [the formidable England second-row] didn’t like playing against Doddie because they were about the same height but Doddie could get up and in front of him in the line-out, and I always remember in 1992 when Dooley smacked Doddie and perforated his eardrum, but it would take more than that to put Doddie off.
“He was a pest – a ‘mad giraffe’ when he got loose with the ball in his hands. And he was always the team mischief-maker, always trying to get somebody into trouble or having a laugh at his own expense. Nobody will ever forget the big fella’s smile.”
Weir left Melrose after helping the Greenyards outfit to four league titles in five years between 1990 and 1994, to join Newcastle Falcons in 1995, during the early days of the sport being professional, and he was a member of the squad which lifted the English Premiership title in 1997-98. He finished his rugby career back in his beloved Borders playing for the subsequently disbanded Border Reivers between 2002 and 2005.
After hanging up his boots he arguably became an even better-known figure thanks to his regular appearances both on television and at international matches. He used this profile to great effect after his MND diagnosis in mid-2017, setting up the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation.
One of the most iconic moments in the history of Scottish rugby was when he delivered the match ball, accompanied by his sons ahead of the national team’s near miss against New Zealand in November 2017, receiving a rapturous reception from a full-house Murrayfield.
He delivered the ball again when the All Blacks returned to Murrayfield two weeks ago, although by this time he was restricted to a wheelchair and could not make it to the centre of the pitch, so both sets of players gathered to applaud him at the touchline, as did the 67,00o supporters in the stadium.
His foundation raised over £1million in its first year and has now raised more than £8m. MND is an as yet incurable condition which causes the brain and nerves to progressively degenerate.
“Doddie achieved what he did in terms of raising all that cash and awareness because of the character he was – he could make people smile and make people do stuff that they wouldn’t normally do,” added Chalmers. “I don’t know anyone else who could do that – people have tried but they weren’t Doddie.
“He said to me a wee while ago that we’ll be running around after him long after he’d gone – and he was right. I’m up speaking at a lunch in Edinburgh for his foundation on Thursday and we’ll be raising as much money as we can, and we’ll be keeping the legacy going for many, many, many years to come.
“We’ll never stop. The foundation will live on until we, his friends, disappear – and there’s a lot of friends out there!
“He was just an absolute gem and he’s going to live long in everyone’s hearts with what he’s done. It is not a good day, but there will be people all over the world raising a glass to him tonight.”
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “Doddie was one of our nation’s sporting legends, but the brave way he responded to MND surpassed anything ever achieved on the rugby pitch. He refused to let it dim his spirit and did so much to help others. My condolences to his loved ones.”
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted: “Rest in peace Doddie Weir OBE. All my family’s thoughts are with Kathy and her sons.”
The Prince and Princess of Wales tweeted: “Doddie Weir was a hero – we are so sad to hear of his passing. His immense talent on the pitch as well as his tireless efforts to raise awareness of MND were an inspiration. Our thoughts are with all those who loved him. He will be hugely missed across the entire rugby world.”
Scott Hastings, another former team-mate, said: “We lost the most lovable man in the world today. Doddie Weir we will honour your legacy & find a cure for MND.”
Gavin Hastings tweeted: “Doddie. You have been a giant amongst big men. You have never complained, never felt sorry for yourself but have sought to make the world a more comfortable place for those who come after you. RIP Big Man and our love goes out to Kathy and the boys.”
Meanwhile, TV presenter Jill Douglas, who was a close friend and is CEO of the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, said: “Doddie enjoyed a full life full of fun and love. And it was this approach to life which shone through in his determination to make a difference and help others when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease.
“Our vision of a world free of MND remains at the heart of our strategy. As we look to the future, we will honour Doddie’s name and deliver on his legacy.”
Rob Burrow, the former rugby league star and fellow MND sufferer, tweeted: “So sad to hear the news of the passing of my mnd hero Doddie Weir. I’m sorry to say, how many more warriors die before this stupid government give the 50m they said they would give. I’m absolutely gutted to see my friendly giraffe die. You are the reason for being so positive RIP.”
In November 2021, the government committed at least £50m to help find new therapies, and eventually a cure, for MND. The Department of Health and Social Care have said they remain committed to spending “at least” £50m, although the MND association claim they are still awaiting a response to a letter from Health Secretary Steve Barclay.
World Rugby chairman Sir Bill Beaumont said: “Today, the rugby family mourns one of its most inspirational members. His strength of character was unwavering, inspiring and moving.
“He channelled his determination into fighting his own battle, while also fighting the battle for all MND sufferers through his tireless campaigning and fundraising. Always with a smile. Quite simply, he was a remarkable man.”
There was a minute’s applause at half-time during England’s match against South Africa at Twickenham yesterday afternoon after news of Weir’s death had been announced to the crowd.
A statement from the RFU read: “The England Rugby family are deeply saddened by the passing of one of the game’s greats in Doddie Weir. A true character on and off the field. He will be greatly missed. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.”