Interview: Doddie Weir flushed with pride as Scotland walk tall once again
That's a shame. I was looking forward to some choice slapstick moments involving him scudding his head off the beams, or turning round too quick and knocking over a shelf of angling trophies – or even some small children – with one of his prominent, bashed lugs. That pub could have passed for a panto cottage and Weir would have been perfect casting as the giant.
But a jolly one. And, when we finally meet, one in green. Jersey, cords and Timberland boots with nursery-rhyme housing opportunities. We're in a swish, carpeted corridor under one of Murrayfield's stands for which the likes of me don't usually have the correct laminate. A confab has just broken up and Weir has emerged from a crowded room to commandeer another for just him and your reporter – it's big so no chance of any comedy now – and here he talks ...
"I work in sewage now, that's what the meeting was about," says the former lock, capped 61 times, who hung up his boots five years ago. Aha, I'm thinking, there could be some jokes after all, but confronted with this Borders Gigantor, I'm not about to make them. "Sewage, waste water, I'm your man. A salmon farmer in Duns needs to put fish-ends down the drains – we'll treat them. There's a company in Hamilton which make nice cakes and we look after their grease. We're hoping to be involved in a new outward bounds centre in Pitlochry and that would be an example of how we get involved in human waste."
I'm laughing. Thankfully so is Weir. "We want to change our slogan, what do think of 'Your No2s are my No1'? I suggest with 'Your business is my business' but he's obviously been concentrating the mind while perched on the throne. "'Where you're in it give us a call' ... 'Let the drain take the strain' ... 'Out of sh*** out of mind'."
I could talk effluence all day but, really, I'm here to discuss rugby. Weir, 39, made his international debut against Argentina, Scotland's opponents today as they bid for a hat-trick of autumn test victories. Some performances last season stank the place out, but Andy Robinson has revitalised what had become a bedraggled national squad.
Weir watched the win against Australia with a dangling-over-rapids finale that seemed to be rugby's homage to classic flea-pit serials and the big man was hugely impressed. "It was very, very exciting and great for the Scottish game which has been in the doldrums," he says. "I spoke to some of the players afterwards and they're very impressed with Andy; he's got some great ideas. Frank Hadden did a good job, especially coming after Matt Williams who caused some serious issues, saying the wrong things to the supporters and aggravating the dressing room. But, ultimately, I think Frank took Scotland as far as he could. Andy seems to have the players' respect. I'm not saying Frank didn't have, but Andy played at a higher level, coached at a higher level with Bath and at international level, because he failed with England, I think there's some unfinished business. I liked that he said Scotland's performance against Australia had been the most courageous he had been involved with. Other coaches might have flower-powered it."
Flower-power? I assume this to be hippyesque vagueness and, according to Weir, not what's required now. Don't forget, he was schooled in rugby by Jim Telfer, one of the least vague men in the entire history of sport. "Andy's open, honest and direct," he continues. "Frank may have had guys he enjoyed working with, who would always be in the team, whatever. Andy's approach looks to be a bit, er, different." "Different" is probably a rugby euphemism for all manner of coaching stratagems, none of them evoking the spirit of Woodstock, but let's leave the current team to continue walking tall after last week's heroics and consider the highs and lows of Weir's career. For starters, and I've read both 6ft 6ins and 6ft 7ins, just how high is he?
"Since finishing up, that's one of three questions I'm always asked. I say 6ft 6ins because any taller and you're in the freak-zone." At school, pals could look him in the eye until he was 14; after that he started breathing thinner air. His first big passion was horses and this pony club fanatic used to compete against the Princess Royal. "She was aye at one end of the rostrum, the winners' end, and I'd be at the other." Too tall for horseracing, I suppose. "Er, there was a charity race at Musselburgh not so long ago. I was five stone overweight and finished last. Hope the animal rights folk didn't see that."
Gala was and still is the family club but Weir joined Melrose where he could combine rugby with horses. He loves the inter-town Borders rivalry which survives despite the ill-fated Reivers experiment, although he says: "There's still a lot of sadness about that, and some bitterness. I think professional rugby is a good thing but Scotland is still struggling with the concept and the Borders, the home of Scottish rugby, fared badly when the SRU kept Glasgow going at our expense. With no pro team, what's the incentive for promising Borders lads and who are local kids going to look up to? It's a shame."
