The Brian Viner Interview: McLaren talks a matchless game

`Mike Gibson was the complete footballer. He tackled like the crack of doom and could sniff a chance like a forest animal'
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The Independent Online
For Bill McLaren, the nonpareil among television commentators is Peter Alliss. For many millions of others, it is McLaren himself, the irrepressible romantic from Hawick whose matchless ability to convey the excitement of a big rugby international will one day enable moist-eyed old men to say to their grandchildren, of Barbarians v Australia in 1984, or of Scotland v England in 1990: "Now that was an occasion that those of us who weren't there will never forget."

So what makes Bill McLaren a unique broadcaster? Is it the rolling Borders brogue, the incredible depth of knowledge, the intensive three-hour homework on the eve of the match, the silky turns of phrase? It is all of these, especially the turns of phrase. When I ask him to pick his all-time Lions team, he says that Mike Gibson, the great Irish centre, was "the most complete footballer I have ever seen, just a skinny fellow, but he tackled like the crack of doom, and he could sniff a scoring chance like a forest animal." There are novelists who sit poised over their keyboards for days on end, chain-smoking and smacking their foreheads, and still they can't produce similes like that.

And what of the other players in his Lions dream team? "Andy Irvine would be my full-back. Everyone else would say John Williams, the complete full- back, but I love flair players, and Irvine was an adventurer. I'd have Gerald Davies on the right wing, he was like a demented ferret, could come off either foot in a blink. And David Duckham for his crafty handling of the ball. Jeremy Guscott would be the other centre, with Gareth Edwards and Barry John at scrum-half and stand-off half, because they knew each other so well, although Phil Bennett was a wonderful player too.

"Fran Cotton is my loose-head prop and Graham Price, another durable citizen, the tight-head. The locks? Willie John McBride and Gordon Brown, who were immense in South Africa in 1974. Some would say they'd have trouble against the 6ft 7in boys of today but I don't see why, though of course you'd need a fork-lift truck to get Willie John off the ground nowadays. Mervyn Davies was a class No 8, an amazing fellow. And flankers? Peter Winterbottom, Finlay Calder, John Jeffrey, they all had great moments, but my number one would be Fergus Slattery, and I might even consider playing him with Winter- bottom, two natural open-sides..."

A schoolboy could not match McLaren's zest for this game of hypotheticals, nor would a schoolboy cast his dream team almost entirely from the past. We are talking in the Rugby Club, central London home of the Professional Rugby Players' Association. For McLaren, such a title remains a regrettable oxymoron. He is, unashamedly, a traditionalist, who deplores the fact - I exaggerate only slightly - that there are New Zealanders currently claiming a place in the Scotland side because their granny's neighbour in Auckland once got a postcard from Auchtermuchty. Rugby, says McLaren, was a better game before the curse of professionalism.

"To many people of my generation it was the greatest team game in the world. And sportsmanship transcended everything. Now there are attempts to intimidate referees; if they'd tried that in the old days they'd have been scorched with a blow-torch. In the olden days there was a desire to win. Now, with sponsorship and so on, there's a need to win.

"So it's become a more physical game, with guys getting swept away in a great tidal wave of ferocity. I worry about that. There are enough bumps and bruises in rugby without risking anything more serious.

"In my day you'd be drawn aside ... when I was 17 and playing for Hawick, I remember walking down the High Street and hearing a knock on the window of the National Bank of Scotland. It was R L Scott, president of the Scottish Rugby Union, no less. I walked into the inner sanctum. `Billy,' he said - they called me Billy in those days - `you tend to tackle a player by thumping your hands on his shoulders and throwing him down. Don't do it. They don't like it.' Who they were, I don't know. Members of the SRU committee, I suppose."

McLaren has been described as Scotland's finest uncapped player. He was a flank forward, a regular both for Hawick and the South of Scotland, and in 1947 he was on the verge of an international call-up when he developed tuberculosis. He was told he'd have to spend four years in a hospital bed. "That was a bit of a blow," he says, with glorious understatement. Thanks to a new drug called streptomycin, however, he was cured in less than two years, which was considered such a medical triumph that his X- rays were sent all round Europe for doctors to marvel at. But he never played rugby again. And even now the recollection causes this most engaging of men to heave a big, sad sigh.

