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Vale Bill McLaren, we’ll never see your like again

Andrew Logan Columnist

By Andrew Logan, Andrew Logan is a Roar Expert

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    Legendary radio broadcaster Bill McLaren, left. AP Photo/John Cogill

    Legendary radio broadcaster Bill McLaren, left. AP Photo/John Cogill

    In Sydney yesterday, it was a balmy summer day with a slight sea breeze sweeping in over the sand on the ivory beaches. I took myself for a walk up the street and saw cars full of happy teenagers heading off to the seaside and mothers pushing small babies in prams enjoying the sunshine.

    It was a classic Australian summers’ day, with the smell of eucalypts in the air and the sound of cicadas chirping gaily in the trees outside my office window, but I felt chilled and my mind was half a world away.

    Despite the heat, I felt as bleak as the weather in the town in my dreams – a small Scottish Borders town called Hawick, home of the Hawick RFC, where yesterday the temperature was almost freezing and an icy south-easterly wind was whipping in around the cracks in the doors and gusting the drizzle against the window panes.

    Shoppers hurrying along the Hawick High Street were silhouetted against the tall sandstone edifices like mourners with their heads down, and the grey cloudy sky gave an entirely appropriate atmosphere of bereavement to the scene.

    The funerary air spilled over into the hearts of Hawicks great rivals, Gala RFC, and onward across the Borders of Scotland to the whole rugby world, because yesterday we lost the truest of rugby men.

    Our grandfather, our artiste, our rugby poet laureate, Bill McLaren, was dead.

    Hearing the news that McLaren was gone, was akin to hearing that the Wallace Monument had collapsed from the top of the Abbey Craig; that the Eiffel tower had fallen into the Seine; or perhaps that Table Mountain had tumbled onto Capetown.

    Immovable objects all, which, like McLaren, have just always been there. It never occurs to you to think that one day they may not be.

    For me, as for many southern hemisphere rugby nuts, northern hemisphere rugby and Bill McLaren were one. As a young boy, long before I ever travelled to London, I had the idea that everyone in the whole of the UK, perhaps even Europe, spoke with a Scottish Borders accent, because when you watched the Five Nations championship on the ABC, it was all you heard.

    The rich, chewable tones of McLaren’s Borders brogue, rolling out exotic names of the great European rugby players. Jean-Pierre Garuet, the 29 year old potato farmer from Nice. Finlay Calder, the 32 year old grain merchant from Edinburgh.

    There was no such thing as a player interview, or an after-match chat with the coach in front of a sponsor’s banner. McLaren carried the whole show and no-one else ever seemed to speak. They didn’t need to. If McLaren had recited a telephone directory people would have listened.

    I recently had a wonderful conversation with a mate who played for one of my old clubs, the Goulburn Dirty Reds. As a youngster he was so thoroughly indoctrinated into the cause by McLaren’s dulcet tones, that even now, he starts stories of his Australian country town childhood with the phrase “When I was a wee boy in the ‘Burn …” delivered in a Scottish burr. He’s Italian – and he’s only half-joking. McLaren had that effect on us all.

    Anyway, “…when I was a wee boy in the ‘Burn” he said “after watching the Five Nations replays on the ABC late on a Saturday arvo, I’d go out into the backyard and kick the footy around with my dog Suzie and pretend to be Johnny Rutherford who was my favourite player. As I was playing I’d commentate in a Bill McLaren accent. Joooohhhnnny Rutherford!”. Ahh yes. Didn’t we all?

    It seemed that McLaren was on intimate terms with every player he described, and with the amount of preparation he put into his commentary – attending training sessions, handwriting reams of notes, shuffling cards representing players and doing phantom calls – it’s probably no surprise.

    He managed to get a tremendous amount of information into his call, and there was something in his tone which made you remember things effortlessly, even years later.

    Players ages, occupations, scoring records and towns of origin were delivered not as dry data, but as wonderful gems and secrets which were hard won and inestimably valuable.

    His knack for context, delivering the right fact at the right time and making you feel like you knew the people playing the game, gave you an emotional investment in the outcome which was simply irresistible. How else would I remember the occupation and hometown of 1980s French prop with a liverish paunch and a walrus moustache?

    It was as if I loved Bill so much that I didn’t want to disappoint him by forgetting. He so clearly cherished what he was doing that we cherished it too.

    There is a divide between those who work in rugby for the love of it, and those for whom it is simply an available profession.