The original Gigantor was a 1960s cartoon fantasy about the far-off year 2000, starring a 50ft flying robot with no intelligence but which was programmed for peace. The Borders version claims he had "a wee bitty ability and just happened to be taller than most" but he also starred for Newcastle and the Reivers in a career which straddled the arrival of professionalism and of course the name "Doddie Weir" was made for Bill McLaren commentaries – everyone can impersonate Rory Bremner impersonating Bill saying it.
What does "the lamp-post of the lineout" (McLaren again) remember of his Scotland debut back in November 1990? "The first game was actually the easiest because my drive to play for my country was so strong. It passed in a blur but I was so proud. Mind you, I'd rather forget all about being introduced to Princess Anne and stumbling through my answer to her question: 'Er, um, my first time? No, I mean yes – Christ!'" Married to Kathy with a future front-row of three young sons – "Our five-year-old, Ben, has four Weetabix for breakfast; I only have three" – Weir could make a claim for being one of Scotland's unluckiest. Just 20, he gave way to a fit-again Damian Cronin for the 1990 Grand Slam. He played in the 1991 World Cup semi-final and the 1994 Calcutta Cup – two games we lost through late penalty tragedies. Then there was the Lions tour of South Africa in 1997 when he seemed a cert for the first Test until Marius Bosman obliterated his left knee.
YouTube "Doddie Weir" and the karate kick pops up, before the casualty is told his tour is over and his face turns all pink and puffy and you think he's going to greet. But not quite; not on Jim Telfer's watch. Still, he must have been devastated, no? Just one of those things, he says, although the thuggery is the basis of the second-most popular question he gets asked.
Weir was "tremendously privileged" to have been part of that campaign, the intense camaraderie, and to have been so brilliantly led by Ian McGeechan and Telfer, when the latter trumped Larry Olivier's inspirational speechifying at Agincourt: "This is your f****n' Everest, boys."
Did Telfer ever quote Shakespeare, either to the Lions or Scotland? "I don't think so. With Scotland he had before him a bunch of farmers and the Hastings sisters, don't forget. But seriously, Jim was incredible. He'd devise these great ceremonies for when we collected our Scotland shirts; once they were arranged in the shape of a giant thistle. To the forwards when you were still allowed to ruck – and they still should be, by the way – he'd say: 'You're laying your body on the line.' And we did. And, sado-masochistically, I kind of enjoyed it!" Weir stopped enjoying rugby when training had to be stepped up under professionalism. "I was never the best trainer, to be honest, and would always find an excuse not to. So having to train every day bored me. I hated weights. How often do you have to bench-press in a match? I'm sure training is better these days but when pro rugby began I don't think we knew what we were really doing."
Still, the sport knows what it's about now: fake-blood scandals, drugs, celebrity girlfriends. The fragrant Kelly Brook apart, Weir cringed at the lurid headlines. "Rugby's profile needed to be upped but some players seem to be moving in, er, different circles." (He's using "different" euphemistically again.) "We'd go to the pub and play cards, but that's not allowed now. What are the guys today doing with their money? We never had any. Playing Kenny Milne at pool I was losing 6,000 I didn't have until I talked him into double-or-quits."
The most-asked question of Weir is whether he misses rugby. "No, not really," he says. "I had a wee moment after watching Newcastle and maybe it tells you something: I'd stopped at a garage and the boys were jumping back on the bus with their McDonald's and carry-outs from Tesco. I loved my rugby but most of all when it was old-school."
Old-school was Gary Armstrong – sometimes in cahoots with Bryan Redpath, scrum-halves being "the deviants" – concealing sawdust in the sandwiches or hot chocolate in the bubble-baths or salt in the beer or smearing the hotel-room phones with Vaseline or continually flick team-mates' TVs to the porn channel while hiding in a tree. All of it vital to the bonding process, of course, as was the nickname "Dodgy Queer". He says: "Back then the results came from a bunch of guys selected on the basis of being able to gel as a group and drinking together helped that, so come the game you were ready to fight for each other. It's different now. Apparently, after the Fiji game, the players all went back to their rooms to watch 'The X Factor'. Of course that seems like genius preparation because the next match they became heroes."
Weir simply preferred rugby when he couldn't shift The Sex Factor or some such dubious entertainment off the screen.
It's late, and before getting back to the Borders, he still has some pressing sewage business. Not a problem, though. How did the old theme tune go again? "Bigger than big! Taller than tall! Gigantor!"