Weir aiming to stifle French ambition

Simon Turnbull meets the Scottish lock looking to steal the show in Paris
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Doddie Weir happens to be a one-time rival of the Scottish Rugby Union's official patron, the Princess Royal no less, in the equestrian field of eventing. So he knows a thing or two about the challenge of the big fences. It is just as well. Sporting hurdles do not come much bigger than the one that will confront the Scottish XV and the horseman-turned- thoroughbred-lock at the Parc des Princes tomorrow afternoon.

It is just as well, too, that Weir happens to be an equable sort. The news that France, in their farewell international at the Parc will be looking to secure a "Grand Chelem" on home soil for the first time, failed to knock the sanguine Scot out of his stride. "I didn't realise that," Weir said. "It means the pressure is going to be on them from the start. And Scotland have always enjoyed being the underdogs, haven't they? We'll relish the challenge."

It is the third time Scotland have gone into their final Five Nations match with a Grand Slam riding on the outcome. Unlike the Calcutta Cup games of 1995 and 1996, however, it is neither theirs to be won nor (as the right boot of Rob Andrew and the mauling arms of Dean Richards respectively dictated) theirs to be lost.

Disappointing though that may be, at the end of a season in which Scotland's sole redemption may be the record 34-10 slaughter of the sorry Irish at Murrayfield a fortnight ago, Weir cannot hide his relish for the spoiling mission.

"We've got nothing to lose," he said. "We can throw everything into it. We did quite well against Ireland but we can't say we've turned a corner yet.The main thing was that we were able to concentrate for 80 minutes. If we can do that again in Paris, it might be quite a good day for us."

It was quite a day when Scotland last played in the Parc, two years ago. Weir and his team-mates were singing and dancing with their kilted compatriots after the first Scottish success in Paris since a try by Jim Telfer, now Scotland's director of rugby, clinched victory at the Stade Colombes in 1969.

Whether the Scots can poop the expected Parisian party on Saturday will depend to a large extent on the large frame of Weir, who came under Telfer's tutorial wing after one of his pony club pals - the future Duke of Buccleuch - suggested he joined in the Sunday morning training for juniors at Melrose.

The 6ft 7in Weir has stood out as the conspicuous individual success of Scotland's fitful Five Nations campaign, impressive in defeat against Wales and England as well as in the victory against Ireland, in which he pirouetted through the green-shirted pack to claim his fourth international try. That last tour de force followed the not inconsiderable feat of eclipsing Martin Johnson in Newcastle's Pilkington Cup quarter-final defeat against Leicester.

At 26 Weir is, as the Scotland coach, Richie Dixon, put it last week, "looking the part and playing the part". Considering the affable Borderer was dropped for the pre-Christmas Test against Italy, the flowering of his second-row talent has been quite a transformation.

Training as one of Rob Andrew's full-time Newcastle Falcons, often twice a day, has clearly been a catalyst. "I'm fitter than I've ever been," Weir, who has won 10 of his 44 caps as a No 8, duly acknowledged.

The fitness and form of the new model Weir is certain to be put to the test on Saturday by the man mountain the French call "Massif Central". Olivier Merle is no lumbering former lumberjack. The Gallic giant with size 17 feet can spring his upstretched hands 80cm from a standing jump in full kit. And, as Ricky Evans, the Wales prop still hopes to testify in court, even his forehead packs a mighty metaphorical punch.

"He's a big lad and he uses his bulk very well," Weir said. "You don't like 20 stones running at you." Only a serious physical steamrollering, such as the unsmiling Merle is quite capable of administering, seems likely to prevent Scotland's line-out colossus from spending his summer as a Lion in South Africa. Not that the Tyne-based Weir is taking selection for granted.

"I know it's the old cliche," he said, "but I only take one game at a time. That's the way I am." So when Merle and his team-mates are celebrating or mourning their Grand Slam fate at no-side on Saturday, Nottingham - and not the Springboks - will be on Doddie Weir's mind. Like the other tartan legionnaires in Rob Andrew's Toon Army, he will be back on club duty on Sunday afternoon.