    The latter group has inched ahead in the last decade, and the game is the poorer for it, as a growing list of former players join the commentary ranks, not necessarily because they have a burning love for the game, but simply because they can.

    McLaren was El Presidente of the Rugby-For-The-Love-Of-It movement and we identified with him. We felt the pounding of McLaren’s own heart as he described the crowd’s rendition of Flower Of Scotland in 1990; we heard the awe as Scott Gibbs burst through the English line to score in 1999, “a marvellous score, the angle of his run was superb”; and heard the chuckle as he described French prop Christian Califano’s pace “This lad can do the 100m in 12 seconds. That’s sonic boom for a prop forward, I tell ye!”.

    We loved Bill McLaren because he was just like us, an average rugby nut. Unlike us, he went agonisingly close to winning his first Scottish cap before tuberculosis almost killed him and put and end to his rugby.

    Had he won a cap, or several caps, he would perhaps have been just another ex-player on the box and we may not have loved him as much.

    But that possibility was cold comfort to McLaren.

    He wanted to play for his country and he actually had the ability and motivation to make it a reality. The fact that he didn’t manage to win a Scottish cap was a lasting regret. In his final interview with Borders Radio in 2005 he said “The greatest regret of my life really. From the time I was a wee boy, my mother’s cousin Wattie Sutherland played on the wing for Scotland and I heard stories about him when I was a boy, and I always had that one great desire to play for Scotland. Once would have done me fine. I didn’t need 50 caps, one would have done me fine. And when I look back, old and doddering, about 114 years old….that will be the one great regret of my life”.

    “I would have given anything for my name to be in the book. WB McLaren…open bracket…Hawick…end bracket…one cap. Would ha’ done me fine. Just one! But…c’est la vie”.

    But McLaren’s loss was the rugby world’s gain.

    Perhaps for those of us from the South, his value was even greater, because when you heard the strident McLaren tones marching from the television speakers, you knew that your team was on tour in hostile territory, advancing on the gloomy English, the quicksilver Welsh, the wily Irish or the dour Scots.

    It wasn’t an everyday accent down under, so there was no question that we were in for some truly international rugby. A Bledisloe in the eighties with Keith Quinn or Gordon Bray on song was wonderful, but the Wallabies versus the Barbarians at Twickenham with McLaren on the call, was beyond sublime.

    The fact that it was being aired at 2am only increased the wonder, because you knew that right then, at that very second, as you sat there with your hot chocolate and Arnotts Iced Vo-Vo’s, the Wallabies were going into battle and McLaren was your personal tour guide.

    Perhaps the greatest wonder of Bill McLaren’s commentary was his total impartiality. There was respect, but no malice, in his voice when he described the All Blacks as “looking like great prophets of doom”.

    There was amusement, but no trace of nastiness, when he described Wade Dooley as a “perambulating lighthouse”. And there was amazement, but no venom, when he imagined Simon Geogeoghan as being “all arms and legs like a mad octopus”.

    His delightful accent, deft turn of phrase and affectionate manner undoubtedly helped, but his love of rugby shone through and eclipsed all else.

    No matter whether he was calling the All Blacks playing the Barbarians, Scotland playing England, watching Borders play Edinburgh or Hawick play Gala, McLaren simply revelled in the rugby.

    When asked some time back about great players from the Gala club (who were great rivals of his beloved Hawick), McLaren affected a glowering brow and boomed “We don’t talk about Gala round here”, before breaking into a grin and holding forth on some of Gala’s great players from years past.

    He was incapable of hostility to anyone in the rugby family.

    And so it was that as news of the death of Bill McLaren reached me in Sydney, I felt as sad as if a close friend, that I hadn’t seen for a long while, had died before I got a chance to call.

    I wished, like many of my era, that I could have told him just how much he was responsible for me falling for rugby hook, line and sinker, as a 13 year old boy in a rugby league town in far off New South Wales.

    But then, after a time, sitting in the sunshine while the sleet and ice cluttered the doorways in distant Hawick, I felt happy at how lucky I have been to be one of the family in so great a game as rugby, and to have known Bill McLaren.

    As anyone who has ever listened to Bill call a match will know, you didn’t have to have met Bill McLaren to have known him. It was all on display right there. Wit, compassion, humour, inspiration and an inexhaustible reservoir of adoration for the game and its people.

    McLaren himself once said “If it all ended at this single moment, it’s been a delight and I’ve thanked God for the fact that I was in the right place at the right time and I managed to get my nose in the door. It’s just been a treat. You can’t expect anything better than to see Scotland win the Triple Crown…and do the commentary!”.

