The lovable brogue

Five Nations' Championship: 'Voice' of rugby prepares to have the final word on a tournament he has made his own; Simon Turnbull talks to Bill McLaren, the commentator still talking a great game
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The Independent Online
Driving over Carter Bar on the rolling road to Hawick, the memory of a mid-winter trip to New Zealand came to mind. The taxi driver at Auckland airport had been anxious to finish his shift in time to catch the television broadcast from Murrayfield. "Bill McLaren!" he exclaimed, reverentially. "You could have a team of All Blacks if we could have Bill McLaren."

They would have been celebrating down in Kiwi country, to paraphrase the man himself, if such an inter-hemisphere exchange had come to pass. But the Five Nations' Championship which kicks off next Saturday could well be the last in which the venerable voice of rugby union illuminates the picture in countless living-rooms from Inverness to Invercargill.

That familiar Borders brogue might already have been an echo from the past but for the compromise deal which has ensured at least one more season of Five Nations fare on Grandstand. With BSkyB poised to take over live coverage from next year, however, McLaren is preparing for a last hurrah. "I'm doing the four Scotland games," he said, "and the match in Paris could be my last. If it is the end of the road for me, I can't grumble. A Scotsman can't get much better than going to all the great venues, seeing all the great players and all the great matches, and not having to pay to get in. But I will be sad. I'll be sorry to go because it's been part of my life all these years."

Just how much a part can be gleaned by a glance at the family photos on the living-room wall. Linda, the younger of the two McLaren girls, was already Mrs Alan Lawson when the London Scottish scrum-half scored two tries, including one of the Five Nations' finest, in the Calcutta Cup match of 1976. McLaren was the man behind the BBC's Murrayfield mike, that day, as he was on 17 March 1990, when Tony Stanger touched down his Grand Slamming try against Will Carling's white labels. McLaren, in his former weekday vocation overseeing the physical education of primary school pupils in Hawick, was the man who introduced Stanger to rugby.

"Aye, it was down there at Wilton Park," he said, pointing through his living-room window to the precise patch. Looking down on Hawick, the Scottish Borders town as famed for its rugby as it has for its woollen mills, you can also pick out Mansfield Park. Not to be confused with the fictional home of Fanny Price, one of Jane Austen's heroines, Hawick's Mansfield Park welcomed the first touring New Zealand team, the 1888 Maoris, and McLaren himself was once a green-shirted hero in the town team there.

Walter Thomson, who for more than half a century covered Scottish rugby as "Fly Half" in the Sunday Post, described the one-time flank forward as the greatest player never to have been capped by Scotland. McLaren's playing days were brought to an abrupt end when he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 23 while preparing for the Scottish trial match in 1947. His life very nearly came to an end too. As he recalled: "I was desperately ill and fading fast when the specialists asked five of us to be guinea pigs for a new drug called Streptomycine. Three of the others died but I made what amounted to a miracle recovery."

It was while convalescing in East Fortune Sanitorium that McLaren's lyrical lilt first hit the airwaves, making ping-pong poetry of table tennis matches for the hospital's radio station. "There must have been something in me that wanted to describe rugby football to people," he said. "I've still got the fictional reports I used to write when I was a wee boy of seven or eight. Scotland always won. They beat the world once by 46-0."

The Scots fell short of world-beating form when McLaren made his national broadcasting debut alongside Rex Alston for the BBC's radio at Murrayfield in 1953 - a 12-0 victory for Wales. In 1959 came the transfer to BBC television, and William Pollock McLaren is still there 38 years later, an MBE and national institution but as true to his part- time passion as he was in his youth.

At 73 going on 50, he still savours the painstaking preparation upon which he embarks the Monday before a match, locked away in his study, noting every last detail about each player on a giant sheet, even shuffling two packs of cards numbered one to 15 until he can automatically put names to numbers. The French might have thrown a spanner in the McLaren works once when they played six men in the wrong shirts at Twickenham. Having attended their Friday training session, however, he was able to put names to faces and avoid disturbing the verbal flow that gushes in vividly rich appreciation of a finely crafted try. Such is McLaren's deep love of the game, his Grandstand commentary of "Joan Carol-ten" galloping to England's Grand Slam clincher at Murrayfield in 1980 was as brimful of natural relish as his verbal depiction of Stanger's 1990 effort.

As he prepares to hang up his lip-mike and his sheepskin, McLaren admits the changing face of his game is not to his liking. "Old codgers like myself have got to accept that professionalism is here and make the most of it," he said. "But I have to say I'm very sad at the way the game has gone." The game will be the sadder too if Gregor Lawson, whose Scottish Schools' team photo sits proudly on the McLaren mantelpiece, makes it to the senior national team with his grandad's golden voice just a ghost in the Murrayfield commentary box.

It won't sound quite the same coming from an alien mouth on extra-terrestrial television: "And there'll be some celebration down in Hawick tonight, I can tell you."

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