"I can think of nothing more uplifting than standing out there with your anthem being played, and you with your job to do. It is my one regret, that I didn't get just one cap."

Would he swap his broadcasting career for a single cap? A long pause. "Aye, I would. Not for anything else, wife or family, but for the broadcasting ... aye."

His wife of nigh-on 50 years, Bette, chides him when he gets all dewy- eyed about might-have-beens. "And Bette's right, of course. I've nothing to moan about. After all, for a Scotsman to see Scotland play so many times, and for free, is a marvellous thing." Besides, he might yet have the satisfaction of seeing a grandson or two lining up in a blue jersey while "Flower of Scotland" rings round Murrayfield.

One grandson, Gregor Lawson, plays for a strong Heriot's side, and two weeks ago showed an impressive sense of occasion, weaving past six Melrose men while McLaren was commentating. "His mother, my daughter, expected me to say `that's my boy', but I thought he'd get an awful ragging from his pals." Gregor's younger brother, Rory, is a promising player too, and captains the Dollar Academy First XV. Their father is Alan Lawson, who played 15 times for Scotland as scrum-half.

"I nearly fell out of the commentary box in 1976 when Alan scored a wonderful try against England," McLaren recalls. Indeed, he has often had to rein in his emotions, for in 35 years as a PE teacher in Hawick he coached a number of lads who went on to win full international honours, among them Jim Renwick, Colin Deans and Tony Stanger.

If McLaren has to rein anything in during the forthcoming Five Nations tournament, however, it is more likely to be despair than joy. Scotland are firm favourites for the wooden spoon and interest in the sport seems to be diminishing, with Murrayfield two-thirds empty for the visit last year of the world champions, South Africa. "Aye, it will be fascinating to see how big those audiences are, for Ireland and Wales," says McLaren, who at least has 75 years of perspective to draw from.

"Countries like Scotland and Ireland have to accept that success will come in dribs and drabs, with long hungers between. In 1955, when Scotland played Wales, and I'd been broadcasting for 18 months, Scotland had been beaten 17 consecutive times. But that day we beat a very good Welsh side, with Rex Willis and Cliffy Morgan, 14-8. And at the end of my commentary I handed over to Jock Wemyss, who was the doyen of Scottish rugby commentators and had only one eye - the other was shot out during the First World War - and he said "I can hardly speak." For him, that was quite something. Then he said "we've come out of the long dark tunnel into the sunshine," and there was a tear running down from the one good eye.

"You know, I would love to have been there when Scotland played France in 1920. Jock was playing for Scotland, and amazingly they found out that one of the French players, Lubin-Lebrere, had also had an eye shot out in the war. So the two captains agreed that they should mark each other in the line-out, and they had to feel for each other on the blind side."

McLaren, the old romantic, shakes his head in wonder. He can still reel off the names of the 1925 side that won Scotland's first Grand Slam. He still has the huge ledgers that his father brought home from the factory, in which young Billy wrote long, meticulous reports of fictional matches - among them, Scotland 48, The World 3. And he is able, it seems, to recall every minute of a trip he made with his dad in 1936, to see England v Scotland at Twickenham. Nevertheless, his view of the past is not unremittingly rosy.

"At the beginning of the 1960s," he says, "the game was dying. I commentated on Scotland v Wales in 1963 and there were 111 line-outs in a war of attrition up and down the touchline. Then they brought in the Australian dispensation, restricting touch-kicking between the 25s. It all changed. Now, the midfield is too cluttered and even class backs have difficulty creating openings. Somehow, forwards should be confined to the rucks and mauls, as well as the scrummage, until the ball is cleared. The game needs its fluency back."

Amen to that. But it will be a crying shame if McLaren is no longer at the microphone when it happens.