Bill McLaren spent 50 years commentating on rugby union
matches for BBC radio and television.
In this role his powerful Scottish
tones, memorable turns of phrase, dedication to research and rigid
impartiality proved an awesome combination, enhancing the broadcast
experience for millions of listeners and viewers throughout club and
His intelligence and warmth also made him one of the
best-liked figures among the distinguished set of sports commentators
working for the BBC over the latter half of the 20th century, and earned him
the sobriquet the “Voice of Rugby”.
William McLaren was born in 1923 at
Hawick, Roxburghshire. His father was the factory manager of a knitwear
company. As a young boy he played games of rugby by himself at home with a
paper ball he had made, keeping a list of scores in a ledger given to him by
his parents. His love of the game continued into adolescence, and he first
represented Hawick as a flanker at the age of 17.
During the Second World War he
served with the artillery in Italy and North Africa. On returning to
Scotland he resumed his commitments to Hawick — eventually captaining the
side — at the same time as studying for a diploma in physical education in
In 1948 he was selected for the final trial to represent the Scottish
national team but was unable to compete, having been given a diagnosis of
tuberculosis. He spent the following 19 months at the East Fortune
sanatorium. He was lucky in one respect, however, being prescribed a new
drug called streptomycin. Its effects were deemed miraculous, and X-rays of
McLaren’s healed lungs were sent around Europe as proof of the medicine’s
During his isolation McLaren began to forge his broadcasting career, having
set up a putting green in the hospital grounds so that he could commentate
on golfing competitions between patients for the hospital radio service.
When he recovered he worked for three years as a reporter on the Hawick
Express, all the while maintaining his strong interest in rugby. Unbeknown
to him, a colleague with BBC connections wrote to a friend in London
recommending McLaren’s services as a rugby commentator.
On the strength
of this McLaren was offered a commentary test. He was characteristically
reluctant to accept the challenge but eventually agreed, making his debut on
the Scottish Home Service in January 1952 for the South of Scotland versus
South Africa game. BBC producers were impressed and hired him immediately,
initially paying him £3 a game.
From the off McLaren devoted himself
to pre-match preparation. Dressed in his sheepskin coat or brown macintosh,
he was a familiar, though unobtrusive, figure on the touchlines of practice
grounds as he observed each team training for the following day’s game in
order to familiarise himself with the players.
Everyone’s name, position and number
would then be committed to a pack of cards which he memorised. During
matches he also had two “big sheets” in front of him in the commentary box.
In appearance these were described by his fellow BBC commentator Nigel
Starmer-Smith as “a work of art in multi-coloured Biros with detail that
might well include what each player had for breakfast”.
jotted down phrases he had been working on to further enhance his impressive
baritone. He once described the Wales scrum-half Robert Howley as “wiggling
his way upfield like a baggy in a border burn”. During another match, in the
early 1990s, he said that the England backs passed the ball with a fluency
that was “like chocolate bar service from a slot machine”. Scott Hastings
and Sean Lineen were described as “the Scottish centres, bobbing up and down
like demented prairie dogs”. He would also often chortle: “They’ll be
dancing in the streets of . . . . . tonight,” — the missing word being the
home ground of whoever had scored the vital try.
McLaren’s day job was to supervise
sport and teach PE in Hawick’s five primary schools. He filled this role
from the early 1950s until 1987, and was proud to have taught several of
Scotland’s future international players in their youth. One was the wing,
Tony Stanger, who scored the winning try in the epic Calcutta Cup match of
1990 at Murrayfield. He also coached the Scottish greats Jim Renwick and
Colin Deans as juniors.
His favourite rugby moment was Scotland’s 1976 triumph
over England in which his son-in-law, Alan Lawson, scored twice. He later
admitted he almost fell out of the commentary box on that occasion.
sceptical of rugby union as it developed into a professional sport. He found
the players to be increasingly remote, as what he knew as a game turned into
a business. It was perhaps fitting that his final Six Nations commentary for
the BBC, in Cardiff in April 2002, resulted in a win for his country against
Wales. He was given a standing ovation that day, as the crowd sang For He’s
a Jolly Good Fellow.
McLaren’s loyalty was never in question. He was
approached by ITV to work for them during coverage of the World Cups of 1991
and 1995 but refused, despite the large sums of money on offer, saying that
he would prefer to stay with the BBC.
He was a keen Scottish country
dancer, golfer and family man who lived in Hawick all his life. In 2001 he
was the first non-international to be inducted into the Rugby Hall of Fame.
He was appointed CBE in 2003.
Bill McLaren, CBE, rugby union broadcaster, was born on
October 16, 1923. He died on January 19, 2010, aged 86
The above taken from the Times Online site.
Below is a tribute from John Henderson...
of Gerald Williams talking with Bill
McLaren on the radio in the 1980s.
split this up into 8 audio files around 1.5Mb each for those with dial up
visitors the entire interview can be downloaded here!
Track 2 Track
3 Track 4