Sir Ian McGeechan:
There are times when you can’t help but feel proud of the rugby community. Wednesday evening at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Hong Kong was one of them. The charity dinner for the MyName’5 Doddie Foundation, which raises funds to aid research into Motor Neurone Disease, was one of the most extraordinary, uplifting nights I can remember.
I’ve been thinking about it non-stop ever since; what an incredible night it was, what a special man Doddie Weir is, and what a special game we have that he should be honoured in that way.
Nearly 600 people turned up for ‘The Greatest Rugby Dinner Ever’, raising over HK$5 million in the process. Cathay Pacific’s director of finance, Martin Murray, a good friend of Doddie’s, organised it again after the success of last year’s inaugural event. And he did a wonderful job.
There was a lovely symmetry, for me, in the fact that it was Martin organising it. His father, Malcolm, was the boss of Scottish Life, the insurance firm which gave me a job when I was unemployed back in 1990 after being given the choice of quitting my teaching job or quitting Scotland. I chose Scotland.
Clearly the fact that the Hong Kong Sevens are taking place this weekend made his life a little easier in terms of who he was able to attract from the rugby world. And there were many big names. George Gregan, Lawrence Dallaghlio, Brian O’Driscoll, Jason Leonard, Simon Shaw, the Hastings brothers. But there were also non-rugby stars. Former athlete Michael Johnson. Sir Billy Connolly, who has Parkinsons of course, and his wife Lady Pamela.
Connolly was undoubtedly the star turn. He was only there on a flying visit as he had to attend an event in New York this weekend. But the fact he was there at all spoke volumes about the esteem in which Doddie is held.
Billy got up on stage with Andy Nicol, ostensibly for a Q&A, but Andy managed one question and off Billy went on a five-minute monologue about a previous experience of landing at Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport which had everyone in stitches. He received a standing ovation. A complete genius.
The auction, which was expertly presided over by Jonny Gould, raised over $2million HK on its own. Sir Alex Ferguson sent a video message, as did Mike and Zara Tindall and many other famous faces.
An incredible painting was unveiled on the night by the Scottish portrait artist Gerard M Burns, which has so far raised over £100,000. The picture is superb, set in his rugby heartlands in the Borders with the Eildon Hills behind him. It really captures the inner Doddie, a man who refuses to be beaten.
Doddie deserved it all. He was a great player but he is really showing his true colours as a human being.
I’ve always had a soft spot for him. I gave him his first cap back in 1990 and his last in 2000. He was nicknamed The Giraffe by Bill McLaren because his legs didn’t seem to work in unison. But he was a very effective and influential player.
We enjoyed some amazing moments, including of course the 1997 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa. Doddie’s tour-ending injury, after a stamp in a game against Mpumalanga Province, was one of the most heartbreaking moments. You saw in the documentary just how crushing the news was when our doctor, James Robson, told him his medial ligament was gone.
But I prefer that scene before the tour got going when we were still in London and we got two journalists in to talk to the players about what to expect from the press.
One of them gave Doddie a hypothetical scenario whereby he had been spotted leaving a nightclub in the early hours of the morning the night before a Test match with a girl on his arm. What would he say, he was asked? He didn’t miss a beat. “Mistaken identity - my father is in Cape Town”. The room collapsed.
Doddie has always been a larger-than-life character. He has always been able to create a positive atmosphere.
Now we are seeing his inner steel come out as well. He’s not just accepting his illness, he is making it his life’s mission to find a cure. Maybe not in time for him, but for someone else.
He’s doing everything. Charity bike rides, walking Hadrian’s Wall. Already, in the 18 months since his diagnosis, he has raised more than £2 million.
I believe I’m right in saying that two thirds of that has already been distributed to medical research. Doddie wants to be able to say that he fought, he’s trying to make a difference.
No-one can be in any doubt that he is. It was assumed he wouldn’t make it out to Hong Kong because three weeks ago he tripped, fell, broke two ribs, punctured his lung, had stitches in his head, and was in hospital for two days. Yet there he was, large as life. I reckon he had a pretty sore head the next day, too.
It is so, so admirable. And so touching. His son, Hamish, was there with him. His wife Kathy was back on the farm as it’s lambing season but they sent a video message which featured his sons passing a lamb rugby ball-style in the background.
Everything is done in such a positive manner. There’s no self-pity. His human spirit shines through and inspires others to raise their game.
And the rugby world is responding. Wednesday night was an example of the sport pulling together. I know I’m biased but I think it’s the best sport in the world. Everything that happened on Wednesday night just reinforced that.