The 'voice of rugby' falls silent
January 20, 2010
Legendary former BBC commentator Bill McLaren died on Tuesday aged 86 © Getty Images
"Oh! Mercy me! What a tackle! That could've put him in Ward 4!"
Exchange between Bill McLaren and Bill Beaumont taken from the Jonah Lomu Rugby computer game
Legend is an often overused term, especially in the realms of sports reporting, but there can be no argument when that label is given to the late commentator Bill McLaren.
For many he was and will always be the 'voice of rugby'. From the moment his enticing tones debuted on BBC radio in 1953 to the sad day he hung up his microphone almost 50 years later, he dominated the airwaves, setting the broadcasting standard alongside his contemporaries Dan Maskell, Peter O'Sullevan, John Arlott and Peter Aliss during what was a golden age for the Corporation.
As Lions legend Ian McGeechan noted in his tribute to McLaren, "You will never know how many people Bill brought to the game." McLaren's skill was bringing what can be a complicated sport to the masses while at the same time faithfully complying with Lord Reith's mission to "inform, educate and entertain."
The success of the modern game owes a lot to McLaren not only for the colourful sound bites he provided but also for the way he helped to sow the seed of the sport's growth - that led to a rich harvest that the International Rugby Board and rugby's other stakeholders continue to benefit from.
For the children of the pre-24/7 sports media age, the BBC provided a priceless sporting fix and introduced many to the game for the first time, with McLaren more often than not providing the narrative, be that through Rugby Special, coverage of the Five Nations Championship or via the fiendishly addictive console game where his style of delivery, albeit on this occasion scripted, broke new ground and won him a new generation of fans.
There is something naturally engaging about someone holding court on a subject that they hold so dear and McLaren's love of the game was there to be heard each time he picked up the microphone. His passion was clearly evident but that never impinged upon his art. By all accounts he never let his emotion override his professionalism, even when you could forgive him for doing so. Such occasions include his son-in-law and Scotland scrum-half Alan Lawson crossing for two tries against England in 1976 and when the Scots beat the auld enemy to claim the Five Nations Grand Slam in 1990. His Hawick-honed brogue, fused with his favourite mint balls sweets, left you in do doubt as to his origins, of which he was so proud, but he could never be accused of bias.
His professionalism is almost as legendary as his colourful descriptions. "A work of art in multi-coloured biros, with detail that might well include what each player had for breakfast," was how his one-time colleague Nigel Starmer-Smith described the detailed notes that fed his commentary. However, you would not know it from his delivery, which was more akin to an enthusiastic uncle passing on his thoughts rather than a teacher offering a lesson in the game. But that is not to say he was not a student of the game - far from it.
McLaren studied Physical Education in Aberdeen, and went on to teach PE into the 1980s, combining it with his journalistic interests, and coached several future internationals including Jim Renwick, Colin Deans and Tony Stanger. Sadly, he was stripped of the chance of appearing in Scotland colours himself but delighted in playing a part in the development of youngsters throughout his life.
A trialist in 1947, he was on the verge of a full international cap when he contracted the tuberculosis which nearly killed him. "I was desperately ill and fading fast when the specialist asked five of us to be guinea pigs for a new drug called Streptomycin," McLaren recalled in an interview with the BBC following his retirement. "Three of the others died but I made what amounted to a miracle recovery."
McLaren was greeted with a succession of standing ovations on his farewell tour during the 2002 Six Nations and his work behind the microphone ended, as it had begun, with a clash between Wales and Scotland where one Welsh fan memorably unfurled a banner proclaiming "Bill McLaren is Welsh" - a deft comic gesture that underlined the widespread affection for the man and at the same time mocked his unstinting impartiality.
A wonderful advert for the sport, his voice is recognised from Dundee to Dunedin and transcends the rugby-playing globe. It was no surprise to see his death trigger a huge outpouring of sympathy from those who knew him and others grateful for the colour he brought to their lives. From British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, to IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset to his friends at Hawick RFC - they were all saddened by the passing of the great man.
Thankfully we have the memories he crafted. "There must have been something inside me that wanted to describe rugby football to people," he once said, and how lucky we are that he did.
Magic McLaren - Quotes from the archives
"He's like a demented ferret up a wee drainpipe."
"When he hits you, you think the roof's just fallen in."
"He's as quick as a trout up a burn."
"And it's a try by Hika the hooker from Ngongotaha."
"They have a saying about him down in Constitution, if you catch him you can make a wish."
"He's all arms and legs like a mad octopus."
"When he runs like that he's like a mad giraffe."
"It was if he kicked about 3lbs of haggis."
"I'm no hod carrier, but I'll tell you this. I'd be laying bricks if I looked up and saw that fellow running at me"