    Well Bill…with the greatest respect…if I had the choice between doing the commentary and listening to you do it? I know which one I’d choose.

    Goodbye mate.

    Andrew Logan
    Andrew Logan

    Andrew Logan has played rugby for over 25 years. A contributor to The Roar since its inception, he also writes for Inside Rugby magazine, and Super Rugby and international match day programs. A regular panellist on ABC Grandstand discussing rugby and other sports, Andrew has appeared on ABC's The Drum and also Sky Sportsline. He has convened and managed several touring sides including the Australian Rugby Sevens team on the IRB circuit, and the Australian Barbarians XV.

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    The Crowd Says (65)

    • January 21st 2010 @ 2:55am
      Dublin Dave said | January 21st 2010 @ 2:55am | ! Report

      A sad passing indeed.

      Many rugby fans would have no problem nominating McLaren as the finest TV commentator on their sport that the world has seen, though in fairness, it would be hard to think of anybody representing any sport who could better him. McLaren possessed so many of the qualities which on their own make a good commentator; in combination they made him a great one.

      For a start, he was knowledgeable about the game, its laws, its tactics and its history but such knowledge can be learned by those with more diligence than talent. He also possessed a remarkable enthusiasm for the game, but this was hardly surprising for a native of Hawick in the Scottish borders where rugby commands similar affection among the population at large as it does in hotbeds such as New Zealand or the Welsh valleys.

      McLaren’s talent was the ability to take that knowledge and enthusiasm and communicate it to the masses in such a memorably engaging way that he continued to be employed by the BBC for over 50 years, first on local radio in 1948 and then on TV since the 1960s until his retirement in 2002.

      Such talent can not be taught. It is innate. To listen to McLaren was a joy; the warmth of his personality, the sense of excitement and anticipation he could convey about even the most unprepossessing match, his ability to see and describe the skill, bravery and indeed the bathos and humour that attends big rugby games, especially in the amateur era through which he lived, were all conveyed in a folksy amiable style and in a Scottish Borders accent you could cut with a knife.

      That made him a pioneer in broadcasting in a more general sense, especially in the patrician BBC where traditionally one was required to have prim, cut-glass English tones now described as Reithian in honour of the BBC’s first Director General Lord Reith, who insisted on such standards.

      McLaren proved what has now become established wisdom: refinement of accent is not what matters, rather it is clarity of diction and the content of what you say that is important. His communication skills were such that he could even slip in the odd word of Lowlands Scots dialect, as was his wont, without losing his audience.

      When he looked out upon a sodden Lansdowne Road pitch and said with a shudder in his voice: “Och it’s a dreich day in Dublin today”, you didn’t have to be a devotee of the poetry of Robbie Burns to infer his meaning.

      The fact that he was Scottish, and very proud of it, only increased his credibility and indeed gave hope to all those who love the game and hope for glory to make its occasional visit to the teams they love. As he was fond of pointing out, to be a Scottish fan meant you had to take the rough with the smooth, especially during a bleak period in the 1950s which started with South Africa inflicting a then record 44-0 defeat at Murrayfield and continued through several years of losses before Scotland finally achieved a Five Nations victory over Ireland.

      Contrasting with that misery though were moments of utter elation, such as when his son in law Alan Lawson scored what he always maintained, with due acknowledgement of family bias, was the greatest international try of all time in a Calcutta Cup match against England. Or when Tony Stanger, a former pupil, (his day job was a schoolmaster) scored the dramatic winning try in the winner take all Grand Slam decider against the Auld Enemy in Murrayfield in 1990. Nobody more deserved to be in the commentary box at that moment than he.

      It was a more usual experience though to describe his beloved Scotland being on the receiving end of beatings and the fact that he could delight in great rugby, even when it was coming from the opposition was testament to his professional skills and to his genuine enthusiasm for the game. One particularly memorable piece of play, to which his commentary was a delightful accompaniment, was a marvellous Australian try (his words) scored by David Campese at the end of a breathtaking counter attack during the victory over Scotland during the Grand Slam tour of the 1980s.

      Although he tried his hand at writing, it is fair to say that his metier was really the spoken word. Deprived of the bubbling warmth of his voice and accent, his written words can appear light and twee. You had to hear the chuckle in his voice when he marvelled at the tiny French scrum half and captain of its 1977 Grand Slam team Jacques Fouroux and his Napoleon-like ability to boss around some of the mammoth psychopaths in the French pack. “Isn’t it amazing the way all those big fellas do exactly what they’re told?”

