A Weir and the likely lads

Newcastle's other sporting army are led into battle by genial giant of a general who is every inch a club man
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To emphasise the difference between Premiership rugby players and footballers, Newcastle Falcons have a slogan: Heroes you can touch. Anybody wishing to rub shoulders with Doddie Weir would probably need a stepladder, but even so it's a canny message. At Kingston Park you can not only watch the Falcons but enjoy a jar and jaw with them after the match, a scenario unlikely to be repeated with the Magpies at St James' Park.

To emphasise the difference between Premiership rugby players and footballers, Newcastle Falcons have a slogan: Heroes you can touch. Anybody wishing to rub shoulders with Doddie Weir would probably need a stepladder, but even so it's a canny message. At Kingston Park you can not only watch the Falcons but enjoy a jar and jaw with them after the match, a scenario unlikely to be repeated with the Magpies at St James' Park.

"Great goal, Alan, fancy a brown ale or a chicken nugget?" Perhaps not. Doddie, on the other hand, is one of life's social animals, a better mixer than Red Bull. When Rob Andrew, Newcastle's director of rugby, appointed him as his new captain, he knew he was getting more than just an experienced second-row forward whose DNA looks as if it has shared a similar make-up to the giraffe family.

Doddie may not be quite as big as Shearer on Tyneside, but it would be difficult to find a more popular captain. "When you look at the players we've got and the area we're in, I consider it a great honour just to be involved," he said. "It was a nice surprise and I get a wee smile out of it. I thought they'd give it to Gary [Armstrong]. He was a fantastic captain last year in very different circumstances. It'll give me extra drive to go out and do things.

"The role has changed considerably. I don't need to light the fires in the changing room. We've got people to do that stuff. I've got to bring everything together and make the right calls at the right time and in the right positions. I see it more as a club captain than a match captain. There's a lot of people I can call on. This could be a very exciting season."

The league started well enough, with a victory over Northampton, the European champions, last week, and today there is another huge test with the arrival of the Premiership champions, Leicester. "It looks as if the story of the season is that most matches will be very close. Beating Northampton has given us an inner confidence," said Weir.

However, Newcastle will be without Armstrong, who suffered a broken jaw against the Saints, the hooker Ross Nesdale and the wing Jamie Noon, who were both concussed in a pre-season game with Leeds.

When George Wilson Weir - they like to replace George with "Doddie" in Scotland, and he has only been formally addressed twice, at his christening and wedding - was recruited to Newcastle in 1995, things did not go to plan. He travelled from Scotland with Armstrong on what they thought was a clandestine trip.

"We hadn't agreed anything and nobody was supposed to know," Doddie said. "When we arrived we found ourselves in the middle of a big press conference." Their visit coincided with the announcement of the signing of Tony Underwood. Although Jedburgh released Armstrong, Melrose, Doddie's club, made life difficult.

"Loyalty's important, but in the end it was an easy decision to make. I'd been at Melrose for seven years and we'd won the title five times. Money was not a major issue. I found the North-east very hospitable, everybody says hello and you get value for money. You don't want to pay too much for a pint. All told it was a bit more than just doing a hobby full-time."

Doddie has settled in the village of Corbridge with his wife, Kathy, whom he refers to as Mary Doll after Rab C Nesbitt's other half, and their first child is due around Christmas Day. His neighbours include Jonny Wilkinson, John Leslie and the coach Steve Bates.

Scotland, of course, is a short drive away. Doddie's father, John, works 1,100 acres at Cortleferry Farm in Fountain Hall near Galashiels, classic Borders rugby country. John, 6ft 4in, was a lock for Gala but Doddie became the black sheep of the family when he joined Melrose, and the explanation beggars belief.

It came about through the Pony Club. "I used to go to events with my sister Kirsty. When I was younger I was very, very slim. I could hide behind a goalpost and the only thing you'd see was my ears. I used to play for Stewarts' Melville on a Saturday and this chap suggested I should join Melrose, who played on a Sunday. I used to compete in the Scottish Horse Trials but I was at one end and riders like Ian Stark and Princess Anne were at the other."

The long ranger - he's 6ft 6in - weighed 15st when he joined Newcastle and now, at the age of 30, is edging towards 18st. His hero used to be Alan Tomes, the former Scotland lock from Hawick. "I asked him how he got to be quite large and he said, 'Wait until you're 24 and the stones just come on'. This was the best news I'd ever heard. Minimal training and I could eat what I wanted. I never used to enjoy training, but Blackie has slowly brought me up to fighting weight."

Steve Black, a Geordie who has returned to the club following a brief but impressive relationship with Graham Henry and Wales, has replaced Tomes as the subject of Doddie's hero-worship. He is descried as the conditioning coach, but his role is much bigger.

"Blackie's some boy," Doddie, who is beginning to sound like something out of The Likely Lads, says. "No session is the same. It's always fresh and interesting. Great vibes. The difference he's made is unbelievable. Psychology and humour play a part, and his chat is something else. He was on about an animal XV the other day. Where would you play a polar bear, in the pack or fullback? What about the weasel and the terrier? He has to be hands-on and you won't understand the Blackie factor unless you spend time with him. You have got to train to get his respect, and this summer is the hardest training I've ever done. I lost my lunch after seven minutes on Wednesday."

You threw up? "I casually vomited."

Last weekend Black was in the Sunderland dug-out as they beat Arsenal, and the following day with the Falcons when they beat Northampton. Henry was present, as was Ian Botham, whose son Liam has joined Newcastle from Cardiff to further his England career. "He's taken some stick, bless him," said Doddie, "but he's got the right attitude. He could develop into a very good player."

Botham junior joins a back line that includes not just Wilkinson, Leslie and the remarkable Inga Tuigamala but a talented new wave in Noon, Ross Cook, Tom May and Michael Stephenson. The Falcons' academy, under Paul MacKinnon, is coming home to roost.

After setting the standard, Newcastle, who struggled last season, have regrouped under the new owner, Dave Thompson, and there are plans to develop Kingston Park. Doddie will be around for the next three years. He has won 61 caps for Scotland, most when his ability was fully appreciated before the introduction of lifting in the line-outs, but he turned down his country's summer tour to New Zealand. His Lions tour of South Africa in 1997 was brutally cut short when his left knee was smashed by what he describes as a "karate kick" from Marius Bosman in a provincial match.

Outside his front door, Doddie has a shoe cleaner in the shape of a hedgehog. "I call it Marius," he said, "and it gets a right good kicking."

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