Brian Viner: Legends are there to be met not left on a shelf

McLaren will be watching the rugby World Cup with his feet up and a pint in his beloved Hawick. 'I regret not making a strenuous effort to meet Sir Stanley Matthews'
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The Independent Online

Unlike some of my older brethren in this trade - who unwittingly make me feel downright irresponsible for being born about 30 years too late and consequently never seeing Johnny Haynes throwing a dummy, or Rocky Marciano a punch - I did not know the late George Plimpton.

From afar, however, I was a fan. The Best Of Plimpton is one of the most frequently thumbed books in my modest library, and his contributions to Leon Gast's fantastic documentary When We Were Kings, about the Rumble in the Jungle, remain utterly riveting.

Last week, when I read that this doyen of American sports writers had died, I picked my way again through The Best Of Plimpton.

Not all of it is about sport - included, for example, is the touching address he gave at his father's memorial service, which perhaps his own son might now raid for ideas. Plimpton spoke of how, after meeting his father, people came away "with the warm and abiding pleasure of being so much the better for the experience". By all accounts, he leaves a similar legacy.

And he wrote beautifully. His essay on professional golf caddies is a delight. Here's an all too short extract:

"Walter Montgomery was the one they called Violence. He had had his hair straightened. He kept it flattened slick against his skull, so that the sheen of black seemed newly painted on. He was named after his short temper - a characteristic he had worked in recent years at curbing.

"'What did you used to do, Violence?' I asked, relishing the odd nickname and the strangeness of it on the tongue. 'Hey, Violence?' I asked, grinning at him.

"'I've cooled it, baby. It don't make no sense. It don't do no help to the guys I was packing for.'

"'You mean you took it out on the golfers?' I asked him.

"'A cat'd make some crazy play, like miss a putt of two foot. Now a cat like that, why he's cuttin' my money, makin' a bad shot, dig? So I go up and kick his bag. I really bang it ... (and) I slam the pin back in the cup real hard, jes' to show the guy, y'know, what I think of his messin' up the shot. Threw my cap quite a lot. Once I sailed it across the green and it hit Doug Sanders in the back of the head.'"

And so on. Wonderful stuff. Incidentally, what a team Violence and Colin Montgomerie would have made.

As for Plimpton, a few years ago a friend in New York offered to introduce me to him at some party or other, but I had another engagement and couldn't make it. I regret now not making more of an effort, just as I regret not making a strenuous effort to meet Sir Stanley Matthews.

I don't hold with the old dictum that you should never meet your heroes. If at all possible, I think you should always meet your heroes, those men and women propelled by their genius to the mountain-top, where they breathe the rarefied air known only to those who commune with the gods. Which reminds me, I must track down Gordon Lee before it's too late.

Anyway, speaking of meeting one's heroes, I have several times had the inestimable pleasure of sharing a pot of tea with Bill McLaren, whose new book, Rugby's Great Heroes and Entertainers, is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

I talked to him again last week, mainly about his controversial all-time world XV, which features in the book and has Rob Andrew at fly-half instead of Barry John, Phil Bennett or Cliff Morgan, to name but three rather strong contenders, and Andy Irvine at full-back ahead of J P R Will-iams and Serge Blanco.

In common with most sports enthusiasts, I love picking these fantasy all-time teams, but it's rare that an elder statesman can be persuaded to join in. I remember once inviting Richie Benaud to play, and him looking sidelong at me - cricket being a side-on game, of course - and resolutely declining. So all credit to McLaren for joining the fun.

"I only chose players I commentated on," the old boy, now 80, hastened to add, and told me of the angst that accompanied the selection of And- rew, in particular.

"I wanted my stand-off half to be the complete all-rounder, and Andrew did his own tackling, ran the show. But, my goodness, to leave out Barry John, and Cliff Morgan, who's a great pal...

"I remember when the Scottish team-talk was solely about how to stop Morgan. As you might imagine, I've had plenty of guidance from Wales about how my list might have been improved."

Yes, I said, I could imagine. We blethered on for quite a while. McLaren told me that Radio Five Live invited him to return to the commentary box for the forthcoming World Cup, but he declined, and will be watching, with his feet up and a pint, in his beloved Hawick.

Shame. Without his voice and his phrase-making, rugby broadcasting has never been quite the same. He once told me that the great Irish centre Mike Gibson had a tackle "like the crack of doom" and could sniff a scoring chance "like a forest animal".

George Plimpton had the same silky eloquence in print. Theirs is a rare breed.