McLaren's retirement signals the end of an era

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When I switched on the BBC television news last week and heard, as the third item after a fairly eventful day, "Bill McLaren, the Voice of Rugby...'' accompanied by a picture of the commentator's craggy and well-preserved countenance, I thought to myself: "Poor old McLaren. He seemed to be going strong. Still, he had a good life which must have given him a lot of satisfaction.''

It then turned out that he was not dead at all but had merely announced his retirement, and not immediately but in a few months' time. Even if he had gone to a Better Place – which I was delighted to learn belatedly he had not – the prominence given to the story, and the amount of newstime allocated to it, would I think have been excessive.

Certainly no mere Cabinet minister would have been accorded this treatment. You would have had to be Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer or a member of the Royal Family. And old McLaren did not even have to die first. All he did was announce his departure. On Friday there is to be a special television programme about him. In this case the BBC is looking after its own – something for which the Corporation is not universally famous.

He is clearly one of the great figures of the commentating craft, which is much more difficult to get right – or, rather, not to get wholly wrong – than most laypersons suppose. He ranks with such masters of their trade as John Arlott, Richie Benaud, Brian Moore, Peter O'Sullevan and Eddie Waring or, from an earlier era, Raymond Glendenning, Stewart Macpherson and, my own favourite the inter-round summariser W Barrington Dalby ("come in Barry''). But it does no disservice to McLaren – rather the contrary – to point out that the age which he embodied is coming to an end, if it has not ended already.

He always seemed to regard himself not merely as a commentator but as an unpaid, unofficial public relations officer for the game of rugby union football. This approach led him to disregard foul play completely or, when he chose to notice it, to minimise its importance. The participants were hot-tempered lads who had allowed matters to get out of hand. The referee, a saintly figure who possessed an almost papal infallibility, would soon have matters under control. Waring adopted the same approach in his commentaries on rugby league matches.

The more modern breed, in which I include summarisers as well as commentators – Stuart Barnes, Eddie Butler, Jonathan Davies, Brian Moore – are more worldly-wise or, at any rate, rugby-wise. They are prepared to point out illegalities, which they sometimes go on to defend as McLaren never would, on the basis that it is preferable for the offending side to concede a certain three points than a possible seven. And they are no longer prepared to allow the referee an almost sacerdotal authority. On the contrary: they will argue the toss as forcefully as any erring prop. Barnes is the master of the surrealist (or, if you prefer, the baroque) phrase, of which my own favourite was his comment on a John Bentley try during the Lions' tour of South Africa: "If he lived in India he'd be one of the people they call the Untouchables.''

McLaren had his turns of phrase too – some superb, others irritating. I particularly disliked his description of Ieuan Evans (5ft 10in, 13st 7lb) as the "little man from Llanelli''. And when, after some feat of international derring-do by a Wasps player such as Rob Andrew, he said, "They'll be rejoicing in Sudbury tonight'', I wondered whether he had ever actually been to the north London suburb in question and wandered down its streets of tight little inter-war houses with roses in the front garden.

McLaren has never, as far as I know, been a print journalist. He moved from schoolmastering to commentating; for a long time indeed, combining both occupations. But few rugby features this season have aroused as much interest as his choice, in what we old hacks have been brought up to call Another Newspaper, of his personal best-ever XV. When I telephoned the paper concerned to inquire where his starting point lay, I was told that he was writing about players he had himself seen.

Most of his selections are uncontroversial. But at full-back he chooses Andy Irvine in preference not only to J P R Williams and Williams' forgotten compatriots Terry Davies and Terry Price but also to Serge Blanco. Most controversially of all, he has Andrew at outside-half rather than Jack Kyle, Hugo Porta, Phil Bennett (to name only a few) or the greatest of them all, Barry John. What an aberrant choice! But then, it is something still to be able to stir up argument in the pubs and clubs when you are as old as he is. Good luck to him.