THE voice of rugby has fallen silent. Bill McLaren, the radio and television commentator whose distinctive Borders burr and magical turn of phrase enchanted two generations of sports fans, has died. He was 86.
• Bill McLaren, seen here in characteristic pose behind the microphone, became world-renowned for his passion and knowledge of the sport he followed throughout his life. Picture: TSPL
Celebrated throughout the rugby world for his passionate, knowledgeable and unbiased commentary, Bill McLaren made his first appearance on BBC radio in 1953 and retired in 2002, after almost 50 years as a national broadcaster, during which time he attracted a legion of fans around the world with phrases such as: "He kicked that ball like it were three pounds o' haggis."
McLaren, who had Alzheimer's and had been in hospital since shortly before Christmas, died yesterday morning in the community hospital in his beloved Hawick with his wife Bette and daughter Linda by his bedside.
Last night the flags at Murrayfield flew at half-mast.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown led the tributes. "Millions of rugby fans will be mourning the sad passing of Bill McLaren, who was the voice of rugby for nearly 50 years," he said. "His expertise, enthusiasm and passion for rugby union inspired young and old alike. Bill was a fixture of our national sporting life and will be missed greatly, but remembered with affection."
First Minister Alex Salmond described McLaren as "a true legend" and a "fantastic ambassador for Scotland", and the Princess Royal praised his "unbiased commentary". Kenny Logan, the former Scottish internationalist, insisted that this did not extend to giving England players any of his favourite Hawick Balls, a brand of mint that he insisted would make any player run faster.
Scottish Rugby Union president Jim Stevenson said: "On behalf of the entire rugby community in Scotland, I want to express our heartfelt sympathies to Bette and the family, but, most of all, I want to express our thanks and appreciation for the joy and fun that Bill brought to our game.
"Bill was the ambassador for rugby, and I know clubs and individuals around the rugby world will mourn his passing, but share in the rich and happy memories that he inspired."
Born in 1923, McLaren began his long association with rugby as a player and made the Hawick first XV before the Second World War, during which he fought in the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy.
A talented flanker for Hawick, McLaren had been on the verge of playing for Scotland when he contracted tuberculosis. He was in hospital for 18 months and narrowly escaped with his life.
He said he would have traded 50 years of commentating for a single international cap.
Forced to end his playing days, he made his first radio commentary in 1952, at a match between Glasgow and Edinburgh. A year later, he covered the Five Nations clash between Scotland and Wales at Murrayfield, though he had begun honing his journalistic skills long before.
"When I was a boy I used to think up fictional rugby matches in which Scotland would beat the world by 70 points to three," he recalled. "I would mimic the commentators of the day, such as HBT Wakelam, so I obviously had a desire at a young age to communicate something. But I never for one moment thought I would spend the best part of my life doing it."
McLaren belonged to the great pantheon of post-war commentators who came through BBC radio to TV in its infancy, along with Murray Walker, Peter O'Sullevan, Harry Carpenter, Dan Maskell, David Coleman and John Arlott.
His "McLarenisms" were legendary, such as: "It's high enough, it's long enough, it's straight enough"; "He's like a trout up a Border burn"; and "Doddie Weir on the charge like a mad giraffe".
But behind the quirky style lay hours of preparation. He tried to attend every team's training session to fix the players in his mind. Next to his ever-present tin of Hawick Balls were his famous "big sheets", works of art in multi-coloured ink, packed with all manner of facts and stats.
McLaren studied physical education in Aberdeen, and for many years was a primary school PE teacher, as well as coaching three players who went on to play for Scotland: Jim Renwick, Colin Deans and Tony Stanger.
A devoted family man – he called his wife Bette "the goddess" – his life was touched by tragedy. A decade ago his younger daughter Janie died of cancer at the age of 46. McLaren had wanted to be at her bedside in her final hours, but she insisted he went ahead with a commentary on a match in Edinburgh. He complied with her wishes – and then dashed back to the hospital, to be told she had passed away minutes earlier.
Ex-Scotland captain Gavin Hastings, who worked with McLaren, said: "Bill was a very proud and passionate Scot, but such was his professionalism that you would never really have known that. He always remained very unbiased in his commentary, and that was unquestionably one of his endearing qualities. He was just such a gentleman as well.
"I had the good fortune to be alongside him in the commentary box on a number of occasions. One of the times I will always remember being there, he said, 'Now, son, if you want to speak, just tug away at my coat'. I was keen to say something, so I kept tugging away at his coat for what seemed like about five minutes before he allowed me to speak."
Ken MacQuarrie, director of BBC Scotland, said: "Bill McLaren was one of the true broadcasting greats.
"His knowledge and passion for the game was second to none, and his commentaries helped make international rugby a major part of the sporting calendar every year. A tremendously modest man, Bill was the ultimate professional who always went out of his way to help the many colleagues who worked alongside him. He also worked tirelessly to support youngsters keen to learn more about the game he loved, especially in his home town."
Although his stature was marked with the MBE, OBE and CBE, an internet effort was launched last year to secure him a knighthood, with more than 5,000 people signing up to the Facebook campaign.
Watsonians coach Bruce Aitchison said: "Unfortunately, the paperwork was not in on time for the New Year Honours list, and we will never know now whether it was going to happen."
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