We’re now ten days into the Japan-hosted 2019 Rugby World Cup and my mental health feels more kicked around than the ball in the matches. One of the two teams I support is already in danger of making an early exit from the tournament. Meanwhile, the other team I support seems to have haplessly manoeuvred itself into a position where it’ll face New Zealand’s steamrollering All-Blacks in the second stage.
But aside from the anguish… The tournament reminds me yet again of how much I miss being able to watch an international rugby match and at the same time listen to the knowledgeable and dulcet tones of Bill McLaren.
Although McLaren, who died in 2010 at the age of 86, worked as late as 2002, it was in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that he was indisputably the voice of British rugby union. This was an era when sport, if you weren’t at the live event itself, was viewable only on a handful of terrestrial TV channels. It was common for one channel to have a monopoly on broadcasting one sport and, by extension, for one commentator to have a monopoly on talking about that sport. Hence, in my youth, it was almost impossible to see horse racing without hearing of the posh but eerily robotic tones of Peter O’Sullivan, or boxing without hearing the excitable Harry Carpenter, or Formula One without hearing the gaffe-prone Murray Walker, or rugby league without hearing the indescribable-sounding Eddie Waring. McLaren fulfilled this role in the world of rugby union and for me was the best sports commentator of the lot, though I’m undoubtedly biased. Rugby has always been my favourite team sport. Plus McLaren came from Hawick in the Scottish Borders, the rugby-daft region where I spent many of my formative years.
There were three reasons for McLaren’s greatness. Firstly, he knew his stuff. I remember watching a McLaren-commentated game on a pub TV in Aberdeen sometime in the 1980s. I was in the company of my good friend, the late Finlay McLean, and at one point, Finlay turned around to me and marvelled, “He’s just steeped in the game, isn’t he?”
When a try was scored, McLaren didn’t just tell you the name of the player who’d crossed the line. No, he’d also observe how the player was the great-great-nephew of the man who’d kicked the winning points in the legendary Hawick-Galashiels derby of 1937, or a direct descendent of the tight-head prop with the great Western Province team that’d dominated South Africa’s Currie Cup in the 1890s. It wouldn’t have surprised you if he’d identified the player’s granny as the stylist responsible for grooming J.P.R. Williams’ sideburns in the 1970s. He seemed to know everything about rugby.
McLaren’s knowledge was encyclopaedic, but this was backed by a conscientious and professional attitude to research. I read somewhere that when preparing for a game, he’d cover a full sheet of foolscap with notes about each player. This meant that in the commentator’s box he was constantly shuffling around some 30 sheets of paper.
Secondly, although he was a Scotsman and often commentated on games involving the Scottish rugby team, he was never biased. On the contrary, he always applauded good rugby, no matter who was playing it and even if Scotland was on the receiving end of it. McLaren’s neutrality was especially admirable when you compared him with the international football commentators on the BBC at the time (and indeed still now), who seemed incapable of narrating an England World Cup match without speculating every second minute about whether ‘we’ could win the World Cup just like ‘we’ won it back in 1966.
Thirdly, and most importantly for me, his commentaries were laden with poetry. McLaren had an amusing, fanciful, frequently wonderful talent with language. Admittedly, he could be a tad unflattering in the turn of phrase he used to describe the over-sized players on the field. English prop Colin Smart – famous for getting stomach-pumped after drinking a bottle of aftershave as a post-match lark – consisted of ‘considerable acreage’; English captain and lock Bill Beaumont looked ‘like someone who enjoys his food’; Welsh forwards Scott and Craig Quinnell were ‘two well-nourished individuals’; Scottish flanker Finlay Calder had ‘hands like dinner plates’; and Calder’s gangly fellow-Scot Doddie Weir was ‘the lamppost of the line-out.’ As for the legendary and frankly massive New Zealand flanker Jonah Lomu, running into him was like ‘trying to tackle a snooker table’.
He had a fondness to likening players to animals. They might behave like ‘a demented ferret’ or ‘a bag of weasels’ or ‘a raging bull with a bad head’ or ‘a whirling tsetse fly’ or ‘a runaway giraffe’ or ‘a slippery salmon’. The Scottish scrum-half Roy Laidlaw (whose nephew Greig plays in the same position in the current Scottish team) was as elusive as ‘a baggy up a Borders burn’ – a baggy being, to quote the Dictionary of the Scottish Language, ‘a species of large minnow.’ Unsurprisingly for a Borders man, Scotticisms were common in his delivery. Rugby balls were likened to ‘three pounds of haggis’, the famously square-shouldered Scottish skipper Peter Brown was like ‘a coo kicking over a milk pail’ and an injured player sitting dejectedly at the side of the field whilst sucking on a mint was at least ‘enjoying his sweetie.’
