And so an era is really and truly coming to an end. A whole nation gathered in front of its TV sets is set to bid farewell to a central figure of our age, whose like we shall not look upon again. Yes, Bill McLaren has given up the art of rugby commentary.
A reader writes: So this is not about the Queen Mother, then?
Miles Kington writes: No. I thought we all needed a rest from the Queen Mother for today.
A reader writes: Fair enough. You have a point there. Carry on, then.
For more than half a century Bill McLaren has sat behind the microphone and told us who those chaps out on the pitch are. "Baker has the ball," he told us. Usually he told us too how big or small the man is. "This giant of a man, Baker, has the ball," he said. We could see that he had the ball. We could see that he was on the big side. But it was always nice to have it confirmed by Bill McLaren, who had an eye for these things. And as soon as the ball went to someone who was not so big, he told us immediately. "The wee fellow has the ball," that was what he said.
Oddly enough, he never seemed so interested in medium-sized people. Or at least, he never seemed to like to stress the fact that people were of medium size. "This average figure of a man has the ball," was not a phrase that Bill McLaren was ever fond of. But if a man's size seemed uninteresting to Bill, there were other things which struck him as fascinating about a player, even one of medium build. His home town, for instance, was always of consuming interest to Bill. "And Baker goes off on a run, this man from Ormskirk."
Once he had established where a man came from, he would often drop his name altogether. "And off goes the man from Ormskirk, with the ball." So if you switched on a game late, or got to the pub after the game had started, you would sometimes have no idea which player he was describing. "The wee fellow from Falkirk goes off on another mazy run,' he would say. "Excuse me," you would say to the tall man in front of you at the bar, obscuring the TV set, "but which is the wee fellow from Falkirk?"
"You should have been here at the start of the game," says the man strictly. "Bill McLaren explained all this then."
But Bill McLaren had other things on his mind as well. A man's club allegiance, of course. "The wee fellow from Falkirk now in his second season for Bath." The number of times he had played for his country. "The wee fellow from Falkirk, the veteran Bath player, today getting his 18th cap for Scotland." And, above all, Bill McLaren was fascinated by genealogy. "The wee fellow from Falkirk, the veteran Bath player, today getting his 18th cap for Scotland, whose father played on the wing for Scotland in the 70s and 80s..."
A reader writes: It certainly sounds as if your Mr McLaren had done his research, and memorised everyone's CVs. But did he have much to say about the actual game he was watching?
Miles Kington writes: No, not much. But in the modern game of rugby most of the time is spent while the referee explains why he has just blown the whistle, so obviously there is a great need for someone like Bill McLaren to fill in the time. Oh, and when play resumed, he liked to tell you how a man was running.
A reader writes: How do you mean?
Miles Kington writes: Well, he would often say that someone was running like a buffalo. Sometimes like a water buffalo. Even, if he was a forward with cuts and bruises, like a wounded water buffalo.
Had Mr McLaren ever seen a water buffalo running in real life?
Miles Kington writes: I would doubt it. Has anyone?
I don't know. Carry on.
Bill McLaren was above all a kindly man. If a game was between two evenly matched but clumsy sides, he would say it was "very exciting". If it was one-sided, he would say it was "a wonderful exhibition of rugby". If two players started punching each other, or stamping on each other's heads, he would say there had been "a spot of bother". He was especially kind to a Scottish player called Gregor Townsend who would often drop the ball or pass to a man who wasn't actually there, saying that the "pass didn't go to hand". If Townsend got the ball and allowed himself to be tackled and forgot to pass it, McLaren would say he had "run into trouble".
Yes, we shall not look again upon the like of this wee fellow from the Lowlands, who sat behind the mike for no less then 345 occasions, and whose father also ...
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