Bill McLaren, affectionately known as the ‘Voice of Rugby’, passed away in January of this year. He was aged eighty-six. He was a proud Scotsman and was one of the most likeable and knowledgeable figures in the game. In 2002, after fifty years of rugby broadcasting, he retired to a standing ovation at the Millennium Stadium. Suitably, Scotland had just beaten Wales 27-22. Chants of “For he’s a Jolly Good Fellow” echoed around the ground. He was special.
His “McLarenisms” were legendary. His thick Scottish Borders accent made them.
“It’s high enough, it’s long enough, it’s straight enough!”
“He’s like a baggy up a Border burn”
“They’ll be dancing in the streets of Pontypool tonight!”
“He kicked that ball like it were three pounds o’ haggis”
“Doddie Weir on the charge like a mad giraffe!”
And how can we forget our favourite catchphrases – “that’s a huge Garryowen!” and “there’s a bit of argy bargy going on at the scrum!” – from those old PS 1 games: ‘EA Rugby 2001’ and ‘Jonah Lomu Rugby’.
Bill McLaren was known the world over.
Born in 1923, he quickly became a promising rugby player. However, this was cut short when he was called up for service during World War Two. It was his “vision of hell on earth”. It scarred him, both physically and mentally. Just as he was on the brink of achieving his dream of a full international cap – he trialled for the team in 1948 – he was struck down by Tuberculosis whilst serving in Italy. In those days there was no cure. He was just twenty-four. He spent two and a half years in hospital. A wide range of treatments were tried – including feeding him honey – but none succeeded. That was until he agreed to the trialling of a new drug called streptomycin. Only two of the five people who trialled it survived. He was one of them. Within a few weeks the hole in his lung had begun to disappear.
McLaren was fully aware of just how lucky he had been. He aimed to make the most of this narrow escape. Though TB had ended his rugby career he began to write for local magazines. He also commentated on sports competitions at the hospital, most notably a putting tournament. An editor soon recommended him to the BBC. By 1952, he had made his debut. He was paid £3 to commentate on a game between the South of Scotland and the touring South Africans. He had been thrust into the limelight and that was exactly where he would remain.
For the next half century few matched McLaren’s appetite for hard work. Donning his sheepskin coat he would attend every training session he could to ensure he knew the players, coaches and their ideas before the game the following day. He would then write every name, number and position on a pack of cards to memorise them. This rigorous pre-match preparation was furthered by his drawing up of “big sheets”. These would sit in front of him in the commentary box and would, it has been said, even include details of what the players had for breakfast on the morning of the game. Listening to Bill McLaren was like attending a game with a very knowledgeable friend. Perhaps even overly so!
All the while he continued his “main job”. He did not want to be a celebrity and continually resisted offers to become a full-time broadcaster. From the early 1950s until 1987, McLaren worked as a PE teacher in five different primary schools in his town of Hawick. Indeed, he would teach a number of future internationals, such as Scottish greats Jim Renwick and Colin Deans. This gave him immense pride. So too did the success of his family, particularly if they played rugby. Renowned as being entirely unbiased in his work, he declared Scotland’s victory over England in 1976 as his favourite moment in rugby. Alan Lawson, his son-in-law, scored twice. Grandson Rory Lawson is a current Scottish international.
He was a devoted family man, always insisting that the BBC allowed him to return home straight after the game so that his wife and children would not be alone for too long. Yet tragedy would strike again. In 2000, his youngest daughter Janie died from cancer at the age of forty-six. Janie insisted that her father commentate at Murrayfield on the day she passed away. He dashed straight back to the hospital after the game. He was too late. Janie had died just minutes earlier. Maybe she had just wanted to hear her father commentate one final time? McLaren wanted to go out at the top, before anyone had the chance to say his time was up. So, in 2002, he called it a day. He had done more than most rugby players ever could do to promote the game.
Following his retirement he was struck down by Alzheimer’s, a terrible shame for someone so knowledgeable, yet he continued to enhance his reputation. He published a number of books on rugby and continued to advise budding radio and television commentators. The Bill McLaren Foundation was also set up with his blessing. It aims to provide young people the chance to get involved in sport. Typically it took much persuading to convince him that his name should be included in the Foundation. He was a humble and modest character. Indeed, he felt too great a fuss was being made of him when he received an MBE, OBE and CBE. Five thousand people also joined an internet campaign on Facebook to get him knighted. Unfortunately, the paperwork did not go through in time for the New Year Honours list. Few would have complained had he received such an honour!
Bill McLaren is, I believe, the only non-rugby player to be inducted into the ‘Rugby Hall of Fame’. He changed the face of rugby commentary. His passion for the game ensured people sitting in their living rooms many miles away were thoroughly engaged with the events unfolding on the rugby field. His voice will forever be attached to some of the greatest tries ever scored. He was, after all, the ‘Voice of Rugby’. He was also an absolute gentleman. Those who knew him say he never had favourites. He shared his friendship equally; even the English about to take on his beloved Scotland in the Calcutta Cup felt his compassion!
Bill McLaren, you will be sorely missed!