Of all of the things to have happened in the world of rugby this year, few have been as shocking as this week’s announcement that former Scotland and Lions lock Doddie Weir is suffering from Motor Neurone Disease (MND). Coming so soon after the death of Joost van der Westhuizen from the same illness, and in the middle of a tour by the British and Irish Lions team that he was such a part of in 1997, it is fair to say that the rugby community has taken a very literal body blow.
Motor Neurone Disease, also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, ALS and Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a wasting disease in which the body’s nervous system gradually disintegrates, slowly depriving the sufferer of the ability to move, speak, swallow and breathe unaided*. In recent times medicines have been able to slow the progress of the disease, but never halt it entirely. Professor Stephen Hawking is a rare example of someone who has survived more than five years with the illness. American footballer Steve Gleason is another. But both are wheelchair bound, unable to speak without the aid of technology.
It is this inability to speak which rings cruellest about Weir’s case. He was never the highest class as a rugby player. Bill McLaren famously described him as roaming around the pitch ‘like a mad giraffe’. His Scottish teammates nicknamed him ‘Bambi’, such was his lack of co-ordination. But he was a very good player, good enough to win 61 caps for his country (scoring four tries) and only being deprived of a full Lions cap by a serious knee injury, as well as being a fine horseman.
His personality, however, was (and still is) world-beating. His goofy grin on the pitch, coupled with the shock of blond hair, made him stand out even though at 6’6″ he was comparatively small for a modern rugby forward. After retiring, he became commercial director of a waste management firm and a much-sought-after public speaker. In that latter role he decided that, as well as the smile, the hair, the height and the rich Scottish brogue, he also needed to stand out a bit. He had a selection of suits made in the loudest tartans he could find. You didn’t always see Doddie Weir coming on the rugby pitch, but you certainly do off it.
Back in 2014 B&M and a competition winner had the honour of attending the Allianz Rugby Speaker of the Year competition. Weir, suits and all, simply wiped the floor with the competition (Ben Kay and Austin Healey). He did so by being his usual warm, funny and enormously self-deprecating self. As several people pointed out, whilst the other two just told stories from their rugby careers, Doddie talked about his whole life. He told unprintable anecdotes about waste management. He accused his sister of killing his horse. And he was side-splittingly funny about all of it.
A voice like that cannot easily be silenced. Indeed, it has already been databanked, recorded so that, when the sad time comes that Weir has to rely upon a computer to speak for him, his voice will still be heard. Typically, he delayed announcing his illness until World Motor Neurone Disease Day on Tuesday, so that it could do the most to raise awareness and help for fellow sufferers.
At the time of writing, Doddie Weir is on holiday with his family, He’s in New Zealand with the Lions. He had hoped to take his family to South Africa in 2021 instead, but cannot now afford to wait until then. Before he left, he was reportedly out riding. B&M wishes him the very best for the future.
(*This is far from the most scientific way of explaining the disease, but in the 30+ years since it killed my grandfather it is one that I have found works the best)