Bill McLaren: Commentator known as the 'Voice of Rugby' for half a century
Thursday 21 January 2010
Until he retired from broadcasting in 2002, Bill McLaren was known as the Voice of Rugby, having commentated on the sport for the BBC for 50 years, first on radio, then on television. His was one of the most distinctive voices in sports commentary, with his Scottish burr and expressions such as: "It's high enough, it's long enough – and it's straight enough." Another of McLaren's memorable sayings was: "He kicked that ball like it were three pounds o' haggis."
Such individuality made McLaren respected by viewers and listeners, as well as by his peers in rugby union, and his passion for the game never waned. "The most emotional time was when Scotland beat England for the Grand Slam in 1990, because I'd never heard a Murrayfield crowd sing 'Flower of Scotland' the way they did on that day," he recalled. "It was quite an inspirational thing for the side."
Although he was a lifelong fan of the Scottish team, McLaren never let that compromise his impartiality as a commentator, which the BBC demanded. However, he would rather have been on the pitch as a player than in the stands as a commentator. He had that chance when, in 1947, he was selected for the final trial to represent the Scotland team – having played flank forward for Hawick since the age of 17 – but he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and his opportunity to gain a full international cap was thwarted, along with his playing ambitions.
McLaren had apparently contracted the germ of the disease while serving as a second lieutenant with the Royal Artillery in Italy during the Second World War. During 19 months in a sanatorium, he was cured with the then experimental drug Streptomycin – one of only two out of five "guinea pigs" to recover – and commentated on table tennis and golf matches for the hospital radio station.
He eventually auditioned as a rugby union commentator for the BBC's Scottish Home Service and made his début behind the microphone for a Glasgow v Edinburgh game in 1952. A year later, he was heard nationally on BBC radio, describing the action when Scotland were beaten 12-0 in Edinburgh by Wales in the Five Nations' Championship. He switched to television in 1959 and, nine years later, took over from Peter West as the BBC's main rugby commentator.
Born in Hawick, Roxburghshire, in 1923, the son of a knitwear factory manager, McLaren played rugby union for Hawick High School before turning out for the Hawick team. While with the Royal Artillery he served in Italy and North Africa as a forward spotter in the 20/21 Battery, 5 Medium Regiment. The horrors he saw left a lasting impression and he described the bloody battle for Monte Cassino as "a glimpse of hell on Earth... watching our chums, our enemies and innocent civilians losing their lives right in front of us".
Later in the war, he was among those who discovered a pile of 1,500 corpses in an Italian church cemetery. "That day changed my life and forged my attitude to sport," he said. "Coming from Hawick, rugby is in my veins. It is the love of my life – well, second only to my family – but, in the great scheme of things, it really doesn't matter. Scotland beat England; England beat Scotland; a player spills a simple pass and squanders a try or the referee makes a howler. So what?"
After the war, McLaren returned to Hawick and captained the rugby team. He also turned out for the South of Scotland and a Scottish XV against the Army. He trained in Aberdeen as a PE teacher, then found his ambitions to play as an international dashed when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. On his recovery, McLaren was not fit to teach, so became a reporter on the Hawick Express. However, the pull of rugby was never far away and he went into commentating. When he returned to teaching, he ran the two careers in parallel, continuing to work at five schools in and around Hawick until 1987 and numbering the Scotland internationals Jim Renwick, Colin Deans and Tony Stanger among those he coached.
As a commentator, McLaren prepared for games with meticulous precision. "I tried to make sure that I had virtually every detail of every game and every player in the game at my beck and call if I needed it," he explained. During the week preceding a match, he would write out cards with his research notes and shuffle them into a different order each day as he read them. On match day he had two sheets of foolscap paper in front of him containing essential details.
In the 1990s, ITV had the British rights to the World Cup, but, McLaren resisted offers to work for the commercial channel, instead commentating for BBC radio. In 2001, he became the first non-international to be inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame. He brought his knowledge and authority of rugby to the books The History of Scottish Rugby (with Sandy Thorburn, 1980), Talking of Rugby (1991), Bill McLaren's Dream Lions (1998) and Rugby's Great Heroes and Entertainers (2003). His memoir, The Voice of Rugby: My Autobiography, was published in 2004.
McLaren and his wife-to-be, Bette, met at a dance in Hawick Town Hall on St Patrick's Day 1947 and married four years later. Their son-in-law, Alan Lawson, was a Scotland rugby scrum half, and two of their grandchildren also play rugby – Rory Lawson for Gloucester and Scotland, and Jim Thompson for Edinburgh.
William Pollock McLaren, teacher and rugby union commentator: born Hawick, Roxburghshire 16 October 1923; MBE, OBE, 1995, CBE, 2003; married 1951 (one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Hawick 19 January 2010.
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