When it came to describing the turbulent passions and physical violence often unleashed on the pitch, McLaren was amusingly euphemistic. Cheating was frequently described as ‘jiggery-pokery’ and punch-ups were dismissed as ‘a bit of argy-bargy’. I remember how when fists started flying in the middle of one scrum, he commented: “It’s getting a bit unceremonious in that front row.” And when Scottish centre Jim Renwick – whom McLaren had coached as a schoolboy – missed a kick and was caught by the camera mouthing the F-word, McLaren diplomatically remarked that he was ‘muttering a few naughty Hawick words.’
Some of his sayings became catchphrases. When a player prepared to kick a conversion and half the stadium made disparaging noises in the hope of distracting him and making him fluff it, McLaren would invariably remark: “There’s some ill-mannered whistling.” And when a conversion-kick made it between the posts despite being taken from a torturous angle, he’d declare: “It’s high enough, it’s long enough and it’s straight enough!”
Aware that in the Borders towns local players who’d made it onto the national team were seen as heroes, he’d often serenade the scorer of a Scottish try with the lines, “And they’ll be dancing in the streets of…” or “And they’ll be drinking his health down in…” – Hawick, Galashiels, Kelso, Melrose, Selkirk, wherever – “…tonight!” As an honorary Borderer, I’d say they were more likely to be drinking his health than dancing in the streets.
McLaren’s manner and delivery were immensely relaxed and comforting, but his early life had been no bed of roses. As a young World War II serviceman, he had to endure the Battle of Monte Cassino, of which one eyewitness said, “The men were so tired that it was a living death. They had come from such a depth of weariness that I wondered if they would quite be able to make the return to the lives and thoughts they had known.” McLaren himself described Monte Cassino as a ‘vision of hell on earth.’
After the war, he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, which put a prompt end to any hopes he had of becoming a rugby internationalist. TB was then considered incurable and he wasn’t expected to survive, but he and four fellow sufferers agreed to be guinea pigs for the trials of a new drug, streptomycin. Thanks to this treatment he recovered, but three of the four other volunteers died. It was while he was convalescing that he produced his first sports commentaries – describing table-tennis matches over the hospital radio.
McLaren was passionately attached to his hometown and famously said, “A day out of Hawick is a day wasted.” A few years ago I visited Hawick for the first time since the 1980s and was upset to see how much it’d deteriorated. Its high street was run-down and riddled with derelict properties – thanks to an economy weakened by the closure of local woolen mills, and also thanks no doubt to the opening of branches of Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s and Lidl, which’d sucked the retailing life out of the place. My first dismayed thought was: “What would Bill McLaren have said about this?”
McLaren’s commentaries were emblematic of an earlier, more innocent age, when rugby was still an amateur sport and because of that it was incredibly accessible – especially if you lived in a rugby-centric place like the Borders, where the guys you saw performing heroic deeds for Scotland on TV on Saturday afternoons existed during weekdays as mortals like everyone else. As a kid living there, I was delighted when the man from the electricity board who came to our house to check on a power outage was none other than Jim Renwick. Meanwhile, Scottish fullback Peter Dods was a joiner down the road in Galashiels and my old man, a farmer, was on nodding terms with Scottish flanker John Jeffrey, who farmed in Kelso – Jeffrey’s teammates had nicknamed him ‘the Great White Shark’ but to Bill McLaren he was just ‘the big Kelso farmer’. And let’s not forget local electrician Roy Laidlaw, whom legend has it had to rewire the public toilets in Jedburgh the Monday morning after the 1984 Scotland team he was part of won the Grand Slam in Paris.
Yes, Bill McLaren’s voice evokes a simpler time in rugby, before professionalism, sponsorship, corporatism, razzmatazz and a profit-driven need to win at all costs took over. But homespun though his persona was, I don’t believe there’s been a sports commentator in the years since who’s come close to matching him.
© From rugbyrelics.com