      It was! Those “big fellas” included former heavyweight boxer Gerard Cholley at prop, one who continually reminded opponents of his “other” sport and a pair of fearsome locks Palmie and Imbernon, one of whom (I can’t remember which) was nicknamed “the Dentist” in honour of his propensity to remove opponents’ teeth.

      Also one of my favourite McLarenisms was his description of the French prop Christian Califano and his atypical turn of speed. “This lad can do the 100m in 11 seconds. That’s sonic boom for a prop forward, I tell you!” Again, on paper it’s unremarkable. But with McLaren’s voice, and the mangled dipthong with which the Scottish accent uniquely renders the word “boom” it lingers in the memory.

      He came across as the sort of person you would love to meet and spend an evening talking about the important things in life. To paraphrase another of his stock sayings, there will be sadness in the Borders tonight.

      And elsewhere around the rugby world.

    • Roar Guru

      January 21st 2010 @ 3:32am
      Poth Ale said | January 21st 2010 @ 3:32am | ! Report

      Nicely, nicely done, Andrew.

      Beautifully written piece, cliche-free, and captures the memories of the man in a poignant personal way that still resonates with all of us who grew up listening to his voice.

      I was in Hawick a couple of years ago at the Melrose Sevens tournament which Bill McLaren often attended. We went to see the grounds of his club, Hawick RFC, and the little room set aside in his name for posterity. No fanfare, names in lights, just a simple little sign on the door – The Bill McLaren Room.

      All those phrases of his that stick in the mind over the years as he commented along on the match, occasionally getting excited if a piece of play took his fancy, but never reaching the exhausting hyperbole that fills our speakers in the modern game.

      There’s some lovely tributes to him and people’s memories of him on the BBC rugby site 606 – worth having a read if this guy crossed your TV path over the last few decades.

      Here’s one of many You Tube clips of him commentating on a Wales v Scotland match from 1984 that captures the true Voice of Rugby nicely – – “there’s a little bit of niggle going on there……Richard Murrary who’s an electrician and sparks could fly there…..he flitted in and out of there like a phantom….and that was nearly a try from the big boy from Carrrrdif – classic stuff.

      With none of today’s technology available to him, and with just a single screen (often black & white) to watch replays on, McLaren would do all his homework beforehand. He would use a particular deck of playing cards to memorise the players on teams by first learning all the names off by heart using the numbers and royals, then shuffling the deck and then calling the cards as they appeared so that he could visualise any running player passing to another in quick play and make sure he called the names right including some of the difficult French ones unfamiliar to his Scottish brogue.

      A class act who could teach a few things to the younger fellas around today.

      Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasail.

      • January 21st 2010 @ 2:10pm
        Cattledog said | January 21st 2010 @ 2:10pm | ! Report

        For once I must agree wholeheartedly with Pothale, excellent piece of work well worthy of the Man.

    • January 21st 2010 @ 3:57am
      Wavell Wakefield said | January 21st 2010 @ 3:57am | ! Report

      Andrew, DD and Pothale summarise this sad situation far more eloquently than I ever could. Well said all three. The Six Nations has never been the same since he stepped down – and that isn’t an exaggeration. McLaren’s voice framed so many moments. You won’t find a single player with a bad word to say about him. Contrast that with Eddie Butler’s TV tirade at Gareth Thomas. Says it all really. A gentleman and a fan. RIP Bill McLaren.

    • January 21st 2010 @ 4:05am
      Matty P said | January 21st 2010 @ 4:05am | ! Report

      Great piece Andrew. I fell in love with rugby watching 5 Nations on the ABC on Saturday afternoons listening to Bill McLaren’s amusing and inciteful commentary (in Tassie they didn’t broadcast local rugger). I agree that he mastered the art of providing just enough of the obvious wealth of knowledge he has on the individual players without deluging us unlike many lesser commentary fry – it provided the icing on the cake. One of a kind, greatly missed.

    • January 21st 2010 @ 6:58am
      True Tah said | January 21st 2010 @ 6:58am | ! Report

      I remember playing Jonah Lomu Rugby in PS, perhaps the only real game on any console I was ever interested, and McLaren’s commentary was priceless.

      Truly the voice of rugby!

    • January 21st 2010 @ 7:08am
      Timmypig said | January 21st 2010 @ 7:08am | ! Report

      “19 stones on the hoof”
      “Ball flying out like chocolate bars from a slot machine”

      Bill McLaren was easily the best. We’re all a little poorer for his passing. Vale Sir!

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