I feared professional rugby would lose its soul - but then something amazing changed by mind

Doddie Weir
The Telegraph
I feared professional rugby would lose its soul - but then something amazing changed by mind
I feared professional rugby would lose its soul - but then something amazing changed by mind

My great fear when professionalism came in was that club rugby would lose its soul – that players would become more motivated by the size of the cheque than the history of the shirt they were representing.

I got a small glimpse of that towards the end of my career at the Borders. We were being trained four or five times a day. We were being treated like robots, commanded to follow set instructions. When you lose the enjoyment, it is time to move on.

The three most special teams in my life were Scotland, Melrose and Newcastle, which is why I was lucky enough that ScotlandShop.com commissioned Doddie’5 Tartan. The blue and white represents Scotland, the black and yellow represents Melrose and the black and white represents Newcastle.  

READ MORE: England defeat ensures Ireland win Six Nations

READ MORE: Six Nations - Ireland pile pressure on England with bonus-point win

READ MORE: Six Nations - Ireland started to doubt themselves against Scotland - Murray

I have been like a boy with a new toy. It was even more special that it made its debut at the Calcutta Cup. What a day that was. I predicted Scotland were due a win but I could never have thought that they would blow England away in that style. It was a special day and an even more special night out. Of course I am going to claim that it was purely because of the debut of my tartan. 

Melrose were my first club, but that in itself caused quite a ruckus because my father and brothers played for Gala. Back in those days Gala v Melrose was like Rangers v Celtic or Manchester United v Liverpool. I was pretty close to being disowned. Even now I don’t think the old boy has forgiven me!

We had a fabulous team there with internationals like Craig Chalmers, Bryan Redpath, Carl Hogg and Graham Shiel and local stalwarts such as Robbie Brown, Andrew Redpath and Andrew Kerr. With a population of around 3,500 people, Melrose were Scottish champions six times in the 1990s.

It was a bit of a leap into the unknown leaving for Newcastle but I found that same sense of camaraderie and pride in playing for the jersey. Again we had some tremendous players: Jonny Wilkinson, Inga Tuigamala, Dean Ryan, Pat Lam and Gary Armstrong to name but a few.  Nearly all of us knew what it was like to properly work for a living and appreciated what a privilege it was to be paid for what was effectively a hobby. It was just a phenomenal time. 

Of course it helps that we were successful winning the Premiership in 1998 and the Powergen Cup in 2001. Everyone is in the game to win but you need to enjoy yourself as well. Did we have a great time because we were winning or did we have success because we were having a great time? When my first contract expired at Newcastle, I got an offer from another club that would have made me one of the highest-paid rugby players in the UK. I turned it down because I was so settled in Newcastle and playing for a team that I loved. I told the other club it was because they did not have enough land for my sheep and horses!

Now you have a generation of players who were born after rugby turned professional and probably do not have the same appreciation of how lucky they are to be paid rugby for a living. I wonder how many would make the same decision I did at Newcastle?

It is easy to be a cynical, old-timer but a lot of my faith in modern rugby was restored last week when I was invited to a dinner at Leicester Tigers celebrating the 125th year anniversary of Welford Road. You had a whole host of legends there including Martin Johnson, Peter Wheeler, Rory Underwood, Neil Back and Austin Healey. I particularly enjoyed hearing some of the behind-the-scenes stories from the original ABC club of Darren Garforth, Richard Cockerill and Graham Rowntree. 

What struck me was just how important playing for the shirt was to the players, including the current generation. That was what motivated me to play each and every week but because I have been out of professional rugby for quite a few years now, I did not know if that connection still existed. I was even more touched that Leicester made my foundation one of the benefactors of the dinner. For a club that I had never played for, to make that gesture was incredibly humbling. 

This weekend I will be heading to Rome for Scotland’s match against Italy. I would invite anyone else in Rome to join me at the Piazza del Popolo at 11.30am on Saturday as we set off on a 2.5-mile walk to the Stadio Olimpico in what we are hoping will be the march of 1,000 headbands. Even Gerard Buttler sent us a WhatsApp message

Even if you can't be there, it is not too late to download the Doddie Gump app and put in a few miles wherever you are whether that is running, cycling or just walking around the park. Not only will you be doing a bit of exercise, but you will be helping your country in the leaderboard and contributing to the fight against motor neurone disease. Good luck to all those who take part and to the teams competing in the final round of what has been a terrific NatWest Six Nations Championship. 

What to read next