ONE of the most memorable and heart-wrenching scenes in Living With The Lions – that seminal fly-on-the-wall documentary of the triumphant 1997 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa – is set in the aftermath of a convincing 64-14 victory over Mpumalanga in only the fourth game of the trip, and focusses on Doddie Weir being told the full extent of the damage caused to his knee by a cowardly stamp from opposite number Marius Bosman.
The footage of the injury occurring is hard enough to watch, with Weir’s lower left limb clearly buckling the wrong way; but this moment in the changing room is almost unbearable. The second-row, who was a baby-faced 26-year-old at the time, initially jokes to the camera about the sting caused by hairs being pulled out his leg as Dr James Robson unravels the tape which is holding an ice-bag to the damaged joint, but when he looks away and takes a deep breath it is clear that he is putting on a show.
“Am I alright, aye?” Weir nervously asks the medic, who is now examining the knee.
“The medial ligaments are gone,” is the grim reply.
“What does that mean?” retorts Weir, sensing that this is not good news but not yet ready to countenance the harsh reality.
“It means you’re finished. It needs fixed,” explains Robson.
“Does it? Will it not just heal in time?” pleads Weir, as the bottom falls out of his world.
He looks around the room, in search of some sort of flash of inspiration or divine intervention which will rescue his tour, before finally bringing himself to acknowledge what he is being told.
“Ah well, it’s been a good old time, hasn’t it?” he quips, in a brave attempt at staying positive. He then nods sadly as Robson explains what the next course of action involves.
“Cheers, Robbo,” says Weir, ever the gentleman. He tries to smile but can’t sustain it – and ends up biting his lip in a desperate attempt to keep it together.
The camera lingers for another 32 seconds. It seems like an eternity. The chatter in the rest of the changing room slowly subsides as the squad begin to realise that they are losing one of their own.
That fortitude [multiplied tenfold] was evident again yesterday morning when the man who played 61 times for Scotland between November 1990 and February 2000 highlighted some genuinely devastating news – not just a sporting set-back – with a Twitter post which casually stated: “something I think you should know …” [sic], followed by a link to an article on the website for the Euan MacDonald Centre for Motor Neurone Disease Research.
In the article Weir explains that he has fallen victim to this most vicious of afflictions.
”Over the past few months a number of friends and family have raised concerns surrounding my health. I think then, that on this day set to help raise awareness of the condition, I should confirm that I too have Motor Neurone Disease. I should like to take this opportunity to thank the National Health Service in recognising then diagnosing this, as yet, incurable disease,” he states.
“I am currently on holiday in New Zealand with Kathy and the boys and when we return, I will devote my time towards assisting research and raising awareness and funds to help support fellow sufferers. There are plans in place to create a charitable foundation to help in any way we can and we will share these details with you after our family trip.”
Weir may be hoping that his holiday in New Zealand will buffer him from the outpouring of emotion which this news was always going to elicit in his homeland. It won’t work. We know, of course, that New Zealand is currently chockablock with British and Irish rugby fans, but that’s not the point. Wherever the oval ball is chased there will be a deep sense of shock and sadness that one of the sport’s great personalities has been so cruelly treated.
The catastrophic news of that knee injury was not quite the end of his 1997 South African odyssey. The next scene in Living With The Lions involves Weir – who has been entrusted with the ‘player cam’ for the week – filming and commentating as Robson drains the blood from Simon Shaw’s cauliflower ear. “Most second-rows have them. Fortunately, I don’t push so I don’t merit one,” he jokes. “Help-ma-boab, there’s a lot of stuff coming out of that,” he adds, as a syringe is applied to Shaw’s swollen lug.
Weir wasn’t going to let a bit of bad luck stop him from making the most of the time he had left on the tour, although there is eventually an emotional piece to camera immediately before his departure. Once again, his unshakeable positivity shines through.
“It’s a sad day for me, mainly due to the fact that I’m going home. My tour has finally ended. But on a sweet note, I’ll remember this tour for many years, I’ve got some great memories and met some lovely people,” he reflects.
Twenty years on and Weir’s vow to throw himself into assisting research and raising awareness of MND confirms his on-going determination to tackle the game of life with the same enthusiasm as he did the game of rugby. Long